In his famous work, Essays, Michel de Montaigne, channelling the Epicureans, wrote that, “All the opinions in the world point out that pleasure is our aim. (Book I: On the Power of Imagination).” And I have to admit that what we euphemistically call “junk food” is a widespread pleasure that many of us enjoy these days. Of course, Montaigne, ever the skeptic, also wrote, “Que sais je?” (What do I know? Book II, Ch. 12).
I did it again: I used the name of my favourite writers to lure you into this musing piece. No apologies, of course, not even for Raymond Sebond, but I hope you’ll read on.
Montaigne wrote on such a wide variety of topics, that I’m almost disappointed he didn’t write about the plethora of choices one has in life, or more particularly in grocery stores, but that’s another one of those anachronisms, isn’t it? There were market stalls and sellers in his day, but not grocery stores as we know them, and his estate produced most of his own food and wine.
The first self-service grocery store wasn’t even opened until 1916, and Loblaws started their grocery business in Canada in 1919, long after Montaigne. But he was delighted by the choices available in books, and when he died, his personal library had more than 1,000 books in it; an unusually large collection for an individual then.
It is also more than 450 years since Montaigne retired to his family castle near Bordeaux, having quit “the slavery of the court and of public duties,” and began to write. It was also his thirty-eighth birthday, February 28, 1571. Were he alive today, I suspect he might write about the infinite variety of choice we have in our consumables, and how our obsession with novelty fuels an ever-changing landscape of products both in stores and online. But, thankfully, others have written about them, including Tom Vanderbilt, whose book, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice (Knopf, 2016) examines the psychology and sociology behind taste and choice.*
Every time I go shopping, even for basic staples in groceries, I discover something new. Sometimes it’s just finding something previously overlooked (Susan finds me somewhat annoying to shop with because I check shelves and read labels too often for her more pragmatic get-what-you-need-and-leave shopping style). Often, however, what I discover is some new product, or new brand, or something old that’s been changed and enhanced (like all the varieties of flavoured mayonnaise and flavoured ketchup that suddenly appeared on store shelves). I tend to browse in grocery stores like I do in bookstores, looking for the newness, for the unusual, making an adventure out of shopping.
Drives Susan crazy, but I enjoy the process of choosing, enjoy the anticipation of trying something new, despite the frequent letdowns that occur when I open the jar or package later.
Expectations drive liking. We spend almost as much time anticipating whether we will like something as we do actually liking it. Tom Vanderbilt, You May Also Like, p. 34.
Browsing in a store is a tactile experience that I don’t get online. Here in the grocery store I am free of the distractions of the ratings, reviews, and rants that often pollute and ruin online shopping. My choices are my own, not influenced by the words of others. Except Susan’s, of course.
That doesn’t mean I don’t look at the reviews and ratings of online products: I just seldom buy anything based on them. Most reviews come from ordinary folk, and are based not on science or a methodological approach, but rather on personal taste and expectations. And that’s merely an opinion, not a reliable assessment. (And don’t get me started on why the nine-point hedonic scale is a failed method of identifying taste preferences…)
You don’t like cilantro, but I do. You like marinated artichokes, I don’t. You like truffle oil, I don’t. I like Godzilla films, you don’t. Taste isn’t a reliable yardstick by which to measure a product or item’s worth or whether it will live up to my expectations. My expectations should colour my experience and my response, not yours mine.
Expectations haunt our liking, but they confound us. Peer into the science of liking long enough, and you might begin to think this is something approaching a mantra: The bad is never as bad as we think it is, the good never as good. Tom Vanderbilt, You May Also Like, p. 39.
When it comes to shopping, we are all different beasts in different situations. It depends on the store how we shop. I’m a romantic buyer in grocery stores: I buy from the heart, try new things, get excited by novelty. Susan is a classic buyer: she’s rational, methodical. But in a clothing store, she’s the romantic, while I’m more often the classic buyer. Yet neither of us is tempted by the shopping extravaganzas and events like Black Friday, neither of us feeling the offered discounts are worth the effort or the crowds.
(As a “romantic” grocery shopper, I am more prone to buying on impulse than the classical Susan, which is why she scrutinizes the cart’s contents carefully to ensure I don’t load it up with spur-of-the-moment purchases. However, when we shop at Costco — two or three times a year — I am less prone to impulse because we simply can’t use or eat the large quantities they offer in many items. I might buy a package of four or six muffins at a local grocery store, but balk at buying one with 24 at Costco. We are both classic shoppers there.)
Time matters, too. If we shop in the late afternoon, I am not interested in browsing the breakfast cereals nearly as much as I am when we shop in the morning. I’m used to bananas and blueberries in the morning, so I will examine them with care when shopping early. Later in the day, I look more at apples and oranges. Mornings I barely look at frozen meals or ice cream, but later in the day, I can happily spend time checking their ingredients. I’ll remember I need pickles when shopping late, and forget I wanted kefir for my breakfast. And if I’m hungry when I shop, I’m more likely to gravitate to instant-gratification items like chocolate and chips.
