Monday, October 2, 2017

Tales From the Food Crypt

Wading Through Aisles of Expired Food in Prague

If you're just passing through Prague, you won't notice them. They're harmless looking grocery stores that you would easily pass in favor of supermarket chains like Albert, Tesco, Kaufland, or Lidl. You would be correct in your passing. But I'm here to tell you how the other half lives.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the levne potraviny, aka 'cheap groceries.' These places are just chock full of expired goods and bads from rich Western countries. And people shop there. And more of these stores open every year. People are too poor to care, so they shop, they buy, and they suck down more old sausages than a train station hooker.

Top 10 Least Successful Food Chains

I'll never forget one of Letterman's Top 10 Lists, which featured names of the least successful food chains. But I could only remember 'Food Crypt' and 'Risky's.' So I Googled the motherhumper:

Top 10 Least Popular Supermarket Chains - May 3, 1990

10. Pick 'n' Lick
9. Larva Town
8. Food Crypt
7. Risky's
6. Price Hiker
5. Rex Reed's Grocery Rodeo
4. The Expiration Date Grab Bag
3. I'm-Not-Wearing Pantry
2. Hitler's
1. Bag This!

Since Germany and Austria border Czechia, it's probably too soon to open a Hitler's. But The Expiration Date Grab Bag is open for business, and it's turning a brisk trade.

Prague Suburbs: Industrial Wastelands and Soviet Housing Blocks

It wasn't always this way. In Commie Times, Czechs huddled in their cozy concrete high rise flats with fizzling sparks of socialist joy warming their cold hearts. There were exactly two shops: the one where they bought all of the usual Czech sludge: goulash, dumplings and cabbage, and the one where they stood in line for hours to get oranges, bananas, or any other fruits from warm countries outside of the frozen Eastern Bloc.

I've lived in a few panelaky, or gray, Commie housing blocks. They crush the soul, truly they do. Now I live in an old 1900s, pre-Soviet building in an industrial suburb, as usual, not because I can't afford to live in the tourist-besieged Prague center, but because I like cheap rent. And quiet nights. I live in Praha-Liben, a downtrodden neighborhood that is slowly looking up. My Libenese neighbors are mostly poor working class folks living in a few old, crumbling buildings.

The sprawling O2 Arena and mall complex are at the end of our street, and in between us and mass consumerism are some newfangled apartments for a mish-mash of various nouveau-riche slobs from Slobovia, One street over, there's a few ubytovna buildings, or dorm housing for Ukie laborers. And there's your garden variety poor Czechs who pine away for the good old days of Communism in their absinthe dementia.

The Expiration Date Grab Bag

Czechia has long been a dumping ground for inferior goods from richer countries. What's worse, the exact same German brand of juice you buy in Germany for 1 EUR is 2 EUR here. And it's worse quality. And Czechs make half what the Germans make. But one thing is certain: they don't throw away their food here like in Western countries. They just drop the prices.

So we go to the Food Crypt or the Risky's. There are at least three in our neighborhood, which tells you all you need to know. I buy expired food and I'm not ashamed. It's radically reduced in price, and mostly familiar Western brands. So what if the box of Kellogg's Special K breakfast bars are a few months after the sell-by date? There are enough preservatives in those little chocolate bastards to embalm an elephant. And they cost a quarter per box, rather than 1 EUR. Now THAT's economy. I save money on both food and embalming.

Not all foods are expired. Some are past their 'best by' date, and some poor products are just victims of bad marketing or differences in consumer tastes. Central Europeans hate spicy things, so there is a dearth of spicy sauces, Cajun whatsits, South American marinades, and exotic BBQ sauces at discount prices. I buy them all. My wife thinks I'm mad. But no two BBQ sessions taste the same, I tell ya.

Shopping With Various Slobs From Slobovia

The Food Crypt is full of a fine cast of characters. We don't have Walmart. We have the Food Crypt. I can show up in my worst clothes, unwashed, hair sticking up, tartar sauce on the crotch of my trousers, and nobody bats an eye. The other day I entered the Crypt. A hunched homunculus with a walrus mustache, coke bottle glasses, greasy ball cap, and a fake gold chain crossed my path. He was wearing a faded t-shirt with English lettering (a perennial favorite here): Czech Made Man. It was almost like the cover of that Fat Boy Slim album. He and the usual assortment of gypsies, tramps and thieves were wandering the aisles. I don't know which of those categories I fall into, but I'm leaning toward the tramp.

Sucking Down More Klobasa Than a Train Station Hooker

I pick up a box of my favorite expired breakfast embalming bars, skip over the expired chips and dips, and head to the meat section. There is always a human clog in the meat section at all times. Not just because Czechs are big meat eaters (heh), but because there is an actual law the prevents the selling of expired meats in the EU. So there I head, looking for discount salamis thrown over from Germany. My favorite brand of smoked salami is Houdek, a Czech-sounding-yet-made-in-Germany brand. They're extra smokey and delicious. And the meat is of a higher quality than the usual tubes of lips and assholes you buy in Czechia.

Score! There, wedged in between the slab of greasy bacon and the hunk of unidentified meat! Houdek kabanos, with cheese! My favorite! Whoa, mama, I could hardly find these babies in Germany, they were so popular. There they were 2 EUR for a pack of two. Here they are only 75 cents per package. So I bought almost ALL OF THEM. Why not? They don't expire til the end of November, and I have a big freezer.

So I swaggered out of the Food Crypt with an armload of German salami and a 3-liter box of Italian wine. All for less than a tenner. I don't plan to live on this diet for too long. And if it keeps up, I probably won't. But I am a Wide Body Jetsetter living LARGE in Post-Communist Czechia. And a Czigga's gotta eat.

"Get Your Old School Cartoon Bombs Here!"


Anonymous said...

You really don't want to know about the Houdek family... but I'm telling you anyway. They were Czech, but under the Nazi occupation collaborated shamelessly - producing canned spam for the Wehrmacht in the former synagogue in Usti nad Labem. And then they fled to Bavaria, where all such sins are forgiven...... Believe me, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to meet one member of the family.

Craig Robinson said...

D'OH! Now I can't eat Houdek without the taste of NAZI? Thanks alot, dudek! Ignorance WAS bliss. Thanks for the comment. I will admit that as an unrepentant consumer of white trash comfort food (hence my wideness), I don't really put too much thought into what I throw down my throat. I eschew health food, fad diets, and the overpriced, organic grapes of wrath. I just remember that in over 6 years living in Berlin, Houdek cheese salamis were my favorite. Out of HUNDREDS. I tried a metric fuckton of salamis and sausages, most of which probably still lines my intestines. So I've probably got bigger concerns than the family history of a sausage king. But making shopping choices based on family name is probably ineffective, as most products have been bought, sold, merged and parented by bigger companies. Also, I don't care if Houdek fed Nazis. Somebody had to feed those swine. And if the Nazis loved Houdek salamis with cheese as much as I do, then they had excellent taste. But shitty politics.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see a reply and not a long string of (commercial hence inedible) spam. For me, knowing how the Czech nation shamelessly collaborated within the non-Sudeten region - I'm going to advise a careful read through "The Expulsion of Gerda Schnirch" (by Kateřina Tučková, translation by ???) - I enjoy the genuinely Nazi meats over the pseudo Nazi meat from the Andrej Babiš econo-government conglomerate.

And still I should remind you that even Houdek Nazi Spam is morally vanilla. Head over to Kolin, where they make Zyklon B to the original recipe!!!!

Craig Robinson said...

Morally Vanilla sounds like a pop band. Like Simply Red. :D

- Big Sir