When I visited France earlier this summer, I wasn’t planning on eating that many potato chips.
Ahead of the trip, I imagined the croissants, the choux à la crème, the jambon beurre sandwiches, not to mention dishes I had never heard of and had yet to discover. And boy did I enjoy all that goodness. But as I was sitting at Charles de Gaulle Airport on my way back to the US, I noticed a bag of Lay’s Poulet Rôti in a Relay! convenience store and I couldn’t help but think why not? What is another bag? With that, I happily bought the fried chicken chips and crunched while waiting to board my flight back to New York.
Why did this particular snack made in France (no less from an American brand) fascinate me so much? That’s a question I asked myself at checkout and I’m still asking myself today. I suppose it’s part nostalgia, part fantasy. When I shop in a French supermarket, I pretend, if only for the moments between searching the aisles and exiting through the automatic doors, that my time there is not temporary. And that’s why I always visit local supermarkets and a few regional chain stores when I travel.
Don’t worry. When I travel I still visit them Cold Restaurants that friends, social media and of course magazines say I need to experience, but the grocery stores and local favorite chains really hold my heart.
It all started on a family trip to Philadelphia in high school. I made my parents stop at a Wawa supermarket so I could try the coffee because I heard about the chain from a Tumblr blogger. Being from Southern California, I had romanticized the idea of having such an extensive menu (coffee, hot hoagies, milkshakes!) from a place where you could also pump your gas. It never occurred to me at the time that my hometown chain, In-N-Out Burger, could be a tourist destination for others.
The list goes on: Tim Horton’s was a must-visit on a trip to Montreal, and Dutch Bros was a necessary pit stop on a road trip through Oregon a few years back. It almost doesn’t matter if the food is good, although that certainly helps, but the experience of ordering my morning coffee or grabbing some snacks in a place where thousands of locals do something every day ultimately makes me feel like I’m in a immerse destination. When traveling, why should you take the time to visit a local facility? let me count the ways
You will discover delicious foods that could become your best souvenirs.
On my aforementioned France trip, my boyfriend and I stumbled into a supermarket in Paris late one afternoon, knowing it wouldn’t be until 9pm for dinner, and looking for some snacks.
The chicken rôti chips immediately caught my eye. I remembered buying them almost for fun with my brother on a previous vacation, only to find they were actually delicious. They don’t taste like chicken, but like a hearty mixture of herbs and lots of salt.
Whenever we passed a Carrefour or Monoprix this time, we’d stop to buy some fries, often a much-needed snack between meals, sightseeing and vintage shopping. They became such a staple that on our last night in Paris we grabbed another taste of poulet rôti plus a bottle of wine and sat by the Canal Saint-Martin, enjoying the uncompromisingly French snack as much as our canal view.
You’ll learn about a destination’s local culture in an authentic way.
As we strolled the aisles of the market on that first day in Paris, I grabbed the chips without hesitation. However, I watched as other shoppers (presumably Parisian) snatched up boxes of biscuits, glass bottles of juice, cheese and fresh produce, and imagined the dishes they would prepare when they returned home to their chic Parisian apartments. (They keep coming back to chic Parisian apartments in this supermarket daydream).
They would gather supplies to cook dinner, feed their kids, or make a dessert they wanted to bring to a party just like I do at home. But seeing, touching and smelling their local ingredients offers a glimpse into local life in a way you can’t experience by simply walking the streets or visiting museums.
I asked a few friends if they shared a similar fascination with visiting grocery stores when they travel, and surprisingly, I got a lot of agreement. A friend mentioned that while in London she developed a fondness for Jaffa Cakes and Hob Nobs and these snacks are closely tied to her memories of her time there. Another even went so far as to say that when she was growing up, her mother would take her to local grocery stores “literally everywhere we traveled.”
You will have a reason to return (and a mission when you get home).
Of course, it didn’t take long for me to see if I could buy Lay’s Poulet Rôti chips again in New York. I wasn’t lucky at first. I’ve seen Reddit threads and tweets full of admiration for snacks and more online discussion than you’d expect a simple potato chip to get across. And while it’s possible to order online from a third party, you’d probably be risking your sanity (and food safety) to do so.
However, some brands like SnackCrate offer international snack subscription boxes that make foreign treats more accessible, both for travelers looking to relive their favorite trips and for those looking for a touch of home when they’re far away. But perhaps the unattainability of these travel-discovered snacks is part of their appeal — you need to savor them while you can in the hopes that one day you’ll return and savor their salty, slightly chicken-like goodness once again.
While a grocery or convenience store might not be the first stop on your next trip, I’d suggest squeezing one between these sightseeing tours, museums, and Michelin-star restaurants. You’ll get a glimpse of life somewhere else, be it across the country or across the world, and gain an appreciation for delicacies and ingredients you wouldn’t find at home. You might even find your new favorite type of potato chips.