Saturday, December 21, 2013

Europe vs. America: The Food, Part 1

Okay, I understand. You're not interested in the fact that on Tuesday the rest of my stuff arrived here and the garage and the rest of the house got packed with even more stuff.

The white boxes and the boxes with the cats on them are new. 
You don't care that in some of these boxes there's stuff that will enable me to catch up with my work, that a bunch of bookshelves arrived that, with help from a neighbor, got put up in my office yesterday and are slowly being filled up so that at last I have access to important reference material.

No. You're wondering how I'm coping with the food in America.

Since some of what arrived from France is my better cooking equipment  -- my Allclad pots and pans, a nice Le Creuset Dutch oven I bought myself last Christmas, stuff like that -- as well as the cookbooks I've used over the past 20 years, it's only in the past few days that I've even been able to really start cooking again. Still, starting off with a few pots and pans I got at Target and the miraculous wok I found in storage and the two cast iron pans that revived just like that, I did start up again when I moved into this house, and I also started shopping for food again.

And yes, there have been some changes. There's a lot of stuff I can't comment on yet, but there's just enough that I can in a preliminary blog post.

Shopping: The first big change. I'm not particularly happy that I have to drive everywhere for everything. In fact, I felt particularly virtuous the other evening when I walked to have dinner in a particularly good and affordable Mexican restaurant nearby. If I can afford it, I may do this once a week, just for the exercise. I'm feeling bloated, and this isn't a particularly walk-friendly neighborhood (not that many in Austin are). Eventually, walkability will become moot: when it's 104º outside, walking to the end of the driveway is a drag. But for the moment, that restaurant will get my ambulatory business.

But I still have to go to the store. I managed to drive to one of the weekly farmer's markets when I first moved in here, and that was nice enough. I got the last of the season's tomatoes and a couple of butternut squashes (because i alway manage to buy a couple of butternut squashes, get them home, and realize I don't have a clue what to do with them), but most of the action was either prepared foods (salsas, organic spaghetti sauces, Texas French Bread) or hemp-based cosmetics, handcrafts, wind-chimes... I understand: the season hasn't started yet, or, rather, it was just ending when I got here. But there'll be no more twice a week walks to the market and back whether I need anything or not.

Thus, I rely on the supermarkets. Up on the opposite corner from the Mexican restaurant is an HEB. This is a garganutan Texan chain, and I hated it when I lived here before. Then I left, and they did something really smart: they opened Central Market. By positioning themselves as upmarket competition to Whole Foods, but also recognizing that part of the market they were after wasn't quite as concerned about whether stuff was organic, and also held some affection for some things like Kellogg's Corn Flakes that Whole Foods would never touch, they hit a sweet spot in Austin's food buying habits. (They also made some mistakes: I went to the first Central market not long after it opened, on what was probably my first trip back to Austin after moving to Berlin. In those days, you had to traverse the entire store once you'd entered in order to leave. I quickly became overcome by the sheer quantity of what was there, because the markets in my Berlin neighborhood were seriously understocked. I got dizzy and couldn't find my way out and began to have a panic attack. The friend who'd taken me there eventually found me outside on a bench trying to get my bearings).

The other thing that both Whole Foods and Central Market capitalize on is the fact that for all the fancy kitchens people put in their houses, nobody cooks any more. Thus, there's a huge emphasis on pre-made foods that I'm trying to do my best to ignore. So I do most of my shopping either at Central Market's south location or at a much bigger and better HEB a mile or so from my house. I almost never go to the south Whole Foods location (and never the downtown one: traffic is insane around there) because the clientele just radiates entitlement: I saw a young power couple buy $272 worth of baby food there a couple of days ago, all of it packed in what looked like plastic single-serving containers. Even the baby, strapped to its father's chest, looked smug). There's also an outpost of a chain called Sprouts, which I saw in Brooklyn in March, and looked like a tarted-up version of the old-school health food store, and whose location near me looked pretty awful on a once-through, and a new version of Wheatsville Co-op, a longtime Austin institution, that's opened in a once-dying mall, and to which I still haven't been. The enigmatic Trader Joe's, purveying prepared food to harried suburbanites with lots of money, has opened its first outlet here, too, off in West Austin where the McMansions live, another joint I'm not in too much of a hurry to check out.

So, with a couple of Mexican markets and an Indian market near me, and a huge Vietnamese/Chinese one way up north, I can pretty much shop the world. The big shock that still hasn't worn off is that I can hit Central Market or Whole foods til 11pm, the big HEB until 1am,  and I can shop at all of them on Sunday. That last still hasn't sunk in.

Okay, so what have I been getting? Herewith some preliminary comparisons.

