Trusting the Grocer

By Benjamin R. Cohen

A word for the grocer, because before the recipe is the ingredient. To get the ingredient, you either grow it yourself or buy it at a store. Most of us buy it at a store. The grocer is the supplier.

At the supermarket, today’s worries over a reliable supply chain are often about availability and consistency. We are but consumers relying on others—producers—to meet our consumer needs. We expect producers to stock those shelves, whoever they are. It’s when the shelves are bare that we start to wonder, where does it all come from anyway? We think more about those bumper stickers asking us to know our farmer to know our food. But this is the exception, because the shelves are often fairly stocked. People benefit from and are beholden to a grocery infrastructure a century in the making.[1]

That infrastructure didn’t exist in the west in the nineteenth century. The worries over supplies then were not so much about consistency. Western customers had less expectation about what would always be on the shelves, what would always be in stock. They were more about worried over whether those supplies were what the grocer said they were.

It was the era of adulteration. Before the homemaker or housekeeper could buy supplies to cook the meals, she (often a she) had to trust that the grocer was selling her the real deal (I wrote a whole book about this, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food, 2019/2022).

The era of adulteration was a period in western history when customers fretted over the honesty of their food’s identity. Adulterated meant contaminated, corrupted, or otherwise misrepresented food. Was that sugar cut with sand, was that milk watered down, was that butter really butter or some factory upstart called margarine — things like that. One way to get a sense of the prominence of the worries is that the reigning economic paradigm at the time was caveat emptor—buyer beware. Most North Americans had not yet established a regulatory infrastructure based on the premise that your food shouldn’t make you sick.

Distrusting the grocer, from “The Use of Adulteration,” Punch (August 4, 1855). Image in the Public Domain.

Granted, adulteration has always been with us, from biblical times to today: we always worry if our food is what the seller tells us it is. But the so-named ‘era of adulteration’ came about in large part because of a relatively quick transition in western supply chains across the second half of the nineteenth century. It came about because customs—the root word inside customer—were disrupted. The age-old ways people had come to trust food from the market were thrown into disarray.

Grocers in the west stood at the balance between customer and supplier, managing a store counter that had quite a lot of power. That might seem odd, since our grocery stores today don’t seem to have actual grocers. But that’s because most of us are comfortable with our self-service grocery stores, so much so that the term “self-service” rarely factors into the description. Before innovations at the Piggly Wiggly and A&P early in the twentieth century, grocery stores were grocers’ markets, and goods were delivered across a counter by the grocer himself.[2] The storekeeper stocked wares behind him and out of reach of the rabble so that groceries came to customers like prescription drugs from a drugstore counter. “Know your grocer know your food” may have been a carriage bumper sticker, for all I know.

The grocer at work, from the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co., c. 1870–1900. Chromolithographed trade card. Printed by R. Ganton, Litho, London. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The word itself, grocer, descended from storekeepers in the Middle Ages who sold products in gross. For centuries, they were known as Spicers or Pepperers before their dealings in gross weights brought them the name Grosser (in the nineteenth century, French grocers were still called épicers, or spicers) The English spelling evolved by the time grocers were part of a food system that included not just the general or dry goods stores of rural livelihood, but public markets, butcheries, bakeries, and other specialty shops of the urban streets. The public market was, as the name would suggest, a public space. Grocers’ markets more often operated as private shops subject to their own self-decided operations. As rancor grew over customers’ fear they were being swindled, grocers professionalized to develop standards of practice and décor. They published manuals. They printed trade papers. They held conferences. One of their biggest challenges was to garner the faith of their customers. One reason their customers didn’t trust them was that oft-leveled accusation of adulteration.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, whatever success they had in those efforts was eclipsed anyway with the new self-service markets. A century later, we take it for granted so much that our worries are whether the supply truck will deliver the goods from across the country or across the ocean every single day or not. Today’s equivalent worries over food identity may concern the source, the process, and the supplier, but, in a hyper-consumer capitalist culture, until there’s a global pandemic or a boat stuck in a canal, they are less about availability.

I admit I think of this history every time I go to the supermarket; every time I go to the farmer’s market; every time I remember Mr. Hooper or the grocer down the block from my childhood, Mr. Gordon, a last vestige, even then, of the neighborhood grocer. It isn’t nostalgia to appreciate the grocer — it’s historical indebtedness. A word for the grocer is a word of appreciation for an often-invisible agent in the middle of supply and demand.

 

[1] Given the problems of supermarket redlining (and the related food apartheid) and prevalence of food insecurity, I’m nodding here to an idealized gentrified western model, to be sure, and one that isn’t ideal in the same way to everyone.

[2] Susan Spellman’s (2016) Cornering the Market is a good source for more grocer history. Shane Hamilton’s (2018) Supermarket USA gives it a good scope of international relations.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Jess Clark (January 27, 2022). Trusting the Grocer. The Recipes Project. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/tdc5


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