Milk, Eggs, Arugula, Identity: The Grocery List in a Time of Change

When I think of everyday lists bearing meaning, I remember my father agonizing over the grocery list.  He was a member of the “Greatest Generation” who retired way too early, and the role of house-husband was ill fitting.  Eventually, Dad occupied himself by turning any household chore into an existentially complex exercise.  The grocery list morphed into a Herculean effort that reinforced his sense of identity as the man about the house.  

Each item on the grocery list had to be compared to his pouch of coupons and then annotated with a brand name and a flag denoting whether he had a coupon for it.  Then, the grocery list required a complete reorganization so that it flowed top to bottom in the same order in which the aisles of the grocery store were arranged.  Once at the grocery store, heaven help the store manager if he had chosen that day to reorganize the aisles, throwing Dad’s meticulous grocery list out of kilter.

Yes, Dad had issues as he aged.  Even so, I wonder if he was not a bit ahead of his time when it came to turning the grocery list into an identity-management tool.  Dad’s grocery list produced a grammar and a syntax that reinforced a stable identity for him during a late 20thcentury that threw lots of changes at him that were well out of his control.  My father was a most modern man in his 20thcentury view of the world.  Yet, he engaged in a post-modern rhetorical exercise on an everyday basis.  The grocery list allowed him to write his identity into everyday living.

In the early 21st century, the pace of change has picked up considerably and, as Michael Pollan has suggested, a sophisticated grammar of food is implicated in those changes from a cultural, political and media standpoint.  The rise of new food discourses such as “eat local” or “slow food” impinge on what items go on the grocery list – indeed, what story gets written in that list.  Contemporary grocery lists differ from Dad’s grocery lists in many ways.  The explosive growth of food media in general and the mainstreaming of Food Network and food blogs specifically have broadened the array of culturally-derived foods finding their way onto the grocery list.  Fast-food sushi can now be found in many grocery stores and even Wal-Mart, but I can vouch that Dad’s grocery list never included nigiri and a seaweed salad.

I am fascinated by food as a rhetorical resource, artifact and commodity that is necessarily attended by discourse.  Here, I want to consider just what’s happening to the grocery list in a 21stcentury milieu of late capital, sustainability movements, farmer’s markets, concerns over the industrialized food system and urban farming.  The grocery list is increasingly a rhetorical artifact located at the intersection of these forces.  

A quick wander through the aisles of scholarly literature confirms my suspicion that even cultural critics find the grocery list a bit too everyday for scrutiny.  A few social scientists have hypothesized on the disjuncture between intention – as represented by the grocery list – and behavior in the grocery store.  A few hope to find something important about online grocery shopping, though the role of the classic grocery list seems a bit unsettled there – at least until the computer screen is on the refrigerator door.

It appears that only Jack Goody has considered the grocery list as a rhetorical artifact in itself in “The Recipe, The Prescription and the Experiment.”    Yet, even here Goody does not really focus on the grocery list, juxtaposing it against the recipe as a foreshadowing chapter in a modernist narrative in which culture easily replicates itself, allowing no deviations or creativity from a set norm.  The grocery list is essentially a supporting player in his analysis, an outgrowth of the recipe and a marker of a predetermined future.  You make a list, you buy stuff, then you cook the meal foreshadowed by that list of ingredients.

That view has the great advantage of being tidy in a most modern way.  Yet, compare that with the quirky and post-modern  Here, several years’ worth of  “found” grocery lists paint a picture not of dinners flowing from recipes, but of individuals and families living their sometimes untidy lives.  No orderly narrative exists here.  Grocery lists represent the moment, lacks and desires of all kinds, from chickens to jewelry from Macy’s.  The collection shows the grocery list often more closely resembles performance art than modernist narrative.

Perhaps that image of performance art captures both my father’s agonistic grocery list and the average grocery list of the early 21st century.  The grocery list is a text, one that is produced on an everyday basis.  In a time of global, cultural change and the emergence of new food discourses, perhaps we should consider whether the grocery list provides an everyday opportunity to write an identity.  This notion links several threads of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life: practices as rhetorical forms, cooking as one of those practices, and the importance of small acts of resistance built into and out of the elements of everyday life.  The grocery list might take on a function of constitutive rhetoric – who we are, or at least who we are on a given day as we negotiate the complexity of industrial society and any desires we might have to resist it in some small fashion.  

