There are no maps for Wegmans stores. They are vast, uncharted interior spaces. Constant floorplan rearrangements keep even regular customers unsure of what they will find, but automatic doors at the entrance promise a temperature-controlled vacuum, free of germs and disease. The piles of shining vegetable health that make up the store’s produce section suggest ordered bounty; this is nature civilized. A grandmotherly employee smiles above her apron and offers fresh caramel dip and a plateful of colorful apple slices—you are assaulted by an array of emotions, including a strange urge to call your grandmother. Instead, you crunch down on a wedge of caramel-flavored apple.
Wegmans is the adventure of exploration contained and transformed into marketing strategy. It is unmapped but ordered, perpetually new and yet absent of danger. Wegmans therefore sells white, middle-class America its own ideal history, its own perfect home, masking personal and cultural fragmentation. In a recent commercial Danny Wegman, clad in a shirt patterned with interweaving cornstalks, suggested that Wegmans produce traces its heritage back to the "Native Americans (who) grew corn here a thousand years ago." Homogeneous white consumerism becomes the inevitable descendent of a seamless American history; "our" Puritan ancestors sit at the Thanksgiving table with their Indian brothers, and Wegmans sells tasty corn as a result.
The stores allow suburban shoppers to slip nostalgically back into their fourth-grade history textbooks without forcing them to acknowledge the split between an ideal and a real America. This is the fracturing that Washington Irving struggles to smooth over in his Life of Columbus; unlike Irving, Wegmans’ middle-class shoppers can romanticize American history without confronting the reality of Indian acculturationi. Wegmans’ deliberate presentation of a simulacral America allows the challenge of the unknown within the safety of brick and glass. The perpetually clean, untouched bounty of the produce section is "the discovery" without the genocide, the destruction. Plywood Indians offer brightly-colored vegetables; they are yours to buy and consume by right.
The safe yet unmapped space of Wegmans, arranged for effortless discovery and consumption, bears striking resemblance to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European representations of the "new" world. Mapmaking exploded during this period; small, sketched efforts with limited focus became high art created for an information-hungry continent. The concentration was often on presentation rather than accuracy. Maps with continent boundaries that trailed off into empty Arctic space were ornately decorated with idealized scenes of European adventurers and docile Indians surrounded by the plentiful wonders of the New World. Mapping was intended as documentation for future trade; however, changes in the tradition offered more than clear navigational routes to a Europe confronted by the true size and unfamiliarity of the world. Colonialist maps usually represent the world as two distinct halves separated by the Atlantic, which is placed centrally. The "Old" and therefore known is on the right, and the alien "new" is relegated to the left. This is reminiscent of theological distinctions between right and left—in Christian lore, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, while the left is the place of Jews, witchcraft, and masturbation. Twentieth-century cartography has inherited this tradition of misrepresentation. Distortion is inevitable; no map can portray landmasses in a 1:1 scale. Yet as Geoff King discusses, the science that originated in military planning dismisses distortion as "noise," suggesting the random selection of sound or radio waves rather than the strategic choices of human mapmakersii. Cartographic traditions accepted as normative clearly emphasize different regions of the planet. Placing north at the top of the map distorts the continents to privilege Europe and make the Southern Hemisphere appear less prominent. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century maps promise a Europe suddenly confronted by its own smallness that it is the center of the known universe. The "new" world can be known, placed within a hierarchical European system. It is the Garden of Eden; its creatures can be named and overseen by a white Adam, and its bounty enjoyed through the blessings of God.
Stepping out of the shining, simple beauty of the store’s produce section, you are suddenly thrown into a confusing maze of "ethnic/gourmet food." Looking around in wonder, you realize that the world of food is spread before you like a vast buffet; mottled, clay-like floor tiles and hanging light fixtures complete the simulacral "Old World" that you are invited to "taste." The labyrinthine arrangement of this section serves marketing strategy—customers who walk obediently to the right, away from the checkout lanes, must wander through high-priced gourmet and bakery items in order to reach the dairy section and the warehouse-like aisles of packaged staples. Yet this right-hand side of the store suggests an idealized white American identity through its mapping of an "Old World." Borders are blurred: "Taste of the Orient" merges into "Olives of the World," French and Italian bread and cheeses mingle together and are made identically "other" to the American consuming viewer. The bare formality of half an aisle separates the "Thai" rice mixes (made in California) from the Goya Arroz con Gandules, and each ethnic signifier is contained within an Americanizing "safety seal." The world can be reduced to its food, dehydrated and salted to suit the American palate, and effortlessly ingested. Therefore, the world map represented through the split between the complex labyrinth of "ethnic" food and the uniform aisles of familiar staples on the left side of the store indicates a sense of historical and geographic progress. The distortions of European colonialist maps are redrawn to place the American consumer at the center of a new strategic cartography in which all other countries become tiny, plywood islands with new names in ethnocentric American English. Moreover, Wegmans’ floorplans indicate a belief in national progress as well through a gradual loss of ethnic signifiers. The "melting pot" of an ethnically marked East cooks difference down into a hybridized, uniform, and logically surveyed West.
