Life with a Smile: Cultural sensitivity in aisle seven

By Kate Snyder

Contributing writer

Last weekend, I traveled around the world inside the span of two hours. Yes, friends, I made the pilgrimage to Jungle Jim’s International Market in Cincinnati. It was insane. For those not yet initiated into the ranks of Jungle Acolytes, let me set the stage for you. There are life-sized painted statues of giraffes, rhinos and other African critters grouped around a large waterhole just outside the entrance. The façade of the building is covered in faux trees, vines and shrubbery. And that’s just the outside.

The store bills itself as “More than a grocery store, it’s a destination!” I can see why. The large animatronic puppets scattered throughout the store are definitely not native to any grocery store I’d ever visited previously.

Shortly after arrival, I was busily engrossed in counting the varieties of goat cheese in one particular refrigerator case — I was up to 32 —when the friend I was with gently pointed out that the entire case was goat cheese and that perhaps I might want to save myself the effort.

It was like that throughout the store. To give you a small sense of the scale of this madhouse, there is an actual firetruck parked in the hot sauce section. That’s right. The hot sauce section is large enough to warrant emergency vehicles for display purposes.

There was also an authentic-looking tuk-tuk (a motorized three-wheeled taxi) suspended in the air above the Indian spices and 50- pound bags of rice. I gleefully picked through garam masala, amchoor (powdered mango) and gulab jamun mix while regaling my friend with tales of zipping around downtown Delhi in just such a vehicle.

Another fantastic section was populated entirely by British candies, sparking many memories of my semester abroad in Glasgow, Scotland. I fondly admired the array of Cadbury products, well beyond the cream eggs that appear each Easter in the U.S., and squealed with delight at the discovery of Maltesers, which are sort of like Whoppers but so much better.

I wandered happily through the aisles for an hour, amassing an utterly random assortment of treasures, including frozen samosas, chocolate-filled koala bear cookies, a block of garlic herb cheese, champagne mangoes and dark chocolate granola. Oh, and a pair of socks. What? They were cool.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” He’s quite right, of course. Traveling requires you to see the world from another perspective, to step into the shoes of those who live in other places under other conditions. You’re never quite the same after traveling somewhere new and different.

Now, I’m not sure I want to go so far as to say that Jungle Jim’s can cure narrow-mindedness — that does seem like a rather tall order for a grocery store, no matter how fantastic — but going there is definitely a reminder of the limitations of your own experience. I was genuinely humbled by the root vegetable section, gazing at taro, yucca, daikon and cassava and realizing that my consumption of potatoes (even sweet potatoes) represents such a small slice of the edible world.

Culinary humility is a good thing. So is cultural humility, and the two are interconnected. Experiencing and appreciating another country’s food is a way of experiencing and appreciating their culture. It’s something we should all strive for, even if it sometimes comes in the form of a wacky international supermarket.