When I visited France earlier this summer, I didn’t mean to eat so many potato chips.
Before my trip, I envisioned croissants, choux à la crème, jambon-beurre sandwiches, not to mention foods I had never heard of and had yet to discover. And boy, did I enjoy all those treats. But as I was sitting at Charles de Gaulle Airport on my way back to the US, a bag of Lay’s Poulet Rôti fell on me in the relay! shop and I couldn’t help but think Why not? What is another bag? With that, I happily bought some chicken flavored fried chips and crunched while waiting to board my flight back to New York.
Why does this particular snack food in France (from an American brand, no less) fascinate me so much? That’s the question I asked myself in the checkout line, and I’m still wondering. I guess it’s part nostalgia, part fantasy. When I shop in a French supermarket, I pretend, if only in the moments between browsing the aisles and exiting the automatic doors, that my time here is not fleeting. And so whenever I travel, I always visit the local supermarkets and also some regional chain stores.
Don’t worry. When I travel, I still visit cool eateries that friends, social media, and of course magazines tell me I need to try, but grocery stores and local chain favorites are really close to my heart.
It all started on a family trip to Philadelphia in high school. I forced my parents to stop by a Wawa so I could try the coffee because I had heard about the chain from a Tumblr blogger. Coming from Southern California, I romanticized the idea of such extensive menu offerings (coffee, hot food, milkshakes!) from a place where you might as well pump gas. At the time, it never occurred to me that my hometown chain, In-N-Out Burger, might be a tourist destination for others.
The list goes on: Tim Horton’s was an absolute must on a trip to Montreal, and Dutch Bros. was a necessary pit stop on an Oregon road trip a few years ago. It almost doesn’t matter if the food is good, although it certainly helps, but the experience of ordering a morning coffee or grabbing a snack from a place that thousands of locals do every day ultimately makes me feel immersed in the destination. Why should you take the time to visit a local establishment while traveling? Let me count the ways.
You will discover delicious dishes that could become your best souvenirs.
On my aforementioned trip to France, my boyfriend and I found ourselves in a supermarket in Paris one late afternoon, knowing it wouldn’t be dinner time until 9pm, looking for some snacks.
Poulet Rôti chips immediately caught my eye. I remembered buying them almost as a joke with my brother on a previous vacation, but found them to be really tasty. They don’t actually taste like chicken, but a delicious mix of herbs and plenty of salt.
This time, when we passed a Carrefour or Monoprix, we made a quick stop to pick up chips, which are often a much-needed snack between meals, sightseeing and retro shopping. They became such a hit that on our last night in Paris, we grabbed a taste of Poulet Rôti again, along with a bottle of wine, and sat along the Canal Saint-Martin, enjoying the impeccably French appetizers as well as the view of the canal. .
You will learn about the local culture of the destination in an authentic way.
As we meandered through the market aisles that first day in Paris, I grabbed the chips without hesitation. However, I watched as other shoppers (presumably Parisians) grabbed boxes of cookies, glass bottles of juice, chunks of cheese and fresh produce, imagining what dishes they would be making when they returned home to their chic Parisian apartments. (In this supermarket dream, they always return to chic Parisian apartments).
They stocked up to make dinner, feed their kids, or make a dessert to bring to a party, just like I do at home. But seeing, touching and smelling their local ingredients gives you a glimpse into the lives of locals in a way you can’t just walk the streets or visit museums.
I asked some friends if they share a similar passion for grocery shopping when they travel, and surprisingly, I got a big thumbs up. A friend mentioned that she loved Jaffa Cakes and Hob Nobs when she lived in London, and these snacks are closely associated with her memories of her time there. Another even said that growing up, her mother took her to local grocery stores “literally everywhere we traveled.”
You’ll have a reason to come back (and a mission when you get home).
Of course, it wasn’t long before I was looking to buy Lay’s Poulet Rôti chips back in New York. At first I was unlucky. I saw Reddit threads and tweets of admiration for snack foods and more online discourse than you’d expect a simple potato chip to generate. And while it’s possible to order them online from a third-party seller, you might be playing with your sanity (and food safety) to do so.
However, some brands like SnackCrate offer subscription boxes of international snacks, making foreign treats more accessible to both travelers looking to relive their travel favorites and those looking for a taste of home when they’ve moved far away. But perhaps the elusiveness of the snacks discovered during these travels is part of their appeal—you have to enjoy them while you can, with the hope that someday you’ll come back and savor that salty, not-so-chicken flavor again.
While a grocery or grocery store may not be the first stop on your next trip, I’d recommend stopping in between these sightseeing tours, museums, and Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll get a glimpse of life in another place, whether it’s across the country or the world, and gain an appreciation for delicacies and ingredients you might not find at home. You might even find your new favorite potato chip flavor.