The Seventy-Nine-Cent Spread

My relationship with the Florida supermarket has been a strained and curious one ever since my arrival from England to visit some friends who have somehow become islanded in the pine wastes of north-central Florida. With the Atlantic chill still in my bones — I had landed at Jacksonville via freighter from Liverpool — these kindly intentioned people rushed me off posthaste for supermarket orientation.

At soul, I suppose, every American, even the most post-Veblenite of university professors, sees himself surrounded by possessions, looking like an ad in the slick magazines, with a host of freckle-faced youngsters around to consume it all. In the supermarket, the foreign visitor may savor to the full this dream image Americans have of themselves, and it must have been for such a reason that I was so soon made to encounter a building roughly the same size as Westminster Abbey but which had a good deal more pretension.

My hosts bundled me toward the place across a sea of parked cars and begged that I notice how the doors opened. The doors opened, in fact, very nicely and obediently to the pressure of one’s footsteps on a red carpet — really, a red carpet — leading to them. In England, of course, if you go in for this sort of thing, you employ a butler. When my hostess cried encouragingly, “Look! No hands,” I was hard put to say something appropriate; after all, there is little one can profitably do with free hands, even in England, when moving through a door. Luckily, I was in good company and was not expected to shout praises like a cheerleader. I had already discovered, though, that Britishers are required to produce an occasional mumble as wonders are revealed to them, and I did so accordingly.

My eye had been taken, however, not by the doors but by the display on the first counter within. There I met up with a group of stolid tins with plain workaday labels, containing, I discovered, bees. Roasted bees. Suddenly I felt like the woman in the cartoon who says, “I don’t know what 1 want; I don’t even know what half of these things are.”

“Hi,” 1 called, thinking to please my friends by bringing a “funny” — a word to which they seemed much addicted — to their attention. “There’s been some mistake in the labeling here. Just look, it says Tees.’ Doesn’t it?”

“Oh, they have lots of crazy stuff here,” said my friend. “It’s a great place for laughs.” He proceeded to point out, down the length of the counter, grasshoppers (fried), ants (chocolate-covered), rattlesnake (au naturel), alligator soup, and a host of other “goodies” (their word) from the insect and reptilian realms. Now, I am not a fusty old curmudgeon who thinks that anything other than roast beef and Yorkshire pudding corrodes the gastrointestinal tract, and I was, in fact, charmed by these delicacies.

“You mean to say that people eat such things here?” I inquired.

“Well, my theory,” said my friend’s pretty Southern wife, in all seriousness, “is that they don’t eat them exactly &endash; I mean, most people wouldn’t eat them, but they sort of buy them for a gag and . . . mess around with them.” I must confess that I have in my luggage at this moment a tiny tin of caterpillars which I plan to take back home to Nottingham with me if I can get them through customs without anyone questioning my mental health. Once safely home, I shall put them in a time capsule along with the tiny navel brush — for brushing one’s navel — that was given me as a Christmas present by a Southern coed, and my year’s collection of McCall’s. Someone has to keep records.

The supermarket had only just begun to tantalize me with its charms. As I was passing down the “aisles full of husbands,” as Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet, put it fetchingly, foraging on my own past the frozen garbanzo bean soup counter, I encountered a sweet young thing, arms extended toward me beckoningly. Being unmarried and in good health, I looked about for an uncrowded vegetable bin where I could dally a moment with this charming windfall. But, as is so often true in America, her charms were for all; like the air hostesses who seem to be offering the prospects of matrimony to every passenger, she was not interested in me but in my role as consumer. I had been told before I left England that my Midlands haircut and spaniel look would make all American women want to mother me, so I gave the girl a leer. But she must have taken this as the grimace of a cretin, for she held out some oleaginous substance on a tiny biscuit for me to take.

“Would you like to try a little experiment?” she cooed.

“Anything I can do,” I said.

I was immediately handed another biscuit, along with a line of patter which I refrained from interrupting for fear the girl would become unhinged; she had been wound up like a phonograph. One biscuit, she informed me, was covered with her own firm’s high-grade margarine; the other formed the control group and had upon it what I was almost certain she called “the seventy-nine-cent spread.” The sport came in trying to determine which was which. I am not averse to games, I must say, and I rather enjoy an occasional bout of charades if I happen to be spending the evening with otherwise dangerous sportive types, but I am also somewhat scientifically oriented and I wished to have the terms of the contest made a bit more clear.

“The seventy-nine-cent spread?” I urged.

“That’s right, sir,” the girl replied.

“You’ll have to pardon me,” I said. “I’m a foreigner. Just what is the seventy-nine-cent spread?”

“Sorry, sir,” the girl said stiffly, in very much the manner of a London bus conductress dealing with a loutish masher. “We’re not permitted by federal statute to tell you.”

Shaken, I tasted the two morsels. Now, in England, after the war, a Socialist stateswoman named Mrs. Edith Summerskill, who was later to cover herself with renown by visiting Egypt after the Suez withdrawal and claiming that she was a Norwegian, had, in order to further the cause of food rationing, made the claim that it was impossible to tell the difference between margarine and butter. She was sharply proved wrong. Anyone without false dentures and with any sort of palate worth speaking of had no difficulty in this sort of discrimination.

Perceiving straightaway that the seventy-nine-cent spread was butter,

I told the girl so and asked her to pass the information back to her firm. The other stuff, I explained, was some artificial concoction made to look and taste like butter, but was better left alone. The girl gazed at me in a sort of fury, and I realized that she had discovered through this experience the presence of evil in the universe and could not wait to get home to write a story about it.

I ducked behind a Coke machine and so made my escape, and then found my friends trying to decide whether to buy a packet of corn chips called Fritos under the pressure of an irresistible inducement. That week, with the purchase of one package of chips, one got free a tin of bean dip and a bird. The bird was a paper one which could be whirled around at the end of a long stick, but the noise it made as it looped and curved, along with thousands of its brethren, was enough to make anyone go mad about corn chips. I told them my experience with the butter.

“They know the other stuff is butter,” said my friend, hefting a fifty-pound metal pail of washing machine detergent into a cart. “They’re trying to persuade people that margarine tastes better than butter.”

“Then why not call it butter?” I demanded.

“Something to do with the butter lobby in Washington, I guess,” he replied, swinging his Fritos bird.

Luther Stewart will conclude the discussion of his supermarket experiences in the July ATLANTIC.