The Soothing Aesthetics of the Supermarket
THE SOOTHING AESTHETICS OF THE SUPERMARKET
I love the supermarket — fiercely, obsessively, weirdly. I go to the supermarket when I feel overwhelmed. And it turns out I’m not alone. I used to hang out at my local grocery store every day and see hundreds of other people stopping in for lunch at the hot bar, or catching up with friends over a cocktail at the grocery store pub. We were a hive of like-minded people, shamelessly taking our parents out to hot-bar breakfasts and our first dates out for grocery-store pints. Maybe you are one of us. Maybe you love the supermarket too.
In the year before the pandemic, my life revolved around the grocery store in a way that is nearly impossible to describe. This is no exaggeration — I sometimes spent nearly 10 hours a day there. I wanted to stand in the produce aisle and smell the lemons and the basil, and feel the droplets of cold water brush my hand as I reached for a stalk of broccoli. I’d walk down the aisles, running my hand over cans of beans like I would across racks of sweaters in a clothing store. The grocery store became a home away from home, functioning as my office, kitchen, and living room. I wrote my dissertation in the grocery store. I ate lunch at the grocery store, and in the evenings, I spent time at the grocery store bar. I knew the names of the workers — like Connor and Amanda — and learned about their lives. Of course, I also shopped at the grocery store.
To be clear, the grocery store in my neighborhood is no ordinary grocery store. Picture your favorite supermarket. Now make it bigger. Double the seating capacity and lengthen the windows so they stretch for two stories. Give it a view of a tree-lined urban boulevard, extend the hours from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., throw in a hot bar, pub, and coffee shop, and you’ll have an idea of the magic that was the Whole Foods flagship location in Philadelphia, which opened its doors in the fall of 2016.
Flavortown Market is not, however, a place where you could go to shop in real life. But the illusion works, and when I watch the show, I feel some of the same comfort I used to feel shopping at the old Whole Foods. It’s safe. It’s entirely ordinary, even mundane. In some ways it’s even better than actually shopping at the grocery store, because nothing is ever out of stock at Flavortown Market.
When the pandemic hit, my habit of spending hours at the supermarket was no longer possible. I couldn’t safely go to the supermarket at all. This was March 2020, and the means of transmission of COVID-19 was still a public mystery. Maybe the virus clung to the outside of the grocery bags. Maybe I should disinfect my countertops. Should we run the produce through the dishwasher, just to be safe? To minimize exposure risk, one person in my household would do the monthly shopping. That person wasn’t me. We were fearful of the contact we would have with other people at the supermarket, and rightfully so. The supermarket had always been a tactile place. Reaching over a fellow shopper in the aisles, grabbing a free bite from the sample guy, and squeezing melons were all a part of the ordinary supermarket experience even for the most apathetic of shoppers. (That person also wasn’t me.)
Overnight, the simple act of going to the supermarket had been taken from me. Mourning the loss of my favorite pastime, I took comfort in visiting a fake supermarket. I spent my evenings glued to the television, imaginatively wandering the aisles of the semifictional store on the Food Network called Flavortown Market.
Flavortown Market is the set of Guy’s Grocery Games (2013–present), or as it is fondly known by fans, “Triple G.” I had casually watched Triple G before, but never with the fervency that I brought to it in those first weeks of the pandemic. In six weeks, I consumed about 185 episodes: the entirety of the catalog available on Hulu. Then I wrote desperate letters to Hulu’s customer service (“when will the next seasons of Triple G stream?”). I finally caved and did the ridiculous — I began buying seasons of Triple G.
I call Flavortown Market semifictional because it functions somewhat like a supermarket, boasting real food, refrigerated aisles, tagged prices. Built inside a 15,500-square-foot warehouse, the set is the size of an average grocery store. (It’s a bite-sized version of my neighborhood’s Whole Foods, which measures in at 62,000 square feet.) The set reminds the viewer of Supermarket Sweep, and it ought to, as the same set designer worked on both shows. The functional design of Flavortown Market is a marked improvement from the Supermarket Sweep set, which reportedly didn’t have refrigeration, forcing contestants to run around aisles heady with the stench of rancid meat.
