People, when I took over the role of vice president of epicurean imports seven years ago, this company had made a name for itself as the kind of bazaar you’d find in Istanbul, Tangiers, Hanoi or Nairobi, except everything cost a packet and there was no haggling. We were in effect selling a unique experience to our customers—Argentinian panpipe music, Polynesian wicker storage solutions, rusty ships lanterns that created a striking unease at the dinner table, carved wood paper trays for your home office just like the ones in old British Raj; perfect for keeping up with taxes or conscripting the subaltern.
Infused olive oil and prohibitively expensive pouches of tea had put us on the map in the early 2000s. “Stock up on pfeffernusse this Christmas!” was the catch cry of the narrow-minded corporate epicurean buyer at that time. Americans, the logic went, would scatter chocolate-filled wafer straws and grissini casually around their house in vases, amongst the sprays of pussy willow, to invoke their worldly personalities. At that time, I had a conversation with an Englishman, a very upright fellow, who was riled by a panettone display. “I don’t eat fruitcake everyday,” he scoffed. “What I would like right now is a bloody good wad of anchovies and some curry.” It was then I had a tipping point. Who was addressing the ex-patriate market space?
Sprinkled within reach of America’s malls were thousands of alienated emigrants of the world, afraid to concur too loudly with criticism of Her shortcomings—her exceptionalism, her love of surly utility vehicles, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary—for fear of being branded “anti-American.” These displaced folk did not wish to purchase gold-leaf-embossed boxes of lavosh cracker bread; they longed for a dialogue. Enter Bonox. Seven liters of beef stock from one jar—the quotidian, sold at a gently inflated price; an excise for sanity. It might seem slight, but through importing custard powder and digestive biscuits from distant countries, we facilitated a cultural exchange. “Isn’t America’s cereal sugary!” one could now proffer in conversation, insulated by their purchase of a box of Hi-Fiber Weet-Bix. “No, no, Swedish people are not generally any more promiscuous than Coloradans,” one could titter in a singsong voice; “Boy, these Cruskits are just the thing.”
Tense discussions of the shining and incomparable U.S. health system now accommodated the notion that a country may have universal health care without succumbing to socialism. “The secret to my fluffy sponge cakes is McCormacks Bi-Carb Soda,” one remarked while waving about a Giant Pocky, then, taking a bite, “and truthfully, our surgeons don’t remove the wrong organ any more often than U.S. surgeons.”
Gourmand chocolate cookies may have paved the way for greater tolerance in this country, but it is Gravox and Continental’s 65-gram French Onion soup mixes that will stir a sea change. We are a melting pot and we must concede that our sun-kissed Californian raisins are not the only ambrosial treat to come of a grape: Sunbeam sultanas have a significant claim to the title, too. Forty varieties of peanut butter cater to whimsy, to indecision, to Eat This Not That, but where is White Wings Pavlova Magic in the inventory of our country’s soul? If it makes one permanent resident happy to offer chocolate pudding under the moniker “chocolate mousse,” or to put meat into spaghetti sauce, where they expect to find it, should we not open our minds to such latitudes?
It is said on the Statue of Liberty, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” Does it not also infer, “Try some MasterFoods Lemoncurd Butter”; does it not, on occasion, greet newcomers simply with, “Harvest Vegetables and Sausages meal-in-a-tin”? Profits say that it does. Net revenue for the third quarter of 2010 tells us that amidst anti-immigrant sentiment, “new Americans” are finding respite. At Cost Plus, they can squirrel marmalade and tinned devon into their basket, sharing a nod with the lady clutching her chutney and pappudums in the same aisle. And on their way out, maybe they buy a Jin Dynasty bamboo screen replica—it’s a new, new world, people.