1. Actually, I hear the highly-curated, totally inoffensive, and generally agreeable mix of indie, pop, and classic rock that plays at the perfect volume throughout the store. If you have not had the pleasure of hearing “Wondrous Place” you should either play it immediately, or just imagine the kind of song that “Wondrous Place” would be and you would not be all that far off.
2. My location is in the heart of Lincoln Park to be precise. If the good trader Joe himself was seeking the ideal location to sell his goods, Lincoln Park would check every box territorially and demographically. Littered with young, relatively affluent families, it is representative of the new American gentry grocery stores like Trader Joe’s targets.
3. Trader Joe’s mud pie has 320 calories per serving, so the correct answer is “however many miles it takes to feel good about yourself (2–4).”
4. Decent people. Wholesome people. People who have the same human desires as everyone else. People like me.
5. Righteously or not.
6. The iconic Krautrock/psychedelic-funk band fronted by the famously eccentric Damo Suzuki. I’m not sure of Damo’s opinion of Trader Joe’s, though I am sure the Organic Orange Juice is very high in Vitamin C.
7. “Ege bamyasi,” in Turkish, translates to “Aegean okra,” which is something I could de nitely see being sold at Trader Joe’s in a goofy bottle right next to a pickled vegetable of some kind.
8. If you are unaware of the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, I implore you to Google him. This is a quote of his, “Do you not then hear this horrible scream all around you that people usually call silence?” Steven Spielberg directed two movies about an island that had dinosaurs on it and one about Tom Hanks being stuck in an airport.
9. This is a line from that movie, spoken by a deranged conquistador who would end up on a bamboo raft covered with spider monkeys, “Anyone who even thinks about deserting this mission will be cut up into 198 pieces. Those pieces will be stamped on until what is left can be used only to paint walls.” Steven Spielberg’s characters paint walls with paint.
10. Trader Joe’s is not the only purveyor of such convenience. You can find frozen ethnic dishes at just about any grocery store regardless of price point, but it is the deliberate approach and emphasis that Trader Joe’s takes in this frozen field that warrants this examination.
11. For one, there are a helluva lot more options for Indian food nowadays than there were in 1992 all across the country, not just in urban areas.
12. The Fearless Flyer is TJ’s monthly pamphlet that hawks their seasonal products and food-related cartoons with a kitschy air.
13. Remember that Billy Fury from the first paragraph? For what it’s worth, I probably wouldn’t have ever heard of Billy Fury if The Last Shadow Puppets hadn’t covered “Wondrous Place” in 2008.
14. There is no scientific evidence of this.
15. Trader Joe is a real dude, surname Coulombe, who is still kicking it at 87.
16. 1) Frasier 2) Deputy Hawk of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department 3) Salmon 4) Ken Griffey on the Mariners 5) The twice baked pistachio croissant I had in Capitol Hill in Seattle 5) (tied) The everlasting, bittersweet memory of the Supersonics
17. A frozen, subtly sweet, and perfectly nutty Manu Ginobili.
18. Pastry Puff Dogs would be a great rapper name, but it should be reserved for that red-rose day when Snoop and P. Diddy decide to raise a chubby child together.
Whenever I walk in a Trader Joe’s frozen food aisle, I hear the song “Wondrous Place” by Billy Fury. (1) “I found a place full of charms / A magic world in my baby’s arms / Her soft embrace like satin and lace / A wondrous place.”
I’m not sure how your local TJ’s is laid out, but my local Chicago location (2) places its frosty corridor in the middle of the store. This is proper placement since I believe most people would agree that the frozen aisle is the centerpiece of the entire TJ’s experience. It has the potential to be a question-inducing adventure. You can see your future meals sitting there, untouched and frozen in front of your eyes. Have the leaves turned the color of the pumpkin raviolis? Is the spinach pasta still in stock? How do you pronounce “spanakopita”? What is “spanakopita”? Salmon burgers for five bucks?! How many miles will I have to run to justify this mud pie? (3)
There is an undeniable level of utopianism about the environment Trader Joe’s has created in its 50th year of existence. The unobtrusive, health-care satisfied and readily available Hawaiian shirt-clad battalion of chipper employees compliments your choices while they restock jars of the Trader Joe’s “soyaki” sauce. The charming camp and inexpensive branded items of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities certainly has the smell of being a wondrous thing. Considering the virtues of that convenience and variety, particularly how it applies to the highly curated selection of ethnic foods offered in the frozen aisle, Trader Joe’s presents a kind of quandary regarding matters of personal and cultural authenticity, representation, and appropriation.