Flavortown Market is not a place where you could shop in real life. But the illusion works, and when I watch the show, I feel some of the same comfort I used to feel shopping at the Whole Foods. It’s safe. It’s ordinary. In some ways it’s even better than actually shopping at the grocery store, because nothing is ever out of stock at Flavortown Market.
The challenges are souped-up versions of the everyday nuisances of grocery management. But it’s the mundanity of the show’s concept that is the key to its success. Triple G’s concept is simple, accessible, and participatory: a trip to the supermarket. It invites the audience to reflect on their real-world experience of shopping at the grocery store.
The show is helmed by Guy Fieri — celebrity chef, TV personality, and internet punching bag — a man whose love of classic convertible cars and frosted tips represents a specific and somewhat baffling brand of Americana. I like to think that, being both excessive and perplexing, Guy Fieri’s aesthetic mirrors that of the supermarket itself. Colorful, garish, and altogether too much, there’s a sense of abundance to Fieri’s stylings. The Mayor of Flavortown is best known for his aesthetic, but it’s his language, more than anything else, that makes Guy Fieri, well, Guy Fieri. His vernacular includes an endless supply of dad jokes, puns, and catchphrases. Like the dizzying stacks of brand names packed along the supermarket shelves, “Fierispeak” gets its power from its sheer and relentless scale.
Triple G’s cooking challenges, the eponymous “Grocery Games,” play off of the actual experience of shopping in a grocery store. The challenges are souped-up versions of the everyday nuisances of grocery store navigation. But it’s the mundanity of the show’s concept that is the key to its success. Triple G’s concept, which reproduces a trip to the grocery store, is simple, accessible, and participatory. It invites the audience to reflect on their real-world experience of shopping. In “No Carts Allowed,” the contestants must gather all the supplies they need using only their hands and arms. This happens to me any time I believe I need just one or two things, and end up with more than a dozen items: one solitary lime, two bunches of cilantro, three quarts of yogurt, four cans of chickpeas, a wheel of brie, and a 12-pack of La Croix. I cannot comfortably carry any of it. A game like “Watch Your Weight,” where contestants must gather ingredients under a certain weight limit, often about seven pounds, reminds me of walking (or dragging) myself home from the grocery store after mistakenly buying five grapefruits, forgetting that I would have to transport the excess citrus several blocks on foot. But the real magic of Triple G is the set, which gave me access to an otherwise inaccessible grocery store. Spending hours inside Flavortown Market was soothing during a stressful time when spending time in the grocery store wasn’t safe or possible.
For me, I was eager to return to Flavortown Market night after night, experiencing the contrived and calming design of the store and using the imaginary visit to the store as a form of therapy. I couldn’t spend my days at the Whole Foods any longer, but I could spend every night in Flavortown Market.
From the cleanliness of the aisles to the friendly din of lots of people gathering, the grocery store is uniquely comforting, and Triple G captures this ideal of the supermarket experience. The aisles are well stocked and brightly lit. The repartee between contestants and Guy is friendly and low stakes.
No other retail institution has so firmly entrenched itself into the visual vocabulary of US culture. In 1955, Allen Ginsberg bemoaned the rapid changes in American iconography by imagining a meeting with Walt Whitman in the “neon fruit / supermarket” of “A Supermarket in California.” In his own time, Whitman employed organic images — a spear of summer grass, the call of the bank by the wood (“I am mad for it to be in contact with me,” Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”) — whereas Ginsberg looks around and finds the woods replaced with an abundance of contrivances: “What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of / husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” Where can American poets find inspiration when the images available to them are inorganic?
