Supermarket – How Much Those Pans? 

Today saw our first trip to a real, American supermarket. I went to one once before on holiday in Connecticut (I believe the name of the establishment in question was ‘Stu Leonard’s’, in fact) but it rather passed me by in a haze of amazement at the concept of ‘half and half’ and horror at the sweetness of American KitKats. I don’t think I took much else away from the experience, except that everyone really did take their purchases home in brown paper bags like in the films.


Up until recently, we’ve been ensconced in a hotel in D.C, on a place called ‘Thomas Circle’ (one of the city’s few actual ’roundabouts’, or ‘rotaries’ as they’re apparently called here) – but have now moved into our very own flat, which is at the moment completely empty as all our things are being shipped from the U.K, and we don’t actually own any furniture to begin with. This will be rectified in due course – it’ll have to be, as we’re sleeping on rollmats on the floor – but one of the first priorities was to buy real food we could cook with, rather than warm up in the microwave and eat from a plastic tray.


It turns out our nearest proper supermarket is Safeway. This took me back to my childhood, when there were Safeways in England and we often went to one. The logo is even the same! Our first feeling in Safeway was one of relief. There were rows upon rows of delicious looking fresh fruit and vegetables. None of the small shops in the city centre, which purported to sell food, had anything that might be termed an ‘ingredient’ or might go off after a few days or hours. Everything was packaged and processed and frozen. Nothing wrong with that. But you can’t live off it. Not if you still want to fit into all your French clothes. So the lovely lettuces and peppers and cucumbers and tomatoes and apples and melons were a sight to see, all beautifully arranged.


Unfortunately, our joy was not to last because next we encountered the cheese section. Not even the cheese aisle, but the few shelves in the dairy area where the cheese lives. I hate to sound European and snobbish about this (oh, who am I kidding, sometimes I like to sound this way) – but I’m not sure the word ‘cheese’ should really be used in this particular context. Everything was a lurid colour, swathed in layers of tightly wrapped plastic – not even that special ‘non sweaty’ plastic they sometimes use in British supermarkets, but just normal polythene – and looked like you could use it to tarmac a road or mend your car tyres. The varieties available appeared to be ‘cheddar’ (very, very orange), ‘Monterey’, whatever that is (white) or mozzarella (off-white and very, very hard.) Then there were just things like cheese strings, cheese triangles and, oh dear, Kraft singles. We left feeling very strange. I didn’t realise I’d become so French. We bought a small packet of something bright orange called ‘sharp cheddar’, hoping that ‘sharp’ meant it had some flavour. I will report back on how that tasting session goes…


Fortunately, though, we chanced upon the small British food section and our weary souls rejoiced. Here’s where I sound like a total hypocrite, because the British foods we were so chuffed to see were all canned and processed and packaged within an inch of their tiny lives. But at least they’re meant to be that way, unlike cheese. There was Marmite (at SEVEN DOLLARS for a tiny pot!) Rich Tea Biscuits! Cadbury’s fingers! H.P Sauce! Heinz beans! (I know Heinz is American, but clearly beans are British). We suddenly felt at home in a foreign land, and bought two tins of beans.


The only problem, once we’d got all this food, was how to cook it. We have nary a pot to piss in. Literally. (Well, obviously we have a loo. But we don’t have any saucepans.) Weirdly, Safeway sold TWO kinds of frying pan – or skillet, as we must remember to call it – but no actual saucepans of the kind in which you or I might like to boil pasta or make a sauce. Do Americans just fry everything? Or is Safeway a bad stockist? We went next door to the ‘Ace’ hardware shop, and it appears frying IS de rigeur here… they had a vast selection of sizes and colours of frying pan, but just one saucepan. In the end, since we wanted two vessels, we decided to go for a set which gave us one frying pan, one DEEP frying pan, and one saucepan. Are saucepans some strange, European notion or were we just unlucky with our shopping choices?


Clearly, though, our purchase was of some interest because as we struggled home laden with bags and a very obvious ‘skillet set’, I was accosted by an old black lady at a bus stop. Without saying hello, she yelled at me “HOW MUCH THOSE PANS?” I stopped in astonishment to check she was talking to me, and she shouted it again. It turned out it was a genuine question, but she didn’t want to buy them off me, as I first thought. “I gotta new ‘partment, I need new pans, how much those?” I explained that the set was 40 dollars for three pans – and lids! “UH HUH! Where you get them?” I said I was sorry but we’d just got the last one from ‘Ace’ round the corner, but I was sure they’d re-stock soon. She seemed pleased enough with this – but it made me wonder if any Brit, or indeed any French person, would stop a random person in the street and ask them how much one of their possessions or purchases had cost. “How much those shoes?” “How much that bag?” “How much that sun dried tomato pasta sauce?” I think Americans are just more direct… But I’m glad to know our saucepan choice is approved by another D.C inhabitant.


Tonight, we used ‘those pans’ to make ourselves that old student staple, pasta and sauce, on our fancy new American cooker – and I’m happy to report that despite the lack of frying involved, it was excellent.


A sad sight... plastic, plastic everywhere, and n'er a hint of Camembert.

A sad sight… plastic, plastic everywhere, and n’er a hint of Camembert.



About wash01

I'm a British broadcast journalist, whose British broadcast journalist husband has just been posted to D.C. I'm along for the ride! Both of us have just spent three years living and working in Paris and are keen to see how the American Dream compares to La Vie Française.
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6 Responses to

  1. Vince says:

    A very fun read. Couldn’t help thinking about this little video from the Borat DVD Bonus 🙂

    Cheers from Paris

  2. Claire says:

    You gotta get yourself to a Trader Joe’s for cheese- they have a good selection at reasonable prices for everyday consumption! Unfortunately, mozzarella far inferior over here -no unpasturized cheese- boo! I think you were just unlucky with the saucepans, try Bed Bath and Beyond! Glad to here you are settling in! Cxx

  3. Simon T says:

    Oh gosh, that is hilarious! I’m impressed that you didn’t just run, terrified…

  4. Take the Green Line to Columbia Heights for Target which has really cheap housewares and a million other things. There is also a Bed Bath and Beyond, as well as a Best Buy (for electronics, think Tottenham Ct Rd in one store). Also a good stop for great pizza, at Pete’s Apizza. Although if you want wood oven zigzag try Pizza Paradiso in Dupont or Geotown.

  5. Maggie Forrest says:

    Washington Wife. keep on blogging, thoroughly enjoying reading about your experience.
    Friend of Simon T

  6. wash01 says:

    Thanks for all your encouragement and help! Shame on me, really, for judging American supermarkets by one sole Safeway. Your advice has made me realise there are many better options… so watch this space…

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