Ethnography in the Finnish Supermarket

The miracle that is a Finnish candy aisle.

This week I arrived in Finland to begin a semester at the University of Oulu, and now that I am getting settled in to spend most of the year here I went on the most essential of all ethnographic trips: my family trooped off to the grocery store.  If ever there is a moment to experience culture shock and fascination alike, it is in a grocery store:  since all the labels are in Finnish (which I cannot read except in the most rudimentary ways), I am almost completely resistant to advertising appeals and reliant purely on a visual inspection of the container to figure out what is even being sold, so every sealed container is like a lottery ticket; in many areas of the store the Finns carry much more than American groceries, while a few American staples are oddly absent from the Finnish grocery; and I am overwhelmingly ignorant of brand distinctions and surprisingly motivated by price and brightly colored packaging.  Grocery shopping in America is a largely invisible practice that happens almost automatically without any thought, but here I spend a lot of time contemplating packaging, typing words into Google translate to puzzle out what is contained within, and wandering in fascination in some areas of the store that put American stores to shame.

Fish in the Oulu Market House

There is a fabulous market house in Oulu that hawks a variety of fresh foods, and the adjoining Market Square offers up a broad range of fresh and packaged foods alike as well as crafts, toys, tourist knick knacks, and American t-shirts.  These are somewhat different marketing and social spaces than the grocery stores that dot Oulu, and those groceries are in layout not at all different from American grocery stores.  Prices in the Nordic world are consistently higher for most goods, and this is no different in the grocery store.  For instance, the inexpensive American staple of chicken breasts are 51% more expensive in Oulu than my hometown of Indianapolis, and red meat tends to be a little pricier as well, but some products (like cheese, which is carried in stellar selections here) are actually pretty comparable.  Inevitably some of those contextual factors shape local shopping.

Finnish grocery stores really shine in the candy aisle.  For those of us who adore licorice, we appear to have reached the apogee of licorice marketing in Finland, with a huge candy aisle dominated by licorice mixes.  The salty licorice known as salmiakki is found in much of the Nordic and Baltic world, and it fills much of the Finnish candy aisles.  Licorice appears as a filling in chocolate, alcohol, and ice cream as well; it can be soft and chewy or like impenetrable pebbles; and it can be lightly salted, flavored, or outrageously salty.  So Finnish licorice goes well beyond the flavorless wax we’re accustomed to in the States, and Finns tend to have strong opinions about preferable styles and flavors.  Finns may not appreciate that their candy aisles are astoundingly colorful, with sections of licorice punctuated by a wide variety of kaleidoscopic-colored gummy bears that likewise can be marshmallow soft or harder than rocks.

Some things do not quite translate into English. But those people look really healthy.

The Finns have an outstanding porridge selection, and while this makes sense in a cold place porridge is not really to my liking.  The boxes have lots of stout men and women on them, all apparently made more hardy by their consumption of semi-solid oat and potato mixtures.  I suppose when the weather truly breaks cold I may revisit the idea of consuming steaming hot and rich food, but for the moment I have not warmed to the idea, despite having half an aisle of choices.

Americans may be surprised to find that the lower Finnish cereal shelves are not lined with a rich range of sugary cereals endorsed by cartoon characters.

In contrast, the Finnish pickings for cold cereal are vastly less voluminous than any American store.  An American store would have a quarter mile of low-lying shelves lined with sugary concoctions in the reach of little hands, but these sweetened morning meals are not found especially widely in Finnish stores.  The lower aisles of American stores—those aisles at the height of little kids—are much more densely stocked with appealing items for which a child shopper might lobby, but at least impressionistically kids have fewer such inducements here outside that miraculous candy aisle.  On the other hand, where granola and muesli are not found in vast quantities in American stores, they are densely stocked in the Finnish cold cereal aisle, apparently uniformly packaged in earth tone boxes with healthy Nordic people adorning the packaging.  They may well be making the same shaky if not transparent claims for healthiness that American foods make on the boxes, but in general the Finnish foods seem to be packaged with much less over-the-top aesthetics, even though some of the packaging design is as ridiculous as American containers.

There are some utterly ethnically distinct foods in the groceries.  For instance, many deli’s have Karelian pastries, typically a rye crust with a rice filling.  While not utterly unique to an American palate, there is also a broad selection of dark breads in Finland.  Yet more foods are simply reflections of distinctive local products, such as the lingonberries and raspberries that appear in lots of Finnish juices; game animals like reindeer and bear; and of course the fish selection.

Finnish groceries contain an astounding selection of tiny pickled fish.

For somebody coming from the heart of the fishing industry in landlocked Indiana, the fresh fish selection in Finland is simply incomparable here, with a vast range of fish completely unrecognizable to me smoked in a wide range of ways.  Not surprisingly, the pickled fish selection is much richer in Finland than the states, though specifically what animal is in each jar and how they have been prepared is largely a mystery to me without a determined survey.  It’s irrelevant what the fish is called from my perspective, but obviously Finns distinguish between species with a fair amount of detail and they separate within species based on where the fish was caught or if it is farm raised, which seems to almost be a dirty word.  Americans seem much less concerned with where our food comes from than Finns, and this is especially true with fish.  Salmon can be prepared a vast range of ways, and they hale from all sorts of waters identified on signs in the display case, so salmon shopping here is much more complicated than it is in my little corner of the states.

Eventually I suppose my grocery trips will become as second-nature here as they are in the states, but at the moment everything in the store is completely novel, and even the familiar things are interesting in a new context.  Every trip out is a tiny ethnographic adventure.

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