The labyrinthine arrangement of Wegmans’ gourmet section suggests adventurous exploration while defusing it of danger, tapping into British gardening traditions that normalized domination over landscape. English hedge mazes offered the challenge of exploration without the terror of the unknown. Although there were often several routes, the single final destination suggested a meaningful, pre-ordained system. The labyrinths of Classical mythology are ambiguous, terrifying places that offer no certain conclusion; challengers face death, loss, and insanity. The British model promised a solution and substituted the final monstrous challenge of Classical myth with a raised platform from which the successful could look out over the entire maze, achieving in one imperial glance absolute knowledge of the logic beneath a formerly confusing order. English labyrinths were largely limited to the gardens of the aristocracy, but their increasing popularity (in smaller scale) with the newly-monied, bourgeois squirage indicated the capacity of hierarchical structures to incorporate the changing social demographics resulting from colonialist trade. Anyone with sufficient income to hire a good gardening crew was the equal of the Greek heroes; money became the means of mastery over a navigable, knowable world.
Wegmans offers white, middle-class shoppers an ordered system arranged for their consumption; it allows them to "eat the other," as bell hooks would suggest. Yet the supermarkets present a "diversity" that is white and historical. This serves to make difference homogenous; moreover, the other consumed within these stores is a recognizable white past. Consumers are eating themselves as well as a safe representation of more threatening, contemporary non-white "others." Within these walls, assimilation is not acculturation, and food fills the void left by the fundamental separation of white Americans from their immigrant ancestries. Through the "Taste of Italy" section, the second- or third-generation Italian-American can eat Nonna’s cooking without the sense of discomfort and loss involved in actually visiting Nonna, who always remains fundamentally Italian and other. Danny Wegman reminds us that his "imported specialty cheeses cost more than Velveeta, but less than a trip to Italy!" Wegmans promises the echo of Italian to the non-speaker, the trace of the originary language. The stomach is, after all, the place of the soul--Italian ancestry can be reabsorbed in the digestion of a good mozzarella. This ingested other/self is certainly more palatable, less costing than a confrontation with the bitter fact that the (non) Italian-American is forever separated from a pre-American selfhood.
Wegmans "Old World" has lost its charm in your annoyance with its maze of narrow, crowded aisles, which converges into a bottlenecked square at the back of the store. Looking up to glare at the man whose cart is blocking your own, you spot an open space behind him--gleaming white floortile and industrial overhead lighting beckon. You must only make it through this chaotic Ellis Island of interim space to complete your journey from the Old to the New. You become machine-like—pushing, jostling, waiting impatiently—and suddenly you are out. Your eyes register a sudden change in lighting. The plastic-wrapped rectangles of ordered rows of Wonder Bread seem sliced out of the air and metal which surrounds them—they are shiny, colorful, efficient, and promise a full day’s supply of Vitamin A in every serving. Those bumpy baguettes you admired in the French bakery seem rustic and inadequate when compared with these representatives of an assembly-line America. Here, bread is available to all—without the crowds, without the high prices of unpredictable, hand-made loaves. The Wegmans "Buffalo Bills" section faces the packaged bread. Team clothing and "Buffalo Burgers" proclaim your return home.
An elderly Wegmans employee is preparing free samples at the entrance to the "Organic Foods" section. She stands behind a countertop; her hair is pulled back and she’s wearing an apron. Smearing a wheat cracker with Wegmans brand soft cheese, she looks up to smile at you. "Cracker, honey?" There is an oddly comforting familiarity about the way she pushes her bifocals into place with her wrist; you struggle to place the image, and realize that she reminds you of someone in a t.v. commercial. The employee watches with interest as you take her offering. Biting into it, you feel obligated to mumble and gesticulate. "Mmmmm...Um. Thanks." The employee smiles to herself and resumes her work.