* Yogurt: About every other day, I like to have toast and yogurt for breakfast. When I first got here, I went right for something I'd heard people raving about: Chobani Greek Yogurt. I tried it in various forms and configurations and decided I didn't like it. (Someone recently compared it to wallboard compound, which I figure is like a thick Elmer's Glue, and that'd be about right). It doesn't stir, it's gelatinous and chewy, and the flavors at the bottom don't want to mix, either. The New Yorker says it's an overnight sensation. I say feh. I finally found "Australian style" yogurt, by a company called Wallaby (U.S. based: my carbon footprint is bad enough after 20 years of walking and using electric-powered transportation) and it's got some good stuff. So the scoreboard: Germany 9, France 6, US 7. The Germans lead by having tons of flavors, including seasonal ones (the only instance of seasonality you'll find in a German supermarket), as part of their dairy-mania. The whole country seems to run on milk products. The French make very high-quality yogurt, but only in a couple of flavors, and you pretty much have to buy multiples of 8 or more, either yellow (pineapple, mango, lemon) or red (strawberry, cherry, raspberry), which gets boring. America has, as usual, a bewildering number of brands, some of which are very expensive, but not as many flavors as Germany.

* Fruit and Vegetables: Okay, you know that on some level, the Americans will take this one, particularly since where I am, we're close to Mexico, where everything grows all the time. But America also has something that neither of the other countries has: uniformity. The other night I went to buy onions and discovered they only come in one size: softball. That's more onion than I usually need for a recipe, though. I wound up throwing a bunch of the one I used away. It's eerie seeing hundreds of potatoes piled up, all the same size. Pretty much any vegetable I've gone looking for has been like this. At least I busted Central Market's sneaky trick of having you enter through the (expensive) organic section, with the same types of (non-organic) vegetables available further along. Which is another thing about France: a lot of the stuff at the outdoor market was organic, but nobody made any big deal about it. It was just that they didn't want to pay for EU certification, so they could keep their prices down and compete with the other vendors. As for fruit, my French-born appreciation of pears and melons and cherries and so on says this isn't the right time. I saw a basket of strawberries the other day, and although they were from Mexico, I just couldn't do it. Also: size. They'd go bad before I finished with them. The melons are the size of basketballs. The scoreboard: Germany 2, France 8, US 8*. Germany, of course, goes nuts once a year for asparagus and again for strawberries. The rest of the time, forget it. I bought so much plastic-enshrouded rotten produce there it was scandalous, but since the Germans don't know what vegetables other than cabbage are, what can you do? France keeps things in season (not that you can't buy baseball-hard Dutch tomatoes there right now), and allows a variety of sizes. America ties with qualifications, some noted above, but also because there's such a wide variety. I could get bok choy a few times a year in France. I can go get some right now.

* Bread: Another foregone conclusion, because you just know the US is going to lose this one. The Germans may make spongy, squishy baguettes without any flavor at all (and then try to sell you sandwiches in them), but those dense, heavy, dark, seed-and-grain-infused breads they do there rock. And you pretty much have to go there to taste them, because as far as I know nobody's doing them at all on this side of the Atlantic. Be happy to be proven wrong, though. And again, the French don't do that style, but beyond the baguette (which of course they frequently do very nicely) they have lots of wholegrain and other traditional breads, often cooked in wood ovens, available. (And this is without even getting into the "viennoiserie" stuff that the bakeries do, the croissants and pain au chocolates and so on). The one exception I've found in Austin (I'm still holding out the possibility there's a good bakery here) is bagels. Now, there was a bagel chain in Germany called Bagel Brothers that didn't have an outlet in Berlin that did perfect bagels, and a place that was called Bagel Station in Berlin that did pretty good ones. The bagels in France all came pre-frozen from a single source and were too bready, albeit not as bad as Einstein Brothers or Lender's. But Central Market, of all places, has very good bagels, and I'm digesting one as I type. So bread/bagel scores: Germany 9/7, France 9/4, US 6/8. Reserving a US point for if someone starts making bagels like I had in Brooklyn a couple of years ago.

* Wine: Okay, you probably see this one coming, too. Basically, so far it's the fault of the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission and marketing at places I shop. Germany wasn't a great place for wine, but there were shops that paid attention and had some decent things at decent prices. In France I was living in the middle of the EU "wine lake," so good wine at decent prices was no problem. In Texas, the Baptists don't want you to enjoy yourself (Biblical adjurations to drink wine notwithstanding) so they tax the hell out of it. The result, plus the snob appeal, means that at Central Market, which has a huge wine department, and at Whole Foods, which doesn't, I'm surrounded by $25 bottles about which I know very little. I was enjoying a nice mix from Lodi, CA (the Languedoc of California in that it once produced awful plonk and now has an infusion of young winemakers doing some good work) called Ravenous Red, which was nothing revolutionary, but a good everyday wine at $6.95 a bottle, but it's sporadic in its appearances there. No scorecard for this one; it's still early innings.