Ketchup-flavoured Cheetos come as no surprise in a constantly changing business where thousands of products vie for your attention every day, often resorting to new, startling combinations to grab it. Little wonder that products often disappear from shelves when they fail to sell enough to justify their use of that valuable shelf space. Almost in anticipation of a short shelf life, the bag advertises “for a limited time only.” Of course, that’s also a marketing ploy: the threat that they won’t last or be there next time. Buy plenty now!
But isn’t that warning redundant? After all, what guarantee is there that any produce or product will last forever? Or at least a lifetime? Or even the season? Isn’t everything — ourselves included — for a limited time only? After all, we — and everything around us — are mortal, and will shuffle off this coil in our time, but that digresses into another philosophic topic. Let’s stick to choice and its sibling, taste.
When does novelty become commonplace? When does the exotic become ordinary? When does the anticipation of something new drift into the expectation of familiarity? Sometimes there’s a fad that propels new products, like the sudden burst in siracha sauce-flavoured sauces and spreads. Will these items last, or disappear when popular taste turns to something else? Or will they remain as regular items for everyday shoppers? And how often have you been disappointed by trying one of these new taste sensations only to find they didn’t live up to your expectations? (That leads to “buyer’s remorse” as the pundits call it…)
(Small segue: in the mid-1970s, I worked for a game store in Toronto and watched as novelty items came and went in a single season. I was working there when the Pet Rock arrived as the hottest gag-Xmas gift. I watched it go from bestseller that flew off the shelves to a metaphor for uselessness and bad taste in about six months.)
Look at how the number of grocery products like frozen pizzas, yogurt, potato (and other flours) chips and others has blossomed, forcing expansions of their space in stores to accommodate the new varieties. Look at the number of cheeses, pasta sauces, salad dressings, cooking oils, and pickles that are now available. Bread, cat and dog foods, frozen dinners, too. There are even more types of milk and milk substitutes than ever before (true, the plethora of choices is often fad-driven, like the gluten-free, non-GMO, nut-based milk substitutes, and may vanish or at least diminish on the shelf when the fad bandwagon moves on).
We have choices, sometimes too many for us to process. Do I buy the roasted red pepper pasta sauce, the tomato and basil, the spicy tomato, the heritage tomato, the tomato and pesto, the tomato and cheese, the red wine and herb sauce, the tomato and garlic, the arrabiata, the vodka or the rosée sauce, the marinara, the tomato and mushroom sauce, the large or the small jar… the problem is that what excites and attracts me in the grocery store may not be what I want to eat when I’m cooking, so do I buy several to be ready for my changing tastes? Do I try something new or stick to what’s familiar?
When I shop, I often choose what appeals to me now, as opposed to what I might want later. Reading the labels, my mouth begins to salivate as I imagine how good it will be. And I’m a sucker for those product descriptions that promise great, tasty things from them, although I will also re-shelve products with too much sugar or salt (keeping in mind Montaigne’s warning that, “To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it.”). But there’s always something else, another choice to examine, to imagine in my meal or as a dessert. Choices, choices, choices.
I sit here writing this while sipping a cup of Tata Gold tea, the fifth brand of loose leaf tea I’ve tried this year (after Yorkshire Gold, William’s High Kenyan, a no-name CTC Kenyan, and Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling). In my cupboard, I have packages of Indian, Russian, African, Indian, and Chinese loose-leaf teas — black, oolong, pu-erh, and green —waiting to be opened, and that’s only a modest fraction of the variety of loose leaf teas available. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that my only choices in tea were the boxed bags of mediocre-blend brands (most of which are still stocked). Now I have an embarrassment of riches in tea choices only a click or two away on my computer.
Last night I put some African peri-peri hot sauce on my pasta, one of a dozen or so bottles of hot sauce I have on my shelf, a few of two to three dozen hot sauces available locally, made from peppers sourced from as far away as Guatemala, Mexico, Guyana, Thailand, USA, India, and Africa. My pasta last evening was baked ziti, but in my cupboard I have tagliatelle, spaghetti, macaroni, fusilli, capellini, lasagne, penne, rotini, and others, made in both Canada and Italy. I had it with Greek olives seasoned with chile peppers, one of several different kinds of olives I have from Morocco, Italy, Turkey, Chile, and Spain. I had a glass of Ontario merlot with it, chosen from several hundred bottles and boxes of Ontario red wines at the LCBO, the section itself among thousands of choices of wines and spirits in the store. We ate dinner while watching one of thousands of TV shows and movies streaming on Netflix.
The variety of choices we have, even in a small town with limited outlets, is truly stunning. Having access to online shopping expands our choices to infinity. Or damned close to it. Even the poorest among us have a galaxy of choices available, perhaps not all at quite as high quality, but still vastly more than in many other countries.