But many people, including Ginsberg, have found the strange juxtaposition of products inspiring. Partly because it’s contrived, the carefully managed aesthetic of the supermarket can feel relaxing. Finding beauty in its tidiness has become a salve for the overstimulation of modern life. The genuine enjoyment of the aesthetics of the supermarket, it turns out, is shared by comedians Joe Pera and Stephen Colbert. Joe Pera Talks with You, the charming Adult Swim show, did an episode on the supermarket the year before the pandemic. “The grocery store is not just a place to pick up roast beef and milk from the store. It’s more than that,” Pera says. “It’s impressive, perplexing, comforting, and wasteful.” On The Late Show, Joe Pera and Stephen Colbert bonded over their love for grocery stores. Describing why he loves grocery shopping, Pera told Colbert, “I don’t know. It’s a very nice place to go. In the first season [of my show] I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. ’cause I was so nervous about the show, and I’d go walk around the grocery store, and I’d be surrounded by the produce and I’d feel better.” Stephen Colbert responded that when he was younger, he’d go to the produce aisle to look at the bell peppers. I was surprised and gratified to find that this feeling was shared. Watching Pera’s episode set in the supermarket was just as soothing as my nightly visits to Flavortown Market, with the added comfort of watching Pera and Colbert enjoy the store together.
I was eager to be calmed by design in Flavortown Market, to use my imaginary visit to the store as a form of therapy. I couldn’t spend my days at the Whole Foods any longer, but Flavortown Market was still open for me to spend every night there.
When the reruns ran out, I was shocked to discover that even the paradise of Flavortown Market was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. A pause in production had temporarily shuttered the set. Triple G pivoted during the coronavirus pandemic and has instead been releasing episodes called Guy’s Grocery Games: Delivery.
In turning flavor into description, Guy’s Grocery Games delivers on the promise of the aesthetics of the supermarket: that the sheer suggestion of food and flavor and the imaginary sharing of them would be just as therapeutic as actually going to the grocery store.
No supermarket, no shopping challenges. The new concept stripped away the two key components that had initially drawn me in to the show. I watched it anyway. Triple G had been my escape for so long, and I wasn’t ready to give up on it.
The episodes vary in the new iteration of the show, but the general idea is that the contestants cook out of their home kitchens. Fieri sends the competing chefs a box of groceries — a kind of Flavortown Instacart — that they must use in a challenge.
To observe social distancing, the three-judge panel participates via videoconferencing. They score the contestants based on game play, plating, creativity, and taste. The last category is unsurprisingly a difficult sell. The remote judges cannot taste the food, so the contestants describe flavors and textures in detail, and the judges score the food based on the vivid discursive descriptions of the contestants. We don’t know which plate tastes the best. We have to take their word for it. In turning flavor into description, Guy’s Grocery Games delivers on the promise of the aesthetics of the supermarket: that the sheer suggestion of food and flavor and the imaginary sharing of them would be just as therapeutic as actually going to the grocery store.
I spent so many hours in Flavortown Market that I nearly forgot that the image of the set is frozen in the best possible version of the supermarket — the perimeters chock full of fresh produce and imported cheese, the middle aisles fully stocked with lines of cans. There was always a familiar face in Flavortown Market — after spending hours with the roster of judges and repeat contestants, Triple G offered an illusion of sociality. I was happy to return to the supermarket a few months ago, but when I entered, I noticed the heightened stress for shoppers and employees alike. The physical store was unaltered, apart from a few stickers on the ground indicating pedestrian traffic patterns and some plexiglass dividers near the checkout aisles, but the mood was tense. I walked home uninspired. The odd mixture of abundance and mundanity that is so unique to a well-curated supermarket was gone. The supermarket was no longer relaxing by any standards. And though I still have some friends at the supermarket, most have made the decision to leave. Amanda found employment elsewhere. Connor, whom I’ve dubbed in Fierispeak “The Mayor of Whole Foods” because he knows everyone in the store, has also dipped. I walked home, made dinner, turned on the TV, and purchased another season of Triple G.
Rebecca Lipperini is a writer, teacher, and academic living in Philadelphia, and is the founding editor of Wild Greens magazine. She holds a PhD in English from Rutgers University, where she taught all kinds of classes on literature and poetry and writing, and wrote all kinds of papers on the same. Her essay on video games and Shakespeare adaptations was recently published in First Person Scholar. You can find Rebecca on Instagram @rebeccalipperini (personal) and @wildgreensmag.