Sometimes I have an existential experience in the supermarket. My father’s great-grandparents had their own farm. They would grow cabbages, pickle them to prepare them for storage, fill the shelves of the house with pots of fermented cabbage and that would be their food. That was what they’d eat, to get them through the winter. They lived in an era when the majority of parents would have to bury at least one of their own children.
Today we have an infant mortality rate of four per thousand. Most parents will never have to bury one of their own children. People live to be eighty or ninety years old. And they can eat anything. You can ride your bicycle down the street, enter a supermarket and find any grain you want. Buckwheat, rye, oats, maize, quinoa, barley, rice, spelt.
You have fresh bread, pre-baked bread for you to bake in your own oven, bread with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, rye bread, sourdough bread, white bread, wholegrain brown bread and bread that looks and tastes white but supposedly still has the dietary fiber you need (don’t ask me how).
You can find any fruit you can think of and most of them are available at any time of the year. Pomegranates, apples, oranges, grapefruit, mandarins, mango, coconut, watermelon, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, pineapple, peaches, avocados, cherries, cactusfruit and lychees. It’s a small miracle, the things we have.
You can find two dozen different types of peanut butter, with different types of nuts added, bits of chocolate. You have three different options, to decide for yourself how darkly toasted you want the peanuts to be.
You have a combination of different mushrooms you can eat. White button mushrooms, Portobello (which are a more mature variety of the white button mushrooms), oyster mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, shimeji mushrooms and nameko mushrooms. Things your grandparents probably never even heard of.
If you’re too lazy to leave your home, innovation is dropped on your doorstep for you if necessary. There are new things almost every day. Pizza bottoms made of cauliflower, kombucha tea, snacks made of seaweed, herbal teas from a cocktail of different plants.
As someone else put it: “People like me had everything we needed and more. Things our grandparents could not even dream of. We had everything we could ever wish for.” It’s a common trope that people from Eastern Europe living under communism did not believe Western supermarkets to be real. They thought they were set up to create a false impression of abundance.
I would love to say that the Dutch supermarket is a monument to the success of capitalism. But it isn’t. Because for all it has managed to accomplish, all it manages to offer people, it has failed at achieving one thing. It has failed to change what you want.
You still want the same thing. An animal in a dark cage, bred to grow as fast as possible, fed antibiotics and soybeans imported from what used to be forest in Brazil. An animal that never sees the forest where it feels at home. An animal that only sees daylight when shipped to the slaughter house. You want this every day. But it’s the one thing Mother Earth can’t offer you.
The tropical fruit is slowly shipped from tropical nations in giant refrigerated containers. The Dutch greenhouses allow us to grow just about anything people want, in the middle of winter if necessary. Almost everything we have, almost every miracle of modernity, we are allowed to keep.
But you’re feeding 100 grams of protein to a cow, to produce 4 grams of edible protein. And you’re occupying half the world’s habitable land for this purpose. Nature has offered you an insane variety of alternatives. Jackfruit, oyster mushrooms, seitan, I’m not going to name them all. But apparently none of them are good enough. I wouldn’t know. I have long forgotten by now what the bodies of other animals taste like.
This is what goes through my mind, when I walk into a supermarket. Then when I return home, I try to figure out how to sedate myself. How to stop myself from understanding.
Because I know what we deserve. And I know what we’re going to get.