Don't Pinch the Steak

“I feel qualified to write about supermarkets,”writesDAVID S. SALSBURO, “ since my firm supplies packaged frozen meals to them and since I once spent over an hour in one, looking for the bicarbonate of soda. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who spent three years in the U.S. Navy on destroyer duty during the Korean War, Mr. Salsbury operates a small wholesale frozen-meat business in Connecticut.

SELF-SERVICE was a lucky discovery. I don’t believe that anyone ever invented it. When the first chain groceries started in this country, their philosophy was to trim selling prices by trimming their margin by trimming their costs. To do this last, they purchased in carload lots, distributed to a large number of small outlets, and eventually cut the number of employees in those outlets to one — the manager. When the one manager complained that it was impossible to wait on a large number of people, someone got the bright idea of putting the manager at a desk by the door with a cash register, marking all the cans with their prices, and letting the customers run loose in the back, picking up whatever they wanted and bringing it to the manager in the front.

Thus was born sell-service. The manager just sat in one place while his customers made themselves unpaid clerks and stock boys. To put across what most grocerymen thought would be an unpalatable innovation, the chains began to advertise such slogans as “Save Money with Self-service” or “Save Yourself Self-service.” What they didn’t realize was that the housewife had been itching for years to get behind the grocer’s counter to pick out just what she wanted.

For some strange reason, certain cans on a shelf held more attraction than others for the selfservice shopper. Many women felt that something was wrong with the first can (otherwise, why would it be put first?). Thus, the first can to be sold was usually the second one in the pile. Many women liked to pick up the can on the bottom (since that was sure to be the freshest). If only one or two cans remained, the shelf was as good as empty. No shopper would buy the last can. (After all, there must be some reason why everyone else rejected it.) Freed now from depending upon the grocery clerk and his conniving eye (the grocery clerk could always tell which can was bad and try to foist it off on an unsuspecting customer), American women romped through the fairyland of self-service, tearing down island displays, opening packages to count the contents (and then buying an unopened one), scrutinizing labels, and weighing one can against another without fearing to be seen or thought cheap. Managers of chain stores soon discovered that the best-selling display was the “bin.” They just opened a case of salmon, dumped it into a big box, set up a sign, “Special — Three for 89¢,”and sold five times as much as the neatly stacked salmon on the shelves selling for 29 cents each.

Meanwhile, the merchants of perishable commodities looked with envy at the volume-selling chain stores and their magic of self-service. The early chains dealt only in canned and packaged goods, since these foods needed no special handling and could last forever. If canned artichokes didn’t sell this week, they sal on the shell until they did sell. Canned artichokes never spoiled like the fresh ones in the fruit and vegetable stores across the street.

For the merchants of Fish, meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables, business life had other problems. Selling a perishable is a constant battle against spoilage. A fruit merchant buys apples on Monday, throws out some rotten ones by Tuesday, culls his remaining merchandise on Wednesday and throws out some more. By Friday, if his sales have not been good enough, he may well have discarded half of the apples he purchased on Monday. The mere thought of spoiled fish is enough to give a fish man ulcers, for even fresh fish takes on the odor of spoiled fish near it. If Mrs. Hotzenplotz orders a steak cut one inch thick and then decides she does not like its looks, the butcher has to sell the steak that day or turn it into hamburg the next. To help offset this constant spoilage, the men who handled perishable items marked up their goods 30 to 60 per cent. But it still took a good fruit man to make money by the end of a week, and many a novice who could not tell a fresh head of lettuce from one with an incipient rot fell by the way. Fish, fruit, and meat men would look enviously at the grocery chains and their problemless sales and then go back and trim a little more costly spoilage from their rapidly dwindling stock.

The chain stores, on the other hand, were looking enviously at the 60 per cent markups in the fish line and hankering for a hunk of that business, too.

Fortunately for the merchants and the chain stores, science soon came to the rescue. A visionary chemist discovered a cellophane which would not disintegrate when wet and which could be sealed with a simple heating iron. Heat-sealable, moistureproof cellophane could not stop spoilage, but it could create the appearance of doing so, which is really just as good.

Whether it was an independent merchant or a vice president in some huge grocery chain, whoever thought up the idea of selling half-spoiled merchandise in cellophane at a reduced price deserves a plaque on Madison Avenue. This idea is an even greater one than the tank car full of suds from one box of laundry soap or the “more doctors” who smoke in a misconstructed English sentence. In one stroke, perishables became a self-service item and the housewife was given the illusion of saving money — and in the world of supermarkets, illusion is the same as reality.

Soon self-service markets began taking in meats and fruits. Whole bins of cellophane-wrapped fruits and vegetables would line one side of the store. If some oranges in a crate went soft, the rule was, Don’t throw them out, put one bad one in a bag with five good ones and sell the whole thing for a price ending in 9. (In self-service circles, 59 cents equals 50 cents — illusion is all that counts.) Don’t trim all the fat off that roast. Just round it off and put a cardboard in to hide the fattest side. (What looks lean is lean.) If half the fish is bad, don’t throw out the other half. Put two such pieces together and give it a fancy name. (That which appears whole is whole.)

