For when you're in London and require a Pop-Tart
“All my British friends know this list by heart,” says Cyr, a Washington, DC native who’s lived in Britain for three years. Cyr says she’s not one of those expats who’s always going on about how great America is. “But when it comes to these foods, I turn into this crazy flag-waving version of myself.”
Food can be an emotional issue for expats. At home, Froot Loops may just be cereal, but in a place where you can’t buy them, they take on a whole other meaning.
Cyr says she wouldn’t eat unhealthy things like Pop-Tarts too often in the US. but the scarcity makes her enjoy them more when she can find them. “Maybe it’s because I appreciate them more, and take the time to savor them?” It’s a comfort thing. “A lot of these foods bring back memories of meals with friends and family, or kind gestures,” she says. “Cap’n Crunch is always about the 4th of July with my cousins.”
In London, a little piece of the good old USA can be found in Notting Hill, in a small shop called the American Food Store. Exit the Tube and wander down for five minutes toward Holland Park—swanky address, this—until you see a sign with bold letters draped in stars and stripes.
Breakfast is big in the little shop, and the cereal aisle is front and center. “Cheerios are really popular,” says staff member Sukaina Dewji. “Apple Jacks runs out quick. We sell out cases of Fruity Pebbles—people will come in and get like two cases.” That’s not surprising: Americans in Britain will tell you that the local breakfast cereals are useless. British supermarkets have lots of options, but none of them are nearly as colorful and sugary as the American stuff.
People usually come into the shop knowing in advance what they’re looking for, Dewji says, and many of them are locals. West London has the highest concentration of Americans in Britain, which is home to around 200,000 US-born immigrants. This is also the reason why this little outlet is here. The American Food Store opened in 2008 when Shoaib and Tahira Punjani had to close the Post Office they had been running on the premises since 1972. Following the suggestion of a local American resident, the Punjanis decided to take a chance on importing American pantry staples.
The Aunt Jemima pancake mixes (Complete and Original), along with the syrups (Original, Butter Rich, Lite), are very popular. Hannah Wood, who left Phoenix for London two years ago, says “proper pancakes” are tricky to find in the UK. “Even though lots of breakfast and brunch places have ‘American-style’ pancakes on their menus, I've found they're smaller and less fluffy than pancakes at American chains like IHOP, and weirdly, usually almost crunchy on the outside,” Wood says.
While I was there, more than one person called to enquire about stock and asked for items to be put aside. Kraft Mac & Cheese is very popular, Dewji says; they get shipments every two weeks but they just ran out of cheddar Goldfish, Triscuits, and powdered peanut butter. But there’s still several kinds of Skippy—Super Crunch, Creamy, Honey Nut Creamy, Natural, and Superchunk—plus a few types of Jif. Even a Brit will admit that no one beats the Americans when it comes to peanut butter.
The wide array of choice in American delis and grocery shops was one thing that Joanna Bersin missed when she lived in London for four years. “I’ll revel in that ‘eating a thing made just the way you like it’ feeling. But [in London] I did grow to appreciate the brain space freed up without the decision fatigue that accompanies eating at a diner or shopping at a grocery store,” says Bersin, who recently moved back to the US. “Returning now to giant supermarket aisles, each dedicated to hundreds of flavors and brands of items like organic cereal, diet dog food, carbonated water... I'm fried by the time I check out! But also, I love it.”
It makes sense why someone might travel to the American Food Store, or to Partridge’s in Sloane Square, or Panzer’s in St. John’s Wood, to pick up some Jell-O: The Brits have “jelly,” but it tastes different. The same goes for dryer sheets, grape Fanta, and peanut butter M&Ms, which aren’t available across Britain. The Ziploc bags at the American Food Store make less sense as British supermarkets are flush with sandwich bags, but Dewji says those sell out all the time too. This is about nostalgia as much as anything else.
There’s a lot of happy squealing at the American Food Store when people find the foods they’ve been missing. The UK and US speaks the same language so it’s easy to think it’s all going to be similar, and of course on a global scale, it is. But when everything is subtly different all day every day, sometimes all you want is food that reminds you of a place and a time when everything made sense. And for an American expat in Britain, that’s often the classic cereal that you ate as a kid.