Wegmans sells packaged domesticity. Each supermarket disguises the fact that it is a large structure with contained sections. Bakeries and delis are named for nearby streets, and empty window frames are hung on the walls to suggest a series of independent establishments situated on the "Main Street" of a small town. Plants, flowers, and fruit are arranged to suggest a natural environment, in much the same way that shopping mall planners import trees and benches to present a simulacral "downtown strip." The fruit is "local" as well as "fresh," and the company is "family owned and run." This serves to divert attention from the corporate nature of the store, yet the disguise is clearly fake. It is the simulacra itself, its attention to both nostalgia and convenience, that customers find reassuring. Pamphlets offer a proliferation of childrearing, cooking, and nutritional advice; Danny Wegman becomes a concerned yet authoritative male voice addressing "feminine" issues. The employees who offer free samples are unfailingly women. They are substitute aunts and mothers who prepare "fresh-made" goods and look on as you eat them. This is the "cult of the domestic" recognized as mythical and inaccessible, yet simultaneously marketable. Within the space of Wegmans, the market is the home; by extension, as Don DeLillo suggests in White Noise, the home becomes the market. The aproned mother-figure of the commercials can be bought only in the refrigerated section of the supermarket—the Pillsbury mom is so much more reliable than a real one. Food equals love quantified, made definable, certain.
Post-Industrial society relied on the home as the source of private, individual identity for a male workforce increasingly alienated from its own laboriii, yet required the housewife’s consumption of products to fuel an industrial economy. Therefore, the housewife became the focus of increasing marketing strategy even as she was represented as removed from it. Mid-century housewives are "overworked"; they require magical products that will cook and clean for them, allowing them to remain aloof, untouched. Yet housewives of the 1960s and ‘70s actually spent more time working than had their predecessors in the ‘20siv. Vacuum cleaners and washing machines did make housework easier; the increase in hours spent on domestic tasks suggests not the failure of technology but the success of the consumption ethic. A mid-century domestic ideal had become synonymous with the goals of a commercial marketplace; women were domestic managers who spent their husbands’ incomes on the consumer goods that ensured a strong economy. Women’s work had changed, as cookbooks that span the period suggest. The Joy of Cooking and Fanny Farmer juxtapose traces of pre-industrial domestic work with mid-century standards. These multi-editioned texts retained recipes for the basic "bread and stew" meals of an agricultural America even as they increasingly focused on the "meal planning" required for the extensive, themed food displays of 1950s society entertaining. Therefore, while basic tasks had indeed become easier and the bodily labor of the housewife less important, women were increasingly constrained to the "domestic arts"—tasks requiring small-muscle movement and obsessive detail. Standards of cleanliness changed to increase demand for better cleaning supplies. Commercials taught paranoia about germs and dirt, resulting in a shift in "feminine nervous disorders." Mid-century housewives had nervous breakdowns about dust, and were more likely to be diagnosed with depression than their predecessors. Doctors wrote thousands of prescriptions for female patients; speed, tranquilizers, and valium were guaranteed to "perk her up" and "calm her down."
Housewives therefore played two roles. They were the household consumers, yet the myth of their separation from the market was necessary to the identity of husbands who found little room for individuality through their own work within that market economy. This led to an inevitable fracturing of women’s identities and roles. Unlimited consumption requires two incomes, and Supermom can’t work outside the home and continue to put in 56 hours per week of elaborate cleaning and meal preparation. The market’s success in recreating the domestic as a commercial product left it with no real home to sell. Yet Americans don’t want the real home. Shoppers recognize that Wegmans employees and Pillsbury moms are impossible caretaker figures, yet still believe in the marketed ideal they represent. Our own homes, mothers, families seem inadequate, unsatisfying. I talked to one man who, while going through a divorce, found himself inexplicably satisfied by trips to Wegmans. Even as he described the store’s presentation of domesticity and women’s roles as "outdated," he was deeply comforted by the fact that he could rely on finding aproned women there who would prepare him snacks. Although he indicated that he would never hold "a real woman" to that ideal, within the space of Wegmans he can experience a romanticized American domesticity that he recognizes to be an empty marketing ploy; he is sold a fake woman, an impossible home. His nostalgia for a domestic that never existed historically ensures his unsatisfied hunger and unlimited consumption. The aproned female figure that will never exist at home waits at Wegmans, soft cheese product in hand.
Notesi. A Tour on the Prairies documents Irving’s 1832 trip with U.S. Indian Commissioner Henry Leavitt Ellsworth to the Oklahoma territory, during which he sent intelligence reports on newly-formed Osage reservations to the U.S. Department of War. However, throughout A Tour Irving expresses admiration for Osage resistance to acculturation. In 1838-39 the Department of War displaced Koweta, Broken Arrow, and Lochapoke peoples from their lands and forced them to walk the "Trail of Tears" to reservations in Oklahoma. Unknown numbers died of exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease.
ii. Mapping Reality. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.
iii. See Gillian Brown, Domestic Individualism. Berkeley: UC Press, 1992.
iv. 56 hours/ week, according to Juliet Schor, versus 51 in the mid-‘20s.