One of the ways in which American culture is conquering the world is the spread of the supermarket through Europe and the developing world, displacing the open air stalls, the bakeries and butcher shops that had distributed foodstuffs for millennia. There is surely much to regret in this change, and I recognize the evils or agribusiness: the development of patented seeds, the cultivation of produce for endurance and appearance rather than flavor, the energy wasted to transport produce halfway round the world, the peculiar American commitment to corn, and I am not even touching the trend toward marketing prepared foods, uniformly more expensive though of lower aesthetic and nutritional value.
Still, entering an American supermarket, who can fail to be seduced by the array of possibilities, the richness of choice, the ease of obtaining an immense variety of foodstuffs so conveniently available? What a paradisiacal vision the meat counter would have seemed to the generations of semi-starving ancestors! Who could avoid shopping for images with Ginsberg? Or fail to say grace with Howard Nemerov?
I can walk those arid aisles with toiletries and cleaning supplies, cellophane tape and Tums, past all the pre-made meals and those just half pre-made. The rewards are great, who would complain when one can glimpse a sudden bell pepper from Holland like a model with absolutely flawless yellow skin! The Israeli oranges, extravagant in peel but so fragrant and almost too full of themselves! Kohlrabi that look as though they should have been grown underwater! Kale asserting a darkly serious vegetable strength, the conundrum of a whole coconut, fine apples made to fit the hand and in a dozen varieties, the fruit Athenaeus called a gift from Dionysos! What glories, too, of grains and seeds, a good share of what people have found toothsome these last few thousand years.
Then, too, there is the meat, that “the bloody/Mess of our birthright, our unseemly need,” according to Nemerov, who proceeds to thanks the Lord for having “conferred aesthetic distance/ Upon our appetites.” All those once-hot tissues now a cool wall, silent, awaiting preparation, latent with promise for our own needy flesh. Can we discern the ways of cattle, swine, sheep, and fowl from these clues they have left behind? Can we put on their virtue when we dine? Aware that my body would be consumed by beasts of a dozen phyla were it lying in the woods, knowing that those ancient Near Eastern reliefs of a predatory lion on its agonized prey represent life itself which can live only upon life, I have never quite understood moral vegetarianism. Of course, reason may have less to do with the issue than the memory of an odor such as the one that caused M. Loisel to exclaim “Ah! le bon pot-au-feu! je ne sais rien de meilleur que cela!” or perhaps a great joint of pork that has infused the house after cooking for half a day.
We pay, of course, for the grand panoply of possibilities in the supermarket through the homogenization of the local and seasonal resources, and we receive something rather different from the tables of previous centuries. We may practice virtually any cuisine, but, for that reason, possess none of our own.
It is really rather similar in the marketplace of beauty and thought. Just as the modern cosmopolitan mind can no longer see one mythology alone, and thus has little choice but to exchange the believer’s depth and simple certainty for breadth and an embarrassment of possibilities. Knowing the whole crew -- Zeus and Thor and Kwan Yin and Christ – it is as impossible to privilege one alone as it would be to commit to a lifetime of Oaxacan food, tasty though that may be. If I can listen to Indian ragas as well as Bach fugues, I am likely to hear neither with the ear of the specialist, but to hear both at all is no small thing. The Tibetan Buddhist monks seem to have the highest of times in their theological disputations, laughing and back-slapping and posturing grotesquely, but I am afraid one would have to leave Plato, Aquinas, and Spinoza forever behind in order to join them. We who find ourselves in the belated twenty-first century have little choice but to range about omnivorously, unsure whether it be a pleasure or a curse.
In the USA today, we can only make the most of our wide range and excel as comparatists whether we would have chosen to be or not. If my chapattis are no match for those of a Delhi-wallah, and my baguette cedes to the ordinary Parisian boulangerie, I can at least revel in the range of possibilities available at the supermarket and on my bookshelves.