This post originally appeared in the January 27, 2020 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
Common vacation wisdom holds that in order to have the most relaxing, enjoyable trip possible, we should set aside all tedious activities necessary for daily life. That means ignoring emails, taking a break from all-consuming social media (hard to do when there are so many pretty sunsets to document), and — to the best of one’s ability — avoiding mundane tasks like laundry and cooking. After all, dining out is a great way to experience a new place or culture. I will cosign each and every one of these compelling recommendations — with the exception of grocery shopping.
If there is one habit that you should not avoid while kicking back in an unfamiliar locale, it’s visiting the supermarket. Normally, weekly shopping trips are more a necessary evil than a pleasure, and I get no satisfaction from going to the store just to buy milk and coffee creamer. But when on vacation, the usual expectations surrounding grocery shopping are gone: The experience is less about what I need to buy, and more about what I want.
There’s no better place to suss out those wants than a supermarket, which serves a very different purpose than a restaurant or a specialty market geared toward travelers. Grocery stores simply stock items that people seek out on a daily basis: vegetables, spices, and condiments regularly used in cooking in that particular neighborhood. The most natural way to observe how people live at my destination of choice is to navigate this annoying, but necessary everyday routine.
And supermarkets earn fandoms for a reason. Although I spent exactly zero time cooking on a recent trip to Austin, I still made a quick trip to Texas cult favorite H-E-B; to me, it was an exciting adventure that resulted in the discovery of pecan pralines next to the register beside the usual Twix and hand sanitizer. I bought one and ate it in the car. In Athens, Greece, during college, I found my neighborhood market stocked with not just Nutella, but dozens of varieties of chocolate-flavored hazelnut spreads, each with its own texture and flavor. And on a trip to Hawai‘i, during several glorious visits to the grocery store, I prowled the snack aisles, filling my cart with packages of candy coated in ling hing mui, crispy arare rice crackers, and taro chips.
Making a trip to the grocery store can also be a thriftier way to explore local food. A few years ago, during a visit to Iceland, I traveled on a very tight budget, bringing snacks from the U.S. and taking full advantage of complimentary breakfasts at hotels to stretch our Golden Circle road-trip money. When the Costco-brand trail mix started to run low, we rolled into discount market chain Bonus for some generic crackers, Icelandic cheese spread, and potato chips emblazoned with the word “Snakk” and a deranged-looking piggy bank. I’ll never be Icelandic, but I imagine that if I did live in that country, my weekend shopping excursion might not be so different from that trip to the store (maybe with fewer chips).
Those little splurges that we pick up when no one’s around — the items we grab when we’re wandering through a grocery store — are a window into how we actually live, and thus, a great representation of a place once we leave it. As the Iceland trip was nearing its end, I loaded my suitcase with amusing snacks and transported a little slice of my trip home for friends to try. Too bad they didn’t like the dried fish. — Brenna Houck
P.S. Why do Americans stan their local grocery store so hard? Eater’s Jaya Saxena explores what regional grocery fandom means, no matter where you live.