GREAT discoveries always carry with them implications never dreamed of by their discoverers. When Napier thought up logarithms, did he realize that his invention would soon generalize a whole new family of hyperbolic sign curves? Thus, without thinking of it, the discoverer of self-service meat marketing aroused the most inward passions in the shopper.

Years ago, a meat market was a constant battleground between the butcher and the customer. Before she bought it, the customer had to squeeze the steak. The butcher, knowing he could never sell a presqueezed steak, had to hold it just beyond the woman’s reach. “Let me see it,” she’d say. “Hold it a little closer, my glasses are dirty.” It was with a sharp eye and a quick hand that the butcher stayed in business. A woman might defer to the judgment of her hairdresser, but the butcher never really knew how to trim her meat. She’d make her way behind the counter and stand over the butcher at his block. “Cut more here,” she’d say. “Trim all that fat.” It is great testimony to the forbearance and patience of the old-time butcher that so many women in their seventies have all ten fingers.

These same women would then hasten to the live chicken markets and pick out the fowl for the weekend. Unless they felt its gut, opened its beak, and yanked at the wing feathers, they never really knew what they were buying. The mauling those women could give a poor chicken would put a present-day diagnostic clinic to shame.

It was the same way with fruit. Everyone knew a banana was bad if it gave under gentle pressure. Squeezing, pulling, poking, and pinching a perishable was all in a day’s shopping less than two generations ago. That most women hardly knew what to expect from this manifest mauling did not matter. It was putting on the appearance of being an expert to one’s friends that counted.

Gradually city health officials, humane societies, and insurance companies tightened up such loose practices. The invention of a meat counter too wide and too high for the average woman to lean across was a magnificent boon to the butcher business. Insurance companies, having less faith in the forbearance of butchers than my grandmother, tried to discourage die practice of mixing butchers, cleavers, and customers in one small space. Fruit men began pointing to innocuouslooking strangers and muttering to a squeezehappy customer, “He’s a health inspector.”And fish fell under the cold hand of the Food and Drug Administration.

The greatest advance from this age of ignorant mauling, however, was the gradual education of the daughters and granddaughters. Today’s graduate of a large Midwestern university living in a suburban development named Green Acres knows enough to have no desire to go back to that primitive age when bare meat was squeezed by customers and chopped on an open block.

Today she goes into a clean sanitary supermarket, and with her fellow graduates of Vassar, Smith, and various teachers’ colleges, she pushes her basket past row upon row of neatly packaged steaks, roasts, and bags of fruit. She then reaches down to the bottom of the pile, feels the weight of one package against another, squeezes a steak to see if it is tender, tries to push back the cardboard to see how much fat there is, argues with her neighbor over who saw that steak first, and pummels, pokes, and pinches every package she can lay her hands on.

All up and down the meat counter, on a typical Friday afternoon, are hundreds of women mauling packages, fighting over supposedly tender steaks, squeezing and yanking, pulling and tearing. If my grandmother could see it, she would scream with delight and wade in with the best of them.

Sanitary? In the world of supermarkets, appearances arc all that count, and sanitary they appear to be. Some years ago, public health officials began setting standards on milk. Most states now require that milk offered for public sale have fewer than 10,000 bacteria per cubic centimeter when examined under a microscope. Various public bodies have been trying to set standards on other foods, too. But few state legislatures have gone along with them. After all, milk can be partially sterilized by pasteurization. However, fruit, fish, and meat are perfect cultures for the growth of most bacteria.

A national trade magazine reported recently on the bacteria count in hot dogs under different conditions of storage. The product, upon being removed from the smokehouse, tested at six bacteria per cubic centimeter. After one week under normal storage conditions, wrapped in cellophane, it was inhabited by 500,000 bacteria per cubic centimeter. Within a month the count had risen to two million. Tests conducted on packaged meats in a self-service showcase reveal bacteria counts in excess of 100,000 after three days.

I dare say that a check in a butcher shop in the outlying provinces of France would show no worse a record, once the fly spots had been discounted.

If this seems a bleak picture of that great American institution, the supermarket, none such was intended. In reality, the supermarket is a boon to life, a leavening in the drab dull week of existence. Within the atmosphere of a great fair, husband and wife together push their shiny carts past row upon row of plenty, gadgets and foods never even thought of before, vast amounts of everything anyone could ever need. It is like a child’s dream. Sugarplums dance in gold-foil boxes, soft drinks are piled in kaleidoscopic confusion, and, as in every good dream, all desires and wishes come true. The supermarkets provide for the customer the illusion of saving money, and they combine a proper modern sanitary atmosphere with the opportunity to engage in the most primitive of human activities — pinching steaks.