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An endless source of entertainment

By Nicola Miller

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller

As you might imagine, the engineer, architect, sculptor, painter, and poet Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was quite a busy man but even the busiest of men – and women – need to eat.

And if one needs to eat then one must also shop in whatever fashion suits one best. I am busy, but I am not grand, so I do my own shopping but Michelangelo had servants and he would send them to market with an illustrated shopping list – not because he liked drawing so much he couldn’t stop – but because the servant he was sending to market was illiterate. How do we know this? A few of these lists survive as part of the collection of the Florence museum Casa Buonarroti and are illustrated with tiny, precise ideograms of anchovies, bowls of fennel soup, ‘un bocal di vino’ (a small quarter of rough wine), ‘pani dua’ (two loaves of bread) and tortelli. They are exquisite.

Galileo Galilei’s shopping list was written in black ink on the back of a letter in 1609 and that detail alone pleases me. Written a few months before the introduction of the telescope he developed to spot Jupiter’s moons, the list details the equipment he required, preceded by a string of more prosaic comestibles. Vincenzo needs ‘shoes and a hat’; the larder new supplies of lentils, spices and white chickpeas; rice, raisins and spelt. Towards the end of his list, ivory combs and a reminder to ‘pay debts to Lord Mannucci and give him back the Edilio’ are noted. This suggests to me that Galileo was a man who not only enjoyed his food (he was Italian after all) but also knew that a well-ordered household frees one up to do other, more cerebral, things.

Like many Italians, his diet would have been regional and seasonal, hence the raisins which are used in many of the dishes of the Veneto where Galileo lived at the time in Padua.

There’s a story in everything and this is why I look for shopping lists and till receipts. The pickings are rich: clipped to supermarket trolleys or left behind on conveyor belts; blowing about in the local marketplace; inside second-hand cookbooks; and online, too, where several sites exist solely to document them. They are everywhere if you pay attention and I know I am not alone in my interest.

When I tweeted about my fascination with shopping lists a while back, Nigella Lawson herself admitted to the very same.

To me, a shopping list is the haiku of the food world, where the story of people, their lives, and their priorities lay waiting to be discovered, far beyond what initially appears to be a rather utilitarian piece of writing. All kinds of lists are fascinating although have a longer life expectancy than others (the US constitution is a list, after all) whilst others, namely those we take shopping, are more ephemeral and exist as snapshots of a brief moment in domestic time.

Shopping lists can tell of seasonal fresh starts: the Back To School list of a particularly jolly-sounding child with ‘neon pencils’, ‘grey school skirt, not pleated’, ‘Hello Kitty lunchbox and apple tissues’ is a particular favourite. Some are very prescriptive and revealing of brand loyalties; ‘RADOX bath soak’ (The Radox heavily underlined with this proviso: ‘Sainsbury’s own brand VERY similar, DON’T muddle up!’) whilst others inadvertently reveal household hierarchies. My latest shopping list find, via a Waitrose trolley, saw dog food (dried) at the top of the list, followed by dog treats (Dentastix, a very specific brand and not inexpensive either) whilst the human food is non-specific – ‘fruit’, ‘cheese’, ‘cereal’, ‘decaf teabags’ – and falls further down the list. The dog’s needs are foremost in the mind of the list compiler. Their dog eats meat but someone else in that household eats Quorn. Do they experience a moral dilemma every time they buy meat for a dog? Are they vegetarian or trying Meatfree Monday for size? (I found the list on a Monday.)

To read someone else’s shopping list feels like a furtive act, albeit a deeply satisfying one, which requires the skills of a historian and sociologist; a weaver of stories; and a forensic detective. Nosiness is, of course, a fundamental requirement.

If you haven’t already fallen down this rabbit hole, I do urge you to take a look online at some of the sites which collate discarded shopping lists and till receipts. From the Larkin-like Tesco’s receipt for ‘own brand vodka and a Daily Mail,’ to lists where children have added their requests for “CRIPS” in bold, clumsy letters (assuming ‘crips’ to be the potato chip variety and not a supermarket range of LA-based gang members), and foods with people’s names next to them (NOT FOR ME, FOR AUDREY reads one), they are an endless source of entertainment and imaginings.

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