Ethnic Grocery Stores–Oral History Project

Ethnic Grocery Stores in the Urban Midwest.

Funded by an Archie Green Fellowship in 2013 from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to add to the Occupational Folklife Collection.

The Ethnic Grocery Store Project explores the varieties of forms and functions of ethnic grocery stores and markets. Ethnic grocery store owners and workers have a distinctive occupational folklife that overlaps with their ethnic identities and group histories as well as with the larger food system of the United States. Documenting their occupational folk culture sheds light on how individuals “become American” and make a place for themselves in society through their work. Working in ethnic groceries allows them to simultaneously use their ethnicity as a resource for successful integration into the American economic system while also maintaining connections to their heritage and the communities surrounding it. Food, furthermore, is a powerful carrier of memory and identity as well as a biological necessity and commodity. Establishments producing and distributing food offer places where individuals can balance and negotiate heritage with practical needs and personal tastes. They also frequently serve as community centers, focal points for informal gatherings and social networking, and present a public face of that ethnic group.

Ethnic grocers can be considered an occupational folk group since they share a common type of work that significantly shapes their daily activities, their social interactions, and their perspectives on the world around them. This work also is the basis for expressive traditions developing out of those experiences, and those traditions can cut across ethnic lines as well as connect individual grocers to the larger occupational group of grocers in general. Occupational folklore is usually divided by folklorists into three areas: the canon of work technique, (those skills specific to the job and learned informally through oral and imitative transmission); verbal art, including “work languages, narratives, jokes, and informal communication patterns; and customs, including ways in which daily norms and social hierarchies are constructed and enforced, rites of passage, and personal adaptations (variants) of work activities.

Interviews with grocers include all three areas of occupational folklife, but will also address the additional complications and enrichments of ethnicity and foodways.

This project documents the occupational folklife and folklore of ethnic grocery store owners and workers in five cities in Ohio and Michigan : Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton, Ohio; Ann Arbor and Detroit in Michigan; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Research and interviews include representatives in each city from Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Eastern European, and other ethnicities distinctive to that city. Recorded interviews and documentation are deposited at the Library of Congress where it is available to researchers. Materials are also available to the grocers as well as to local cultural and ethnic organizations.