Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

The Global Delicatessen

The Semiotics of President's Choice

There exists a phenomenon in Amsterdam known as the avondverkoop, which is a delicatessen open only at night. Daytime shops offer the usual supplies of bread, milk and cheese, but the shelves of night stores are stacked with bottles of French champagne. Glass cases brim with exotic cold cuts, chocolates and tiny pastries, and out-of-season fruits spill attractively from straw-filled baskets.


When I lived in Amsterdam in the mid-1980s, the sensual bounties of the avondverkoop added a pleasant paradox to my somewhat Calvinist experience of everyday life in the Netherlands. Each night I made my way along the dark streets to the local avondverkoop. The object of my quest? A particularly desirable brand of French cookie, a crisp butter biscuit covered with a tablet of creamy chocolate, which I was only able to find in night stores.


The specificity of my life in Amsterdam is evoked by many images, sounds and tastes, but this cookie stands out not only for its Proustian ability to evoke another time, but because I associate it with a particular lived experience. I enjoyed then the leisurely life of a research fellow, and the walk to the night store functioned as a break in my writing schedule; back in my apartment, I would devour the cookies as I worked late into the night. The cookies (which I had learned to ask for in Dutch) were stamped with an image of an old-fashioned French schoolboy and they reminded me that I was living in Europe. When the time came to return to Canada, I accepted the sad fact that I would never see my cookies again.


Imagine then my surprise when I walked into a Dominion store in Toronto and discovered the same French cookie on the supermarket shelf. Excited, I immediately bought a box. Of course, nowadays Le Petit Écolier cookies are everywhere. I remain ambivalent about this. I truly like these cookies for themselves, regardless of when or where I initially ran across them, but their wide availability erases the specificity of place. Now they no longer have anything to do with Amsterdam, my writing projects there or what it was like to live beside a canal in a foreign city. I no longer have to get on an airplane and go to Europe to find them. My personal memories have, in a sense, been overcoded by the flows of global capital; what to me was a precious and rare artifact has become rather ordinary.


This process of cultural globalization has gone far beyond food. For those of us who live in large cities—and have money to spend—the world comes to us. Anticipating (or creating) desires, entrepreneurs have done the legwork so that we don’t have to.


Desires can be gratified far more efficiently than in the old days, when we had to live through an experience to locate desire. We no longer have to go anywhere at all to sample the sights, sounds and tastes of other places and other histories. In Toronto—and increasingly in smaller Canadian cities—the presence of expensively packaged global cuisines in local supermarkets is not, I think, a result of neighbourhood diversity. Rather, “exotic” foods have become both a substitute for actual experience and a way of marking one’s culinary sophistication—in other words, one’s upper-middle-class sensibility.


Food has always circulated around class indices, with connoisseurship reaching a new threshold in the 1980s, when annoying people sought to display their mastery of fashionable codes through an obsession with food, a phenomenon known in those days as the yuppification of culture. Fifteen years ago, though, middle-of-the-road sophistication meant knowing the difference between Tuscan and Provençal olive oil and stocking your kitchen with various other upmarket versions of European peasant foods.


Today, tastes range more widely, and it is possible not only to visit what anglos used to call “ethnic” restaurants, but to buy frozen-food versions of pad Thai and vegetable biryani at your local Loblaws supermarket. For some consumers, the Loblaws version of world food is preferable to the restaurant or even the actual overseas version; the foreign has been rendered safe and sanitary by the familiarity of the Canadian grocery chain and the fictional reliability implied by “the president’s choice,” Loblaws’ signature product line.


The notion that connoisseurship reflects knowledgeable, lived experience continues to function in advertising as a way of shaping the tastes of the North American middle class, but today even the connoisseur is more likely to choose than do. Consumption has become a substitute for experience, keeping the consumer in a passive relation to the world.


The president referenced in Loblaws’ President’s Choice line is an updated version of the old-style, aristocratic aficionado. The president—whom we trust to construct our culinary desires—does the choosing; all that is required of the consumer is to purchase the item that evokes the proper name and, in turn, the experience: Memories of Szechwan, Seoul, Hong Kong. Perhaps someone we know as “the president” once ate in these places, but it certainly wasn’t you. The label becomes a substitute for experience, and the “memory” described on the package is in fact never one’s own.


What is actually being purchased is the idea of another place; the fiction is no doubt recognized by the consumer, but that idea is nevertheless imagined as more authentic than the original, all because of the president’s trustworthy expertise. This erases both the way food is actually produced and delivered to the customer and the possibility of actual experience. We are instead ennobled by our association with the president and by our purchase of the products he has endorsed.


