The grocery store of the mind

On my desk is a detailed miniature shaker of McCormick crushed red pepper flakes. The bottle is small enough to be pinched between your thumb and forefinger; it looks like it’s made to fit in an anthropomorphic hedgehog’s grocery store.

I keep it for its brain calming properties. There is something strangely relaxing about a banal item inexplicably shrunk into a fetish item. Sometimes I unfold a small paper bag and place the little pepper bottle inside, along with a small can of Spam, a small bottle of Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter, and a small tube of Gourmet Garden Chunky Garlic Stir-In Paste.

There is no tiny food in any of these tiny packages. They are called Mini Brands and represent the released brand of the product. Zuru, the toy company that sells Mini Brands, has featured dozens of household miniatures since its debut in 2019, including tiny bottles of Tresemmé, tiny rounds of Babybel cheese, and tiny antibacterial Wet Ones wipes. On Instagram, you can find Mini Brands clutching the dexterous claws of famous hamsters and chinchillas, and on TikTok, influencers like @minibrandsmom film themselves searching for the 2-inch treasures in big box stores and opening the complex packaging with a hypnotic rhythm . .

Although Mini Brands are nominally marketed for children, they scratch the itch of adults: for the lost pleasures of the grocery store experience. I discovered Mini Brands through writer Emily Gould, who told me that Mini Brands “has the comforting everyday convenience of a trip to the old grocery store,” adding, “Which, you know, doesn’t exist anymore.”

I’d never thought to appreciate the feeling of mindlessly gliding through supermarket aisles, reveling in the mundane variety of differentiated food brands. But suddenly I’m in tune with what I was missing: I feel it in my little McCormick shaker, in the dreamy pre-pandemic grocery footage of “How To With John Wilson”, and in the deranged enthusiasm of the revived game show “Sweep of Supermarket “.

Miniatures of all kinds have experienced a pandemic hit. As the virus spreads abroad, hobbyists can at least flex control of their own little worlds. Mini Brands serves a nostalgia for the very recent past, when the grocery store represented a family extension; it was a place where, as Allen Ginsberg said in “A Supermarket in California,” a person could go “to buy pictures.” Now that same space feels anxious and claustrophobic, recast as a potential infection site and a backdrop for violent clashes between neighbors, captured by shaky cell phone videos.

You can still go to the grocery store, but you can’t get lost there anymore. Instead, you can stock your own small supermarket by ordering 5 Mini Surprise Brands! Surprise Ball ($ 6.99 at, then open its linen plastic shell to reveal a random selection of branded miniatures. It’s a reversal of those toy gumball machines parked at the end of the pay lines; now the groceries themselves are the prize. The incidental nature of a Mini Brands acquisition – You never know what you’re going to get: mimic the old impulse shopping pull, where you walk through automatic doors that buzz in search of toothpaste and emerge, bewildered, with a bunch of snacks you might never eat.

If Mini Brands reduces the grocery shopping experience in the palm of your hand, “Supermarket Sweep” oversizes it, dramatizing the errand as an orgiastic ritual. The latest reboot of “Supermarket Sweep” debuted on ABC in October (previous versions aired in the 1960s, 1990s, and early 2000s). It is filmed in a fake store built inside a 35,000-square-foot hangar at the Santa Monica Municipal Airport; In each episode, contestants ride through it, loading hundreds of pounds of gold-wrapped hams, liquid laundry detergent, and giant cans of giant green corn onto their carts.

Mini Brands suggests that the grocery store iconography contains hidden treasures. “Supermarket Sweep” makes it explicit. As in “The Price Is Right,” arcane knowledge of consumer culture is greeted with outsized rewards: contestants who can instantly recall the brand of snacks that almost rhymes with “mojitos” (Doritos) or the accessory that the Energizer uses. Bunny (flip flops) can win tens of thousands of dollars.

At first glance, the new “Supermarket Sweep” represents a narrative triumph over Covid-19. The unmasked contestants fly gleefully down its aisles, and the show’s track teacher, Leslie Jones, turns into a virtuous performance as the rare American excited to work inside a grocery store.

But there is something odd about its glossy high-definition look. Reviewing old episodes from the ’90s version, which were available on Netflix last summer, reveals the missing texture: a roaring studio audience waving bottles of Mountain Dew and Snuggle fabric softener in the air; contestants huddled in the produce section, the perms brushed the shoulder pads; host, former soap opera actor David Ruprecht, dressed as a youth pastor, hugs the winners as the credits roll. The vast, antiseptic, and eerily muted presentation of the new version only emphasizes what a controlled simulation looks like in a studio. Seeing contestants frantically loading food onto their carts, they begin to look like hoarders stocking up for the looming pandemic on the outskirts.

The disaster novel, as Hillary Kelly recently noted in The New Yorker, often describes such desperate shopping sprees. In these narratives, the supermarket stands as a monument to consumer culture. Its breadth of offerings (or lack thereof) works as a class marker, and with its shelf-stable foods, unusually ripe ripe produce, and wasteful packaging, it arrogantly asserts control over the natural world even as it accelerates its decline.

In Don DeLillo’s 1985 apocalyptic novel, “White Noise,” the gleaming grocery store is framed as a symbol of illusion, covering the signs of social and ecological collapse: “Everything was fine, it would still be fine, it would eventually get even better. more. as long as the grocery store doesn’t slip. ”And in Rumaan Alam’s“ Leave the World Behind, ”published last year, a yuppie’s trip to a Hamptons market, where he spends hundreds of dollars on organic hot dogs, a “jar of locally made pickles,” $ 12 maple syrup and “three pints of Ben & Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream” – it’s your final act of joyous privilege before a mysterious disaster changes your life.

The grocery store’s cultural fall from consumer paradise to paranoid contagion center is captured in real time on “How To With John Wilson,” the jewel box for an HBO show built around poetic imagery and New York documentary filmmaker Wilson’s cunning. In one of the first episodes, Wilson takes a trip to the supermarket, where he meets a man whose mind is full of false memories of the items on the shelves. (Remember, for example, that the smiling sun in Raisin Bran’s box was wearing sunglasses.) The man belongs to a collective dedicated to suggesting conspiratorial explanations for this phenomenon – aliens, perhaps, or alternate universes – but the easiest answer is that the mindless iconography of the grocery store has become so deeply ingrained in the American mind. that even the products themselves seem less real than our imagined versions.

Later in the series, Wilson returns to a market, only to find a seemingly endless line of shoppers snaking through the aisles, carts full of provisions as the virus invades the city. This was, in hindsight, a mistake – unmasked crowds loitering inside for hours – but it speaks to the irresistible pull of the supermarket as a psychic haven, even when in fact it is a threat.

Lately, I have been gravitating towards different types of Mini Brands images. Not the collections that were carefully posed on Instagram, but the photos posted alongside one-star reviews on Posted by frustrated and regretful buyers of Mini Brands. Mini Mart stage, reveal scenes of devastation: mini plastic shelves that hang from their mini hinges; mini Cool Whip containers tucked into mini coolers; mini boxes of cereal and Boursin cheese scattered on mini tile floors. These images thrill me, not because they transport me back to the idealized store aisle, but because they inadvertently deconstruct it.

In the photos, it looks like the Mini Brands! Mini Mart has been looted and abandoned in the face of an invisible threat. The supermarket has gone down and now the miniature version is also going down.

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