IN PRAISE OF MOM AND POP STORES. There was a bit of discussion on this site and elsewhere toward the end of last week about Andrew Young's criticism of mom and pop grocery stores. Some who disagreed with his racial analysis praised the big chains like Wal-Mart for their ability to potentially provide inner-city residents with quality produce at reasonable prices. And, in general, I agree with the criticism that the mom and pops carry far too many highly-sugared or salted products and very low quality produce, and that chains which put them out of business or force them to improve could be doing inner-city communities a favor. Still, I was reminded over the weekend of one of the great things about the mom and pops, which is that they also frequently carry ethnic foodstuffs that no big American chain will ever stock.
For example, just two blocks up from my neighborhood of new condos and coffee-shops is a still-ungentrified retail and restaurant row that includes two different dollar stores (one run by African-Americans, one by Indian immigrants); a Salvadoran cantina; a pupuseria; a pan-Arab restaurant specializing in the cuisines of Yemen, Somalia, and Egypt; an Ethiopian restaurant; two low-end liquor stores (one run by African-Americans, the other by African immigrants, which does double-duty as a spice and injera outlet); and the Mercadito Ramos. Now, the shelves at the Mercadito look dusty, the wine on sale by the counter proclaims its varietal as "pink," and the produce stocks are limited. But for all that, it's a fantastic full-service Latin-American food store, whose ugly looking avocados are ripe and creamy, unlike the hard, watery, and visually appealing ones you find for twice the price at the Whole Foods not ten blocks away. Same with the mangos: They don't look great, but they are much better than the perfect-looking ones from Whole Foods. Americans are visual snobs when it comes to their produce, but have sacrificed a great deal of taste in their quest for unblemished produce. And as for the slightly damaged peppers, onions, etc., on sale, they are intended for the crock pot and the stove, not salads, where the damage will make no difference but the ripeness will add flavor.
Besides, will stores like Wal-Mart ever carry Salvadoran crema; Mexican-style queso fresco, fundido, and blanco; or three different kinds of horchata drink-mix powders? Will Wal-Mart carry pupusas? Injera and Somalian spices? Goat meat? Corn husks for making tamales? Great big jars of nances in syrup? The complete line of Goya beans and juices? I doubt it. And until they do, the mom and pop places are providing a useful public service to their communities, even if they sell imperfect fruit, or can't provide excellent health benefits.