Advertising also underlines how connoisseurship continues to be linked to class. Vuitton luggage uses photographs of Amazonian feather regalia to remind the consumer that, despite most tourists preferring mass-market beach holidays, the encounter with what is imagined as “true” difference remains the goal of the sophisticated and wealthy traveller. (Although difference appears interchangeable with a kind of authenticity, cultures and cuisines are in fact mixed and have been for some time. This becomes immediately clear when one actually goes to the places that supposedly evoke the president’s memories.) The subtext of the Vuitton ads, like the subtext of the President’s Choice marketing strategy, is a nostalgia for the old days of colonial adventure, when aristocratic Westerners (here projected as middle-class Loblaws customers) did as they pleased. The old codes of race and class have migrated and adapted to new social and economic realities, yet they continue to evoke the tender sensibilities of privilege and of aristocrats who know enough to select only the best.


And yet at first glance the concept behind the President’s Choice line appears democratic: it erases the notion that one must actually travel around the world to achieve culinary knowledge. After all, how many people have the time or money to cross the globe to experience the personal “discovery” of this or that national dish? This is particularly true if one no longer wants to backpack. And if you are backpacking, well, travelling on the cheap usually means no expensive restaurants, hence no exciting culinary discoveries. So the ability to sample various high-end cuisines in their place of origin remains an upper-middle-class activity, but paradoxically one that is in fact out of the reach of most of the upper middle class.


This is the dilemma: the consumer wants to know about fashionable foods (and to flaunt upper-middle-class affiliations), but they can’t actually go to, say, Bangkok and visit first-class restaurants. Indeed, they may not want to visit Bangkok at all, with its noisy congestion, air pollution and myriad social problems. This is the gap filled by President’s Choice products, particularly those that bear names like Memories of Bangkok. A trip to the grocery store becomes a version of virtual travel, allowing people to display their savoir faire by uttering the proper names of formerly exotic food items. But, again, class is a key determinant here. I can walk out my front door and find food that reflects the diverse, immigrant community in which I live, but I do not see this diversity at Loblaws.


Loblaws is an expensive grocery store, even for staples, and the packaged dinners of the President’s Choice frozen food line are particularly costly. You can make the noodle and rice dishes at home for far less than it costs to buy the Loblaws versions. The supposed convenience of highly packaged food remains a luxury, with the means to sling frozen pad Thais into the microwave each night still limited to a certain class.


I must confess that I, too, have my favourite exotic cuisines from places I’ve never been. I don’t buy President’s Choice frozen dinners, but I do happily purchase many other items packaged for the Canadian consumer. Certainly the general availability of formerly hard-to-find food items like cilantro and basmati rice makes life tastier. But there is something unsettling about the smorgasbord of global cuisine that is the Loblaws frozen food section. The vast display of culinary difference drives home the fact that I live in one of the “have” nations of the new world order, but it also makes clear how far the process of cultural fragmentation has progressed.


Cultures have become interchangeable—one day it’s Korea and the next it’s Mexico or Bali—reduced to a flavour that some corporate functionary has decided is typical of the currently desirable cuisine. And the president’s memory is conveniently selective. You may not want to think about riots while you’re eating your gado-gado, but the events occurring in the actual place are part of its reality. Picking and choosing only those elements you find desirable risks turning the world into a tidy museum diorama that functions as little more than a sign that you have been promoted to a higher class.


Take coffee, for example. Varieties are usually named according to their place of origin, and so walking into places like Starbucks and Second Cup is like entering a travel agency: Kenya, Colombia, Kona Coast—all you have to do is choose. Customers ape connoisseurs by using the place names, but seem to have no understanding of what or where these places are. Political and historical dislocation is encouraged by the decor; I’m thinking of those pictures of unidentified coffee plantations you see in some coffee shops, the glossy photographs of happy coffee workers in, say, Guatemala. These images don’t just pump up our pretensions; they also allow us to erase the question of exactly how coffee is produced, under what conditions and how it gets from there to here. The details of history—how places change according to the demands of global capital, how commodities move from point A to point B, how this process is understood—disappear.


The possibilities of recovering historical memory became clear to me recently as I gazed at Ron Benner’s 1993 installation “All Has Value” in downtown Toronto. This garden of plants indigenous to the Americas reminded me that even common foods like tomatoes, which many of us associate with southern European cuisines, are in fact derived from our own backyard. And the list goes on and on.

These days, the commodification of culture moves quickly. We must keep up—locate deeper memories than those offered by the president’s marketing executives—if we hope to undo the passivity enforced by advertising. By refusing the erasure of time and place, we will begin to return to experience.


This article was originally published in Food Culture: Tasting Identities and Geographies in Art (YYZ Books, 1999).