Across the Aisle: Exploring Cultures Through International Grocery Stores

Special Projects Director Sylvia Cassidy shares her experience with international grocery stores.


Illustration by Sylvia Cassidy

At the beginning of last December, I stood on the other side of the kitchen counter from my dad. We were trying to come up with ideas to celebrate the holidays after a long, crazy year.

“Can we make a Polish Christmas dinner again?” I asked, recalling the Christmas about eight years ago where I first sampled staples in the Wigilia Supper, or Christmas Eve feast, that my grandmother would prepare my dad when he was younger. 

We made a list of what we wanted to make: potato dumplings (pierogi), beet soup (borscht), and poppy seed rolls (makowiec). After a few wrong turns and overshoots, my dad and I found our way to the Golden Key Market — a mainly Eastern European store and deli here in Louisville. 

The friendly storekeeper welcomed us into the store immediately. He helped us find our ingredients, chuckling with my dad when he mispronounced a few items. The storekeeper even let us liberally sample some kielbasa, making it difficult to not buy a couple of links of our own.  

As we drove home that day, I couldn’t help but notice how many more cultural grocery stores there were not only surrounding the Golden Key Market but dotted across the city. Not only that, these stores were doing pretty well despite the pandemic with a patron or two shuffling in and out of each store. 

I was surprised to learn that small grocers aren’t just surviving through the COVID-19 economy, they are thriving in it with gains, in most states up to 20 to 50% in daily average revenue. They are seeing an increase in business and new customers. To my delight, cultural grocery stores are experiencing the same thing. 

Going to the Golden Key Market and cooking a Polish dinner connected me to my family. As my dad prepared the meal, we called my great aunt and asked her about Christmas traditions back in Warsaw. She recalled her family dinners and visiting friends and family on Christmas day. 

Also, going to the grocery store and cooking this meal opened my eyes even more to the many cultures that exist within my community. In a year spent mostly stuck at home, I felt like I was able to authentically explore a place across the world.

So, I encourage you to find a recipe — particularly something that you have never tried before — and prepare the dish with ingredients from an international grocery store. If you need inspiration, look here.