Thursday, April 01, 2010

Things you miss and then find

People who’ve moved far from their home country have one thing in common: We all miss things about our homeland. There are people, of course, places and even products that are only available in our home country. For me, the products gap was closed a bit today.

Auckland has specialist supermarkets carrying goods imported from China, Japan, Korea, India and so on. In parts of Auckland, ordinary groceries have entire sections devoted to products imported from South Africa.

American expats have a bit more trouble finding some of their favourite things from home. Sure, some American brands are made locally (or in Australia), but there are many other things that aren’t available. So we often bring things back to New Zealand when we return from a trip to the US, as I memorably did the last time I was there. Others will have folks send them “care packages”. It’s all a hassle.

Many years ago, long before I had a blog, there was a store/café selling American food products in Albany on Auckland’s North Shore. It’s long gone (even the buildings are gone). The other day, however, we found out about a store in the Mt. Wellington area of Auckland that sold American-made products not otherwise available in New Zealand. Today, we went for a visit.

Martha’s Backyard (pictured above) says it has “Genuine USA brands, clothing & food”, and when I walked in, I felt like a kid in a toy store. “Ooooo! Tootsie Rolls! Ooooo, Fritos! Ooooo, A&W Root Beer!” All kinds of things I see only in the US. “Just back the car up to the door,” I told Nigel, “and I’ll fill it up.” While I didn’t want everything they sold, I wanted enough that I made a large purchase (pictured below—don’t judge).

I always feel weird in a store like that: There are all sorts of brands I remember from my regular trips to US grocery stores, even if I bought different brands. But when I see those brands, I’m transported back to my life in the US—and yet I know I’m in New Zealand; the whole thing is unsettling and disorienting.

So I bought things (many things) that I can’t buy in New Zealand normally. The weird thing is, I bought some things I hadn’t had for many—maybe many, many—years before I left the US. The fact that I couldn’t buy them made me want them more than I otherwise would have.

Still, I think it’s a good thing to do this from time to time: It connects one’s past with one’s present. And, anyway, a few treats—in the moderation I was today totally lacking—are no problem.

I didn’t buy everything I saw: Reynold’s Aluminum Foil (Why? We have foil in NZ…), the largest container of ice tea mix I’ve seen in my life, and much more. I can always get them later, after all.

I signed up for the email mailing list. I also joined the Twinkie Club (the first time in decades I can claim that…). When they bring in Twinkies, they give club members first dibs, because they don’t last long in the shop.

I know some people reading this, or looking at the photo below, will roll their eyes. But before judging me or the many other shoppers too harshly, do this: Think of one product you really enjoy, something you take totally for granted. Now, imagine having no way of getting that product unless you travel thousands of miles and tens of hours to get it. Then, imagine that being the case for many years. If you imagine all that, you’ll imagine part of the life of a typical expat.

At least now I have access to little bits of my homeland, and my past: My past and present are joined, and if it takes some American junk food to do that, I can live with that.

Martha’s Backyard: 114 Lunn Av, Mt Wellington, Auckland. Open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday and Sunday 10-4. Phone: (09) 570-7976. It's well worth a visit for any American expat.


d said...

Very excited!! Will be up there in a month (sent you a message).


Mark from Slap said...

I won't judge. ;)

I can almost relate, in a way. Even though I'm technically still in my home country, Québec doesn't have many of the restaurants (Earls) and grocery chains (Safeway) that I used to visit regularly when I lived 5000km away. So, whenever I go home to visit (which I'm actually doing next week), I often go straight to Earls and then buy a bunch of the Safeway brand items that I can't get anymore.

Thom said...

We walked into a grocery store on a US Air Force base while living in the UK, and I was suddenly SO homesick for things back in the states! Nate missed good coffee, sticks of gum, and things were sold in quantities he was used to. I just wanted American peanut butter! And candy...

I wonder if it was the HFCS I was really missing? Great picture!! Enjoy every morsel!

jamie said...

OMG Fritos! I miss them SO much! And canned pumpkin. I totally get how you feel -- it's not like I ate Fritos everyday before, but just miss those little things. Crystal Light. Plastic "beer pong" cups. Pepto Bismal... not sure if they have any of that, but those products are on my list. We live in Wellington but may have to stop by next time we're up north. Thanks so much for the post!

Arthur Schenck said...

D: Yay! Got your message and looking forward to your visit. You know, we'll be ready for a visit to the store around then, I'm sure…

Mark: Actually, that's a good point: In the US, too, there are things that are only available regionally, so it's not hard to imagine what it's like for expats.

