The Modern Supermarket Is a Miracle
by

Few things can buoy the human spirit more than a trip to the local store. There, on endless shelves, stacked ceiling high, sit the progressive fruits of thousands of years of civilization, just waiting to be plucked into a shopping cart. Sometimes I come home giddy, and, while putting the cereal and milk in their proper homes, I regale my wife with the magic of it all. You probably think I’m kidding.

Maybe the best way to explain my heightened state of mind is to quote a little from comedian Louis C.K., a guy with twenty-five Emmy nominations to his name. A few years back Mr. C.K. did a bit on late night TV—the video subsequently whooshed around the Internet—on how “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” My favorite part is when he makes fun of airline gripes, the horror stories friends and relatives tell about their arduous journeys after arriving in a matter of hours from thousands of miles away.  

“First of all, we didn’t board for twenty minutes. And then we get on the plane, and they made us sit there on the runway for forty minutes.”

Oh, really. What happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you noncontributing zero? You’re flying! It’s amazing. Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going “oh my god! wow!” You’re sitting in a chair in the sky.

Wandering into Safeway or Kroger is a far cry from sitting in a chair in the sky. But aisle by sparkling aisle, it’s a miracle all the same. Hard as it may be to believe, as we lie nestled comfortably in the cushions of modernity, most Americans are but a handful of generations removed from subsistence farming. Our forebears watered the crops they planted in tiny plots of land with their own sweat; we stand in air-conditioned bazaars and pick from an endless array of produce—pears from Chile, and chilies from Mexico, and kiwis lovingly cultivated by actual Kiwis—and then complain about the Muzak.

The spice section of a grocery store contains a hundred history lessons all their own. Herodotus remarked, as Andrew Dalby recounts in Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, that cinnamon sticks were 

brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb. The method invented to get the cinnamon sticks is this. People cut up the bodies of dead oxen into very large joints, and leave them on the ground near the nests. Then they scatter, and the birds fly down and carry off the meat to their nests, which are too weak to bear the weight and fall to the ground. The men come and pick up the cinnamon. Acquired in this way, it is exported to other countries. 

Nonsense, retorted Pliny the Elder. The Ethiopians buy cinnamon from neighboring troglodytes and “bring it over vast seas on rafts which have no rudders to steer them, no oars to push them, no sails to propel them, indeed no motive power at all but man alone and his courage.” Once upon a time men such as da Gama and Magellan chased spice to the ends of the Earth; now spice chases man, as competing purveyors redesign their packages to catch the consumer’s eye.

Sheer selection at the supermarket overwhelms. I was struck recently by the alarming number of items of whose history, use, and preparation I am completely ignorant. Pitted loquats are $3.19 a can, and whole lychees in syrup only two quarters more. Head cheese remains a mystery—and please, please don’t enlighten me. I have no idea what a yucca root is, but yucca’n get one for less than a buck a pound. I came home from the grocer’s a few weeks back and excitedly proposed to the dear wife that we work our way around the produce section and sample the unfamiliar wares. This culminated in my butchering a squishy, yellow, football-sized orb known as a crenshaw melon, which was underripe (how were we to know?) but still good.

Even the most banal-seeming products remain pinnacles of cumulative genius. In one of libertarians’ favorite parables, I, Pencil, our narrator, the eponymous No. 2 writing instrument, reflects that no one person actually knows how to make him—how to cut the cedar, and mine the graphite, and mix the lacquer. Markets is the moral. As I pass each grocery shelf, I hear foodstuffs of all shapes and sizes shouting out similar tales:

I, Box of TGI Friday’s Frozen Crispy Buffalo-Style Boneless Chicken Bites!

I, Can of Progresso Loaded Baked Potato Soup!

Nobody knows how to smelt ore, and manufacture tin-coated steel cans, and fill them with liquid nourishment made from dozens of other similarly complicated agricultural commodities. From our perspective it seems as if somehow, some years ago, we just sort of figured it out. Thus turn the gears of commerce.

Truly, shopping has its frustrations. The cart inevitably has only an odd number of good wheels, causing it to careen wildly into endcap displays of corn chips or the occasional seeing-eye dog. The elderly dame leading the self-checkout queue is always ill-prepared for the task. But take a deep breath. A few minutes standing in line is simply a further opportunity to reflect: that laser bar code scanner is pretty amazing! Who the heck invented that?

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