Saturday, August 01, 2009

How the market works

The image that perhaps best evokes the modern-day food movement is that of Alice Waters at a farmers' market, admiring the fresh, local, seasonal, and organic produce, conversing with the farmer who both produces and sells the goods in question. Yet how important markets are to eating well is often just assumed. So is market-procured food any better than alternatives?

Ever since reading this excerpt of Michele de la Pradelle's Market Day in Provence, I've been suspicious of markets, a suspicion that has not stopped me from shopping at them, but anyway.

Sample passages:

Narrow-range stallholder trade has held up best in places with many tourists. It was at this market in any case that I found the most fully evolved instance of such a stall. The very structure of the table across which seller and buyer usually interact has disappeared, and piled up on overturned plastic crates in an indescribable jumble are a few very round pumpkins, huge squashes, onion bunches, the scale, some celery stalks, and, in place of Prévert’s raton laveur, a guinea pig with its own sign: “I’m a guinea pig, don’t touch me.” This type of display may lead the customer to believe, or at least suggests to him, that he is buying lettuce or leeks directly from the person who patiently transplanted and hoed them. In reality, Roux’s fruits and vegetables come from the marché-gare (the section called le petit marché, used above all by producers who have only small quantities to sell), though he does have his “own” little producer, a neighbor of his in Pernes.
To convey still more convincingly that the product is homemade, it is insinuated that the honey is from the vendor’s own beehives, that she herself has spun the wool for the sweaters or cut out the sandal leather. The presence of practicing craftspersons at the market—chair-bottomers, for instance—reinforces this illusion. In fact, though the product itself is handcrafted, the customer is not necessarily dealing with its maker; any direct relation between producer and buyer is exceptional today.
According to Jo, however, this is no great revelation. It's apparently general knowledge in Belgium, at least, that markets sell the same produce year-round, making it clear to anyone with even the remotest sense of what grows where when that not everything comes from nearby. The reason the food at the market is somewhat better (and pricier) than at supermarkets isn't that it comes from different sources, but, he explained, that it's selected in small batches, more carefully, by market sellers, but from the same warehouses where supermarkets buy wholesale. People thus shop in markets not for what they imagine to be authentic experiences with farmers, but for a tastier end product.

The market in Heidelberg seems to fit this model - produce bears signs of nationality, but unless you choose to restrict yourself to Deutchland, anything goes. And even if you stick with German goods, Germany's a big country, so you're not exactly eating locally, regardless. But, ingredient by ingredient, even if the same items are sold at the market and the store, there is a perceptible quality difference between the two. That, and the market's proximity to this amazing coffee place, keep me going back for more.

Part of what interests me about the question of markets and their worth is that to many who shop at markets in NY (my sense from real-life conversations, articles I no longer remember where I read them, and teh Internets), the Greenmarket seems like a lesser version of European markets, understood to be the real thing on which the Greenmarket is based. Yet the Greenmarket actually enforces the ideal of terroir, of providing foods specific to the area where they are sold. And local-foods markets are an Old Country import, predating even Alice Waters's formative trip to France. So basically the imitation of the thing ends up outclassing the original.

It's my sense, then, that the market, even in Europe, is 'better', if at all, because of several things that have nothing to do with food quality - sometimes the quality is better, but if so, that's just a happy coincidence. The reasons are as follows:

1) What the market doesn't sell: Sure, the market in Heidelberg sells lemons, Camembert, and other items not from the region, but it remains a primarily fruits-and-vegetables situation, with some meat, cheese, and (wheat, typically) bread, and nothing in the way of ice cream, fries, packaged foods, etc., i.e. not most of what's sold at a supermarket, in the States or in Europe. The ingredients themselves may be no healthier or tastier than their supermarket equivalents, but they are conducive to cooking and eating at home, to eating low-calorie foods, etc. The market is about nostalgia, so even if foods are available that would not have been in that particular place 50 or 100 years ago, the foods present are nevertheless items that someone's ancestors were eating several generations back, and are thus 'real' foods by the movement's standard.