With de Certeau as a lens, the grammar and syntax of the grocery list is the everyday plan for negotiating our way through the spaces and tactics of power.  For instance, the grocery store is a space of industrial society; the garden a space we control. What’s not on the list might be just as important as what is.  My own list will not include beets despite my wife’s passion for them.  You will find them in our garden, so they do not count as a lack we depend on the grocery store and the industrial food chain to fulfill.  The grocery list is both text and performance of who we are.  My list will say “Kashi” -- not just “cereal” -- because I have adopted that brand as a means of eating a healthy breakfast and avoiding the artificially produced, vitamin-injected cereals from the major brands.  Of course, that act of entering the brand name is also an act of co-production of the brand’s meaning.  As more people use their purchasing power as a replacement for political power, the grocery list is potentially a regular source of practicing that economic form of protest.  “Coffee” on the list is merely a sign standing in for the purchase of “fair trade” beans.  Yet, on my father’s list, the only meaning “coffee” linked to was the coupon he pulled out of his pouch.

The grocery list displays other post-modern qualities.  Rather than a modernist narrative, grocery lists are intertextual in a multicultural world.  Food discourses and food media (cable cooking shows, a never-ending stream of cookbooks, food blogs etc.) provide a wide range of rhetorical resources, and the grocery list provides a means for collecting and sorting those resources.  I might prepare one “eat local” list for the farmer’s market and another for the grocery store.  I might choose to eat Indian or Middle Eastern tonight, and the grocery list mediates between recipes in a cookbook, what is available to me with my resources and just how adventurous I will be in tasting the other.   I might take great care in preparing a list that will allow me to prepare a stir fry for dinner and essentially “try on” the trappings of a Chinese peasant without ever leaving my well-appointed kitchen.

Because of its everyday nature, the grocery list has also blurred into everyday technology.  Many web recipes provide the option of printing out a grocery list for a particular dish.  In that sense, the technology takes on a deterministic tendency, reinscribing the modernist narrative of cultural control in the form of a grocery list.  Deviations from such a list must be purposeful.  Yet, technology also unsettles the tidy narrative in many ways.  The grocery list also flows through the cell phone, both as text messages – “get milk” – as well as a medium for fine-tuning the grocery list and navigating a late capital milieu of overwhelming choice.  Few shopping trips occur without this husband calling home to find out just what brand or particular formulation of this or that was intended in a spousely scrawl (did we want the high, medium or low fiber cereal or the “crunchy” version versus the merely “crisp”).  Technology tends toward decentering the grocery list, here, eroding its role in a controlling narrative even further.  When attended by technology, the grocery list is no more than a first draft of Goody’s narrative.  

Like so many everyday texts and practices, the grocery list carries more meaning than it presents at first blush.  Its nuances might well escape even those making out the lists, its rhetorical import hiding beneath the veil of the everyday.

Pollan, Michael. “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.” The New York Times Magazine. August 2, 2009.

Goody, Jack. “The Recipe, the Prescription and the Experiment.” Food and Culture: A Reader, Second Edition. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Rutledge, 1997. 78-90.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.



The grocery list as a site of identity expression comes up in the piece Laura Bergeron and I wrote about, and I’ve been fascinated by how the grocery list can be, at times, more evocative and substantial than the list of things to do. Your discussion of the specificity of items on the list (or lack thereof) shows how our rhetorical choices can denote our own private or familial shorthand. Could the grocery list also be script cues for the performance of public identity?

Hi John,

Your attention to the grocery list as one of the most immediate and everyday spaces of writing that intersects a range of important cultural practices (cooking, globalization, etc.) strikes me as really important.  As I was reading your piece, though, I kept thinking how much my grocery lists never encompass my grocery experience, that they are some of the most prevalent, but also most unreliable forms of writing out there.  I never buy everything on the list because I always forget something and I always buy more than is on the list because the grocery store seduces me into it.

I wonder whether new online grocery shopping or even the way, as you mention, the fixity of online recipes will make the grocery list more referential than it has been in the past, which, from my point of view, seems a shame.  I like its rather tattered state and its unreliability.

Best, Andrew

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