My supermarket has a giant “international” food aisle dominated by Asian and Latino products. Which items end up in a section dedicated to a particular foreign culture’s cuisine and not mixed in with the so-called American staples — Heinz, Campbell’s, etc. — fascinates me. Why, for example, is Cafe Santo Domingo on a Dominican Republic shelf and not next to Maxwell House in the regular coffee aisle?
David Chang doesn’t see these placements as mere marketing decisions but as something more sinister. Founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire, Chang calls the “ethnic” or “international” food aisle a “last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America.”
I would disagree. I love the international aisle.
Chang argues that shelves designated for Latino or Asian foods are a kind of segregation from white America. Growing up in Northern Virginia, he recalls his parents shopping at two grocery stores, one dedicated to Korean foods and another a supermarket with an international food aisle.
Having that kind of choice sounds nice to me. But Chang says the existence of ethnic markets alongside allegedly all-American supermarkets told him he and his family “were never going to be accepted.”
Come on. I don’t doubt that Chang, like other children of immigrants, was subjected to hurtful comments. Unfortunately, nearly every recently arrived immigrant group gets sent through the wringer by people who were here before. Ideally, they move past the ugliness.
I’ll take the food critics’ word for it that Chang is touched by culinary genius. His high-style interiors are articles in themselves. Dining at his establishments can require two-hour waits for a table and end in an astronomical bill. One entree at Momofuku Las Vegas — King Crab & Pork Belly Stew with kimchi, burrata and rice cakes — goes for $72. I’m sure it’s to die for.
However, there is a note of discord when an entrepreneur complains of racial segregation in supermarkets while running elite dining salons rife with economic segregation. The racial makeup of customers at his tables does reflect the realities of class in America. And so, too, does the racial makeup of his kitchens.
Let’s go back to the international food aisle. Mine is not limited to predominantly non-white civilizations. There’s a small Irish section with Lyons Tea and Hogan’s Irish Soda Bread Mix. The shelves with Portuguese labels offer foods from Portugal as well as Brazil. There’s another area for kosher foods.
And although spaghetti and pasta sauces have been incorporated in the mainstream aisles (something Chang notes), my international aisle has a separate section for imported Italian products, mainly the Pastene brand. It’s a strange placement decision, in this opinion.
Supermarket managers say the international aisle is there for marketing reasons. It gives recently arrived immigrants one place to go for foods from the old country with labels in their native language.
Furthermore, many customers on the international aisle are native-born Americans seeking specialized ingredients to make, say, pad thai or tortillas. And for we who attempt fashionable fusion cooking — which mixes ingredients from different culinary traditions — the international aisle saves time.
Even if one dislikes the idea of an ethnic sorting of foods, where else would you put pacaya en salmuera, bottled palm flower clusters from Guatemala? What about Peruvian chulpe, dried, toasted corn?
Cafe Bustelo, designed for Latino coffee drinkers, has gained more widespread popularity. So you find a bunch of Bustelo products in the international aisle, and now there are some in the regular coffee section, right next to the Folgers.
Where supermarkets arrange items with foreign provenance obviously evolves over time. International aisles are there for the convenience of shoppers. No offense is intended, and none should be taken.