2) The artificial sense of scarcity the markets impose: Because they are usually between one and three times a week, and only open (or any good) in the mornings, markets change the rhythm of food-shopping, from an after-work or Sunday-night trip to the supermarket, where time - of the day and the year - is all one. The lack of convenience of the markets makes it so that only those committed to thinking ahead about each meal, and, often, to shop at times others are at work or asleep, can get the goods.

3) Along those lines, there's the time one must spend at the market, paying separately at each stall, and comparing what are often the same items at many different stalls. Whereas at a supermarket, apples are with apples, milk with milk, and you pay once, at the end. There's no expectation of chit-chat about the produce along the way. The market is an activity, not a chore. And as the food-movement adherents have made clear, we are so very fat because we don't cook for ourselves. Presumably spending time tracking down your food, even if it in theory takes time away from preparing dishes, correlates with devoting extra minutes each day to putting meals together.

4) The payment situation is also conducive to spending more than you'd planned, because rather than seeing what you've bought all in one cart and, at the last minute, removing that one container of berries or piece of cheese that would really put things over the top, it's only at the end of the trip, when you compare how much money you had on you with how much you've spent, that you get your total 'receipt' for the day. This is nearly always an unpleasant surprise, which is why if you are going to a market, it's best to take with you only the amount of money you're willing to spend. But another credo of the food movement is that we spend too little of our incomes on food, and that if we upped the proportion of food to, say, flat-screens, we would no longer be so hideously obese as to offend the likes of Roger Cohen at amusement parks.

In other words, markets recreate a time when food was not available in infinite variety, at all hours, and at low prices. This holds true regardless of the place and manner in which the food at any given market was produced. So, The Market is itself of interest to The Food Movement, even though markets themselves are sometimes a bit of a farce. Thus ends my grand theory of food-markets.


Matt said...

It's apparently general knowledge in Belgium, at least, that markets sell the same produce year-round, making it clear to anyone with even the remotest sense of what grows where when that not everything comes from nearby.

Interesting. As you note, this isn't really so at the Union Square market or most others (not the ones in Philadelphia, either) even though a lot of the stuff sold there is from fairly large (though not large by agri-business standards) operations.

My experience on spending money seems to be exactly the opposite of what you suggest- that is, I'm much more aware of it at the market, because I make so many more purchases- I see the amount in my wallet going down more obviously, while at the supermarket I don't really pay that much attention until it's too late.

Finally, I think things will be much happier for everyone if they just ignore this Waters person (whom I've only ever heard of from your blog, I must admit) and just do what they find the most pleasure in.

Nick said...

come back!

Phoebe said...


So perhaps it's a US-Europe divide, where market food comes from?

In terms of the cost, I think the difference is that at the supermarket, if you come prepared to spend a fixed amount, you have a moment before you pay when you can assess your possible purchases and take out whatever isn't necessary. There's that last moment where you can ask if you really need everything in the cart, and that's the moment when the $7 piece of cheese gets returned to the dairy section. Whereas at the market, if you pass a particularly tempting stand early on, you get what looks good... and soon find yourself with random ingredients that don't add up to anything in particular. This can lead to creative new recipes, but more likely, it means paying more (at the market or elsewhere) to put together meals with what you've already bought. To really keep track, you'd have to write down or check your wallet after each stand, which I may try to start doing, but which is tough if there's a crowd.

There's also the matter of the person you're paying being not a cashier, who's assumed to be indifferent to your actions, but a farmer or some proxy thereof. If you're at the supermarket at you remark, to or in front of the cashier, that you can't believe what those tomatoes cost, and you won't be purchasing them after all, you might get a nod of agreement, or perhaps no reaction whatsoever. But there's considerably more social pressure not to react this way at the farmers' market.

As for Alice Waters, she's considered the founder of the local-organic-sustainable food movement, and is, I promise, famous well beyond this blog.