That brings me to another sidetrack: price. We culturally see price as the arbiter of quality. From the difference between the $3 pasta sauce and the $10 “riserva” jar, to the $500 TV versus the $2,500 TV to the $25,000 car vs the $75,000 car, as a society, we generally treat the more expensive as the better. Yes, sometimes price indicates the inclusion of extra (or other) ingredients or features, but in many cases, these are not necessities nor improvements: they are chrome: attractive and shiny but more ornamental than practical, and often simply status-related. A Ferrari won’t get my groceries home or my dog to the vet any better than a Toyota will.
Yet some companies thrive in the premium market, selling ordinary or even mediocre products at exorbitant prices with the secure knowledge that many consumers see price as the indicator of quality. Just look at the selection of vodkas in your local liquor store and ask why some are double or triple the price of others. It takes considerable cognitive dissonance to convenience one’s self that a highly-priced vodka actually tastes better than a modestly-priced one. And when they’re both in a cocktail, can you really tell the difference?
Another segue: a family story was that my great-grandfather, whom I can only recall ever meeting once, would not eat bananas because he didn’t like the way they looked. I understand that: he was born before refrigeration, born before air transport could zip produce from halfway ’round the world into your local grocery store within days. His choices were limited to what was local, seasonal, or those rare foods that could be salted or smoked for longer storage. The banana was a rare exotic, probably arrived brown and over-ripe by the time it reached Toronto from the tropics. Not very appealing. I wonder what he would have thought of the stands and counters stocked with ripe, ready-to-eat fruit and vegetables brought from all over the world that are sold in every grocery store here. Avocados, mangoes, lychee, limes, coconuts, tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, and many others, sold year-round, regardless of the source or season.
Novelty may fuel our buying habits (gotta have that new iPhone, gotta have that new 8K TV, gotta have that new iPad, gotta have that new SUV, those new Nike sneakers…) but we are also a generally neophobic species where food is concerned (as Vanderbilt notes). It takes a while for us to acclimatize us to new foods and new flavours, and sometimes we never expand our taste horizons. Many of us hesitate or even resist trying something new to eat, especially when it’s outside our cultural references (like eel, sashimi, okra, green tea ice cream, or dragonfruit,…).
As an example, when we moved to this town, there was a Taco Bell restaurant, but it closed soon after because residents found it too exotic and wouldn’t eat there. What survived here were restaurants offering pizzas, burgers, pasta, and doughnuts. Several attempts were made over the years to open Japanese and Indian restaurants, which failed because of similar local resistance to “exotic” dining. Now, with changing demographics and an influx of people from larger urban centres for whom these are no longer exotic flavours, all these cuisines thrive here.
I am somewhat of a neophile when I cook, trying different mixes of flavour and texture, which in turn affects my shopping habits. Not all of my experiments are successful, however, and it’s a tribute to her patience and love that Susan will eat my meals even when my attempts have failed to produce the culinary delight I hoped for. But when I buy such new products like ketchup-flavoured Cheetos, she declines to even try them despite my childish delight in them. I’m always hopeful I’ll discover something really wonderful; she expects to be disappointed as in the past (as well as not waiting to consume a lot of such junk food).
For me, however, the $2 or $3 investment in ketchup-flavoured chips or corn twists or nacho chips is worth the experiment. I have thrown away many, many half-full bags of such products because they proved unpalatable, and Susan could probably recite a litany of them I’ve tried and disposed of, promising never to try again. But here I am with a bag of Cheetos, anticipating its opening. And expecting as in the past, some disappointment. My expectations have, over the years, been blunted somewhat by my experiences.
Do these conflicting emotions affect how the Cheetos will taste to me? Do they set me up for enjoyment or dislike? There’s complex psychology built around taste in food, as Vanderbilt explores, and it’s in part a combination of memory and expectation, what you feel like at the moment, what else you’ve had to eat, when you ate, how much you ate, how it looks, how it sounds, the music, the lighting, the company you’re with, your previous experience with it or related foods… even the exact same item served a day later may be perceived differently from the first timeline more or less. That bag of sour cream and dill chips that tasted so good yesterday when you first tried them may come across as gooey, too salty, and unappealing today.
Knowing this, knowing how manufacturers and marketers use their wiles to encourage us to buy, to encourage our expectations, knowing the psychology behind my own waxing and waning enthusiasm for products, and yet I still reach for the bag of ketchup-flavoured Cheetos and plunk it in my shopping cart while Susan rolls her eyes at the inevitable result.
There’s no accounting for taste, as they say. After all, que sais je?
* Related books include The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globalization, by Gordon Laird (McClelland and Stewart, 2009), Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep Buying No Matter What, by Lee Eisenberg (Simon & Schuster, 2009), Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell (Penguin Press, 2009), and Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill (revised edn., Simon & Schuster, 2009).