I’m of the school of thought that what we eat is a reflection of who we are. The act of eating is almost as relevant to your personal makeup as it is vital in terms of essential sustenance. Foods that we do or do not like are often seen as personality benchmarks to the people we surround ourselves with; whether or not this is fair is up for debate. Some people (4) like ketchup on their hot dogs, while others like to cook their Sharper Image steaks well done; some people “just can’t do” spicy foods, while others go nuts for sushi. Additionally, when a person likes a variety of ethnic cuisines they are invariably (5) viewed as being more cultured or generally enlightened. It can be a badge of personality the same way that wearing a Belle and Sebastian t-shirt can project a degree of twee onto its wearer or a Thelonious Monk poster might suggest that the wall it’s on belongs to a cultured someone who loves jazz or is, more likely, full of shit. If this is the case, what does the ethnically diverse selection of frozen meals that Trader Joe’s offers symbolize? The phenomenon runs parallel with the ways that the curation of an image, authentic or not, through entertainment has changed with the advent of the internet and general issues of appropriation.
The curation of an eccentric image is an act that has drastically changed since the turn of the century in profound ways, namely in terms of convenience. Say I wanted to listen to “Vitamin C” by Can (6) in the year 1992. I would almost certainly have to go in the yellow pages and search for a record store that specializes in that zany kind of scene, go to said specialty record store, and hope they had an import of Ege Bamyasi. (7) However, my desire to listen to Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 1992 could be quenched by listening to a classic rock radio station or going to any establishment that sold music. Movies followed the same story; only instead of Can and Bruce Springsteen it is Werner Herzog (8) versus Steven Spielberg and arthouse theaters versus the local multiplex. A historical culinary example also works here; if I had a taste for Indian food, I either had to make it myself or go out of my way, likely to a city or larger town, to find an Indian restaurant whereas the craving for a cheeseburger can be downed within any ten-mile radius at a low cost. The lines between the cultured and the uncultured were a lot more distinct because of this radical gap in access (or ease of access). Now enter the World Wide Web into the equation and everything changes. Ege Bamyasi is on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube as readily. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (9) is on Amazon Video, Google Play, and iTunes. While you cannot eat vindaloo on the computer (yet), a similar virtue of modernity is applicable and represented by Trader Joe’s. If I have a taste for Indian food I could go to an Indian restaurant, or I could walk five minutes over to TJ’s, buy a package of their frozen lamb vindaloo for five bucks, and eat it that very night in the comfort of my own home. That level of convenience is an extraordinary thing, and a sensation that is easily taken for granted. (10)
Trader Joe’s is not the only contributing factor in this element of the equation, but the way that Trader Joe’s markets itself certainly brings up a few questions worthy of exploration. (11) Unlike most grocery stores, the Trader Joe’s brand goes after a certain image beyond being just “organic” or “locally sourced” the way that a Whole Foods or Kroger-owned grocery store typically does. Trader Joe’s actively curates its kooky image; from the Hawaiian shirts to the Victorian-looking, internationally-swashbuckling air of their “Fearless Flyer.”(12) If you’ve ever been inside one you are certainly familiar with the intentionally kitschy aesthetics. The curated appearance, a combination of cultural variety and calculated garishness, is generally reflexive of the general desire to present one’s “best self” to others. Deliberately picking and choosing what represents us is not necessarily a bad, or at least unavoidable, aspect of being alive in 2018, but when those decisions become so measured and premeditated tricky matters of authenticity and appropriation come into play.