I'm still feeling my way around stuff here. Canned tomatoes, for instance, seem to be grossly inferior to what I was getting in Europe -- they seem to be picked way too green, while the general quality of meat seems much higher. I'm still wrestling with some dental problems that preclude a lot of exploration, and I'm also sure I'll make some nice discoveries in the days to come.

Now, about getting these books unpacked... Time for some more shelving.


  1. Try White Mountain Bulgarian yoghurt - it's in all the stores and has been the local brand for several decades now. No additives, no sugar/honey/agave syrup. Closest thing to real Greek yoghurt I used to fetch for my YaYa in Athens.
    And no oranges on your fruits list? That's a shame because Texas oranges in15 lb bag, each orange as big as a grapefruit are $7.99 at the HEB

  2. I think "wallboard paste" might have been me. I think it's wise to cling to a few hopes. I would like to think Austin would have a good bakery. I'm fortunate that Lawrence, KS has the best bakery between Chicago and Denver and we shop in Lawrence regularly. The breads at Whole Foods aren't terrible. I've about thrown in the towel on the perfect bagel and am settling for not terrible. The last really good bagel I ate, I brought home on a flight from Chicago and was baked at Kaufmann's in Skokie.

    My last experience with grocery shopping in Europe was Spain last spring and aside from the differences you note, I'd say that Europe kicks ass at charcuterie and cheese.


  3. You can thank GMO for the food uniformity. Every little edamame the same. Every cherry tomato the same diameter. Welcome to the future.

  4. The Sprouts around Denver are pretty good as far as having actual food for sale. We prefer them to Whole Foods, which bought all the other natural food outlets in the area.

    We like to bake butternut squash (half it, take out the seeds, then bake in pyrex with a bit of water in the bottom) till half-baked, then mix with chopped anaheims or serranos and chunks of feta cheese. No other seasoning than salt and coarse black pepper. Rebake the mix for another half an hour topped with sunflower seeds. If you want more protein, you can add cooked quinoa to taste. Winter squash are yummy.

  5. One can have all kind of thoughts about ALDI but they do have a few pretty high quality things at very reasonable prices. Trader Joe's is fully owned by Aldi and being selective there one can find a selection of again, high quality food at reasonable prices. Often enough directly imported from Aldi Germany, different names and labels of course. Trader's wine selection too is not bad at all - most of the 'Vinyards' they carry are more or less owned by ALDI, and there are some good offers in the Italian as well as French wines. Biggest difference to ALDI - the people who work there are actually friendly and help you pack your groceries instead of throwing it at you like in Berlin!

  6. No mention of Currywurst, can you find decent ones :-)

  7. Trader Joe's has good crusty baguettes, and up north in "chinatown," the Baguette House has excellent Vietnamese French bread. Almost as good as the real deal.

  8. Oh, of course, bánh mì bread! I've got to go back up there to find roasted chili/bean sauce to make lemongrass chicken with, so I'll make a note of that.

  9. A few more notes to the comments. I never think of citrus when it comes to fruit, because it wasn't local in France. It sure was in Spain, though, and if I'd lived there I'd know a lot more about it. That said, I have no idea what I'd do with 15 lbs of grapefruit-sized oranges. I'm only one person!

    Kean: No Aldi around here, sorry, but having bought Trader Joe's-branded stuff in Berlin at one, I'm aware of that. And Didier: gotta leave *some* produits du terroir for visits, right? Although I'm told there's a place on 10th Avenue in New York that does a creditable currywurst.

  10. Fage is my favorite brand of Greek yogurt. I get the plain kind, either 0% or 2% fat, and add fruit, walnuts, lemon curd, or jam to it. I don't like any preflavored yogurt.

  11. It's the shopping for wine back in the States that kills me... I have no idea what all of those cutesy critter labels are all about.

  12. Nor do they necessarily give you any info on the bottle except for elevated alcohol levels.

  13. USDA has some great informational sites on where the produce is coming from (both domestic and imports) and since you can run a report for a select period of time, I can figure out that to provide the guacamole for 150 wedding guests (for an adopted niece), I'll have to rely on imports--maybe Mexico, probably South America, since the wedding is in early April in northern California.
    (California weather hasn't been that good for avos this all)
    This is the main site, there are many reports that can be run...including a Mexican crossing report...

    Laredo would be the crossing point for produce for Austin...on 12/27 14 40,000# trucks of broccoli crossed..
    avocados...42 truckloads...
    but this is not all 'perfect''s all grades ..the fancier stuff goes to the big name markets, the rest is sold through the huge LA terminal where small chains buy for their clientele and smaller stores buy from other distributors...
    I love farmers markets but while all the non-produce business helps pay the bills, it's frustrating to shop at them and the really big ones (Santa Monica)..not worth the drive..
    You might look for wholesale produce companies in your area, find out what local markets specialize is the less-perfect, more economical produce....
    good luck...
    and as a francophile..vive Jose Bovee...


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