Thom: Yes, that's it exactly—seeing those things reawakens homesickness, even, like for me, after 14 years. Funny you should mention HFCS: I actually read the labels of some of the American products (a habit I've picked up in NZ…) and was surprised how many had HFCS in them. Must be why I liked them so much!

Jamie: I noticed that Martha's Backyard had BenGay. And they had big tubs of lemonade mix, but I don't remember the brand. I'm sure they can order some things for you, if they don't already stock it. If you're keen, you can always give them a call. I added their phone number to the end of the post.

A said...

I was thrilled when i found this place! My daughter was ecstatic to find goldfish crackers and I was pretty excited about cheetos and twizlers. i even bought a dr pepper even though i don't really like it! Just missing it, i guess (though it wasn't really all that good!)

the canned pumpkin is quite a find, tho i have been using the native pumpkin for pies and liking the results, i still bought some just because!

the best finds for me were grits, velveeta and rotel! i'm in fake mexican food heaven! and while i am appalled that i paid $5 for a tiny can of green chilis, my tamales will be that much tastier!

Reed said...


I finally have a really solid reason to visit Auckland (helo grabaseat). Tossed the the bag I'd been nursing forever a while back because it was getting a little skanky looking.

Nik said...

Man, I'm just down the road in Ellerslie and still haven't gone to this place. I felt vaguely embarrassed about doing so I think, but if it's good enough for Arthur it's good enough for me! And they have grits? Holy cow, I'm going.

Arthur Schenck said...

A: I bought some things I'm not necessarily a fan of, too, and for the same reason as you bought Dr. Pepper.

I saw the grits (never had them) and was tempted by the Velveeta (as well as the 1.89 litre bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's, but successfully avoided both—this time!

I once tried making pumpkin pie from scratch (as in, starting with making pumpkin puree), but it was a disaster. With access to canned pumpkin, I won't have to limit myself to one pie a year!

Next time, I'll pick up even more stuff, no doubt.

Reed: What's, that's the ONLY reason to come to Auckland, huh? Sheesh! Seriously, they're apparently going to be upgrading their website to allow online shopping.

Nik: It really is worth the visit, even if only for the nostalgia (yeah, right, like it's even possible to walk out of there without buying anything!).

toujoursdan said...

That's funny. Being a Canadian in NYC I am always on the hunt for food from home. Sometimes it leads to disappointment, like when I found Aero bars and realized that they were made in the UK and tasted different than the Canadian version and I can't find a good poutine, but sometimes I strike gold.

There are a few NZ products I miss from the years I lived there. I can't find meat pies that are anything like the meat pies I'd have in Ponsonby. There are Aus/NZ shops that sell meat pies like The Tuck Shop but they are too fancy. The meat cuts and sauces aren't the same. They are made for American tastes. I am able to find genuine Milo bars in Chinatown and Violet Crunch bars at some of the shops, though. But I wanted to introduce a friend to Vogel's Bread (just for kicks) and couldn't find that anywhere.

amerinz's sis said...


Remember the creative things people did to their empty Mrs. Butterworth bottles - used "as is" for a vase and put fresh flowers in it, painted the bottle to look more life-like, painted it and glued fabric to it (apron, for example)?

Arthur Schenck said...

Dan: Funny you should mention Vogel's: We had an ad here in which a Kiwi man is living in NYC and he talks about how his girlfriend burned his Vogel's. She says: "It was a year ago, Michael: Let it go!" She leaves, he says to the camera: "It's really hard to get!" (I looked on YouTube and, sadly, the commercial isn't there).

When I arrived in New Zealand, there was a chain of fast food restaurants selling pies, Georgie Pie. It was sold to McDonald's who promptly closed all the locations and locked down the brand name to keep anyone else from reviving it.

And not so many years ago, Australia tried to ban the importation of New Zealand pies. The problem" NZ pies have too much meat!

Sis: While I remember people using them as vases, I don't remember people painting them. I feel like I should, though. However, I do remember a particular woman making "Mrs. Santa Claus" out of an empty bottle of Lux dishwashing liquid… ;-)

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you are able to ship things down? If so what would be the price

from laura

Arthur Schenck said...

Sorry, Laura, I missed your question because it came in while our Internet connection was out. I'm pretty sure they'll ship products if they have them. I'd suggest calling them or checking our their website.