Nikita Khrushchev knew it was over when for just 10 minutes he visited the Quality Foods supermarket in San Francisco on Sept. 21, 1959.


At home the Soviet Premier and First Secretary of the Communist Party well knew Muscovites were doing what they always did, getting in long lines for what little was available.

Khrushchev’s Quality Foods visit is often remembered for “the bedlam” it created as the Russian leader saw the abundance of a typical American supermarket.  He lifted up a bag of apples and inquired about the price.  As he walked the aisles, he asked more questions and handled more products, expressing interest in butter, milk and other dairy items.

“Children screeched with excitement, and a crowd gathered from every direction as the chunky little Russian and his party walked into the (Quality Foods) supermarket near the entrance to the (Stonestown) shopping center,” the Ottawa Citizen reported.  “Spectators attempted to stand pushcarts, photographers climbed atop shelves of canned goods, and the hullabaloo was deafening.”

When President Eisenhower put Premier Khrushchev and his family on a 12-day “Harlem to Hollywood” tour of the U.S. that year, he well knew the powerful impression he would be making on Nikita. 

The American supermarket the Soviet leader was able to see with his own eyes probably had fewer than 10,000 grocery, meat and poultry items  Seeing “ordinary housewives” taking whatever they wanted to the check out line was an incredible challenge to the Soviet system, which produced only misery and shortages, not groceries.

In the 50 plus years since the American supermarket was a player in geopolitics, it has only become a more powerful institution in our lives. It is one of the secular institutions that we all visit  on the order of once a week.  

As of 2010, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) reported American households were spending just under $100 a week on groceries. Their estimates, which vary depending on the size of households, do not seem far off. We’re all making the weekly trek to get what we think we need.

And today, the traditional supermarket carries closer to 40,000 different items. But the traditional supermarket with just a deli, bakery and pharmacy is getting harder and harder to find. In our super-sized world big is the rage.

Again, according to FMI, the grocery business today is divided among the traditional supermarkets, fresh formats, superstores, warehouse stores, super warehouse stores, limited assortment stores, and the small corner grocery store.

Now if I go to my traditional-sized supermarket and I am in the mood to be responsible, I must in theory be willing to read something like 8 million words on those nutritional panels.  

If I go across the street, there is now a super center store that must have 50 percent more items than the traditional supermarket.  So what would I be looking at on labels there?  Something like 12 million words. (And I am all for that information being required to be there).

I know, I need just read the labels on items I am seriously considering purchasing. But, hey, I am man and we get distracted. It was not long ago, I spent a half hour reading the labels on cup cake mixes that I had no intention of buying.

I think we need a technical solution to food labels. Is anyone out there developing a phone app you could set up just to avoid buying anything with so much sugar or fat, and maybe sodium?  I am thinking of something that would be a substitute for having Marion Nestle go with you personally to the grocery store.

We need something or some one because the American supermarket Ike used to wow Nikita with all those years ago is just so much bigger with so many more choices that we are all getting a bit overwhelmed.   

We are at the point where we do not have the time for it.  Those self-service checkouts just take time, and I will never use one.  I’ve never seen anyone get through those easy and quick, unless they are just stealing everything to begin with.

I’ve got a lot of minor complaints about the time I have to spend at the supermarket.

People holding up the line are the worst problem.  Sometimes it’s those people bringing their own grocery bags and who do not know much about packing them.  I’ve also learned that’s not a good time to tell them about the food safety risks contained in those bags due to their harboring bacteria.

Food safety is why I insist on putting anything fresh in one of those plastic bags found in the meat and produce areas.  I even use one for bananas.   But those bags are so slim, it not easy for someone like me–all thumbs–to open them. That adds time too.

Then, even though I am trying to speed through the aisles hitting only those areas where I need to pick up something specific, inevitability another shopper will be blocking one or two of those areas.   I do not know what these people are doing.   I call them helicopter shoppers because they hoover over one spot.

Some of this you just have to put up with.  But my solution is to avoid the super-sized stores and pretty much purchase familiar items to cut my need for reading down. I go to the traditional stores with unionized clerks who I trust. I favor service over price.

I do not want my weekly visit to our most favorite secular institution to take up too much time. If it’s going to do that, I might as well be standing in line in Moscow.