When my family and I immigrated to Canada we happened to arrive in Newfoundland in December. I won’t even attempt to recoup the shock of coastal cold after three years of basking on a tropical island, but needless to say it was formidable. After being installed in a temporary apartment, we waited for the courts to hear our case and decide whether we’d be an asset to this fine young country. A new country is always a very exciting place to explore, especially if you haven’t seen too much of the world and become thoroughly jaded. Culturally, climatically, and historically Russia, Cuba and Newfoundland were very different indeed.
One of the first things we did, after unpacking our few suitcases, is go to the local grocery store. If memory serves it was a Dominion, and it was a small supermarket, the kind that thrives in many urban neighborhoods. I clearly remember the awe of that first trip. The bright lights, the sheer amount of food, the choices and the selection were simply overwhelming. I think we wandered around the store in a kind of happy daze, just window shopping and having the pleasurable feeling that no matter how long you shopped you could never try all of it.
We purchased some staples – milk, bread, eggs, cheese, potatoes, pasta and a few condiments – ketchup, mayo, sour cream and the like. Having never seen any of the brand names in our lives, my parents guided their decisions strictly on cost so I’m sure we ended up with some variant of a store brand for many things. We also bought some veggies – some year-rounders like potatoes and onions, and some items that seemed wonderfully absurd in December – melons or strawberries or something. Hauling all the bounty home we settled in to prepare our first few meals and compare these newfangled packages of shiny colorful labeling to the stuff that we’d previously only seen in paper, colorless tubs or in bulk.
Soon a slight puzzled look was exchanged by us as first suspicions and confusion set in. As we chewed and tasted there was a definite disappointment in the air as slowly the realization came that all this wonderfully packaged, shiny or out of season bounty simply tasted bad. The dairy was flat and bland tasting, as anyone who’s traveled to Europe and had European dairy can vouch for. (In fact the only Canadian dairy brand I’ve had that compares so far, is the justly renowned Liberty). The mayo had none of the rich, eggy taste that we later discovered in Hellmann’s, the cheese was also – well like every overprocessed, supermarket cheese. The out of season fruit were woody, tasteless and watery and the bread was fluffy and sweet. Somewhere along the line we realized that the food we’d eaten all our lives had way more taste and we should not feel bad over the opportunities we missed not having a supermarket nearby all our lives.
Over many years we discovered some fine supermarket brands, farmers markets for fresh fruit and vegetables, went to eating more seasonally again and for me, at least, found other wonderful local food producers that cared enough to deliver a delicious product. There were other compensations too – the rice no longer had to be picked through to weed out the debris and weevils, the flour came pre-sifted, new spices could be explored and wonderful new condiments to be discovered – hello soy sauce! Not to mention the foraging – oh the foraging. Every single summer without fail finds us in the woods near Calgary foraging for wild mushrooms. Since most of the population fears getting sick or dying (cause driving is not way more dangerous), the only foragers out there are fellow Europeans who can’t believe the bounty. Some years the forest floor teems with mushrooms that grow as thick as carpet and you can fill your trunk within a four foot radius. Forest berries though less frequent, can also be found and wild saskatoons, raspberries, blackberries and currants round out the wild pantry.
We’ve come a long ways since that first supermarket shopping trip, and some days I still think that someone should print a small guide to supermarket brands so that newly arrived Canadians have a hope in navigating the morass.