The question then breaches the sensitive question of what is and is not authentic with regards to consumption and how it relates to image. Authenticity is a sticky wicket, but an important one to bash the croquet ball through, particularly with something as elemental as food. Does the fact that the korma fish curry you had for dinner is the Trader Joe’s brand korma fish curry sully the experience all? There are two schools of thought here, one cynical and one a little bit more quixotic. With regards to the former, these dishes are emblematic of a few tricky aspects of contemporary culinary or cultural practices. The Trader Joe’s cover versions of ethnic dishes can be viewed as a prime and problematic example of cultural appropriation; something that most people can agree is a bad thing. It may be korma fish curry, but it was made in a big-ass food production assembly line and comes in a moderately tacky shrinkwrapped box. Furthering that argument is the element of watered-down multiculturalism eaten by listless consumers in search of a cheap culinary thrill. In this sense, the boxes have the feeling of tiny, frozen modicums of the tawdry international plazas at Epcot.
The second school is the more quixotic academy of the two and the one that would use that accusation of flavor sequestering as a means to a greater end. This school points in the direction of any kind of multiculturalism being a good thing, even if the form is somewhat diluted. Eating a frozen version of falafel or vegetable gyoza that comes in a box is not, and cannot be, the same as going to a Palestinian or Japanese restaurant, but tasting those flavors in any context can be a revelatory experience; something of a gateway taste. At least having a rudimentary understanding of another culture’s food, even if it’s a cover version of it, can represent a great step towards a greater sense of empathy with that culture. When those ethnic flavors become an everyday, affordable, and easily-made part of your eating routine, those flavors are no longer “othered” and can be considered as conventional as a cheeseburger. And, if you enjoy the flavors you have so easily accessed, go out and eat them at an ethnic restaurant that specializes in that kind of cuisine.
Ultimately there is less than 5% of me that believes the Polynesian-shirted, Gordo Gekko-esque corporate overlords at the Trader Joe’s headquarters in Monrovia, California have anything resembling draconian ambitions for a monopoly on ethnic cuisine or cultural mutation. The company’s employee-positive policies, coupled with a general sense of adoration for its products, leads me to feel a sense of goodwill about the company’s ethos as a whole. Trader Joe’s is, at its worst, a vexing example of a culinary environment where the borrowing of foreign flavors can be used for financial gain, and, at its best, a progressive representative of a modern world that prides itself on the pursuit of variety and the attempt to build cultural bridges. Accounting for these elements, multiculturalism is always a good thing, if not the single best thing. And eating falafel, paella, and curry is a good thing, even if it’s frozen. (13)
Here is a ranking of my favorite Trader Joe’s frozen items in order of utilitarian value:
1. Whole Grain Waffles: These are, scientifically, the food version of Vitamin Water. (14)
2. “French” Cherry Tomato and Brie Pizza: I amnot sure how French this is, but it’s the only pizza I have ever felt okay with eating by myself, alone, while watching a Ken Burns documentary.
3. Seafood Paella: Trader Joe (15) himself (probably) made a Faustian deal with the devil to be able to freeze fish so well.
4. Organic Kabocha Squash: The first time I bought this I thought it was that “kombucha” stuff that’s all the rage. I was wrong, but the squash is very good.
5. Shrimp Toast: One time I was asked to explain what shrimp toast was to a non-believer and I have never been at a greater loss for words. Shrimp glued to bread with food magic? Crustacean French toast? It’s as di cult to describe as it is tasty.
6. Salmon Burgers: Salmon is one of the five best things from the Pacific Northwest. (16)
7. Korma Fish Curry: Steph Curry shot 41% from deep last year, which is, generously, the same percentage of Americans who can handle curry well.
8. Coconut Chunks: The perfect role-player for your next smoothie. (17)
9. Pastry Puff Dogs: Like pigs in a blanket, but with sesame seeds. (18)
10. Chocolate Butter Tarte: Not sure why there’s an “e” at the end. Imagine a Swiss Miss pudding cup but 70% frozen, 75% chocolatier, and in a pie tin.
John is in the second year of a masters program at DePaul University, on pace to black belt in Communications Studies dojo this coming spring. There are sixteen minutes by foot separating him from the Lincoln Park Trader Joe’s in Chicago. If you like 140 character meditations on baseball, the Grateful Dead, and resolute poppycock, follow him on twitter @johnfauxremus.
Pat is a motion graphics designer and illustrator based in Chicago. He studied Animation at DePaul University where he specialized in hand-drawn animation and storyboarding. He has done work for numerous Chicago based companies, including The Onion, Pitch Podcast, and Gutsy. Currently he is a Creative Director for a real estate investment company. View his full portfolio at patlavin.me