Monday, August 31, 2009

Against 'terroir'

It comes as no surprise that Roger Cohen, who gets just about everything wrong, devoted his latest column to praising the French notion of terroir, "the untranslatable combination of soil, hearth and tradition that links most French people to a particular place."

I find it telling that Cohen translates this 'untranslatable' term as being about French people, when the term is, I believe, about French wine, and to a lesser extent foods, that can, according to myth, only be done right if produced on certain land. The people involved in this production - farmers and the like - should, in theory, be able to come from absolutely wherever. What with France's massive history as a destination for immigrants, the notion that to be French is to have timeless ties to a particular dot on the French map is just... no.

However. The innocuous if irrational idea that one can only produce a certain gastronomical product in one locale has historically been a short leap away from the belief that human beings are in some mystical and eternal way tied to their ancestral lands. This take - most memorably expressed by right-wing intellectual Maurice Barrès - is, of course, essentialist racist ridiculousness of the sort that has long, long been discredited. Applying 'terroir' to people not only denies the possibility of integration (of immigrants from far-off lands, but also, potentially, of people from the next town over) but conveniently ignores the 'mixed' heritage of those who can supposedly trace their history purely to one given spot.

That America doesn't have this concept is, I'd say, among the country's greatest strengths. Americans are better-positioned than Europeans to embrace local food, small-scale production, farmers' markets and the like without holding nonsensical beliefs about the 'sacred' quality of their land, without believing 'local' has to go beyond just food produced in the area to being food native to the area, preferably produced by a farmer who's family's been on that land for countless generations. I, for one, want it to stay that way. The worst possible direction the American food movement could take - and while there already are hints of this direction, it's hardly the dominant view - would be to start blurring the edges between where one grows good food and where one grows good people.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fancy pants, blond Jews

-It has come to my attention that Paul Gowder - the very same Paul Gowder - spent $125 on jeans. I'm not sure whether to read this as a belated victory or as the right idea but the wrong approach - I remain in favor of respecting self-presentation-through-dress, but am not sure expensive jeans are necessarily the way to go. Then again, since I've recently 'improved' my wardrobe via not one but two Gap dresses that are actually nightgowns, I'm not sure I'm one to give advice.

-In the course of my blog-post-long campaign against the concept of 'natural beauty', I mentioned that 'natural' is sometimes used to describe hairstyles, especially those of black women, that do not involve use of a relaxer, even when a given style is far removed from wash-and-go. The idea being, however painstaking the style, however far from the hair's natural color or shape the results, if the one politically-significant process did not take place, the look is natural, 'natural' defined not as accepting one's hair in its natural state, nor as liberation from grooming routines far beyond that of the average man, but as being true to one's origins or standing up to a racist past.

An example, then, would be Piper Miller's description of her hair as "100% natural" - even when dyed blond, and more surprisingly, even when straightened, so long as the process doesn't involve chemicals. I clicked on her interview thinking her hair, which in the photo is an obviously artificial shade of blond, but not straightened, looked fabulous. Natural? Only if that peroxide rained down from the sky.

This definition of 'natural hair' as something more about ethnic solidarity than about letting hair fall as it may is, now that I think of it, not unique to black women. Jewish women, if thinking politically about hair at all, are far more likely to identify going blond than hair-straightening as ethnic treason. Yes, there are blond Jews, straight-haired Jews, and then there's Alicia Silverstone, but of the many, many, many of us born 'white' but with neither, it is my sense that the Jewish woman's version of 'natural' - the look that's least likely to be accused as a manifestation of self-hatred - involves above all else keeping the color dark.

Why is bleach to Jewish women what relaxer is to black women? (Assuming it is, as I clearly am. Thoughts from members of either group, or interested third-parties?)

I'm guessing it's because of the Nazi obsession with blondness. I mean, doubtless the Nazis frowned on frizz, but their desire to kill off non-blonds is, to an extent, their legacy. That obsession, known to everyone with even a sentence-long understanding of that part of history, was best illustrated to me in a book I found at the Heidelberg university library, which had a photo of a young child sitting in what looked like a doctor's examining room, but instead of getting checked for an ear infection or whatever, he was having his race 'tested' via the comparison of his hair color with a range of tufts of different shades, sort of like the ones at salons and in drug stores that let you pick your color dye.

Of course, there's also the fact of shtetls having been in Poland and not Shanghai (not that there weren't/aren't Chinese Jews, and not to malign their importance to world Jewry), not to mention the Roth-Allen Two-Headed Monster, or the fact that once Jews are defined as 'white', all features that challenge this definition grow more salient. Or perhaps there are just more straight-haired than blond Jews in this country - that's certainly the case in my own family, but the only statistics I found on this were from a more eugenicist age, and could well have been philo-Semites looking to defend the Jews by exaggerating the number of fair-haired among us.

< where I get side-tracked > One sees this today as well - it's still supposed to be somehow an insult to point out that Jews in American tend to have dark hair. Those who believe it 'racist' to say that there is such a thing as 'looking Jewish' nearly always offer up as evidence that many Jews are not visibly so, and the ones they mention are, almost without fail, Jews who look whiter than Jews stereotypically look, as in, 'There's no such thing as looking Jewish because plenty of Jews are blond/don't have massive schnozzes/OMG Gwyneth's grandfather was a rabbi'. That many Jews also look less white than the stereotypical Ashkenazi-American - darker hair, less 'white' features - presumably doesn't help the cause, a cause that's - again - claiming to be anti-racist. Jews' persistence in going around and looking, in many cases, phenotypically-identifiable is seen by those of this mindset as unhelpful - Judaism's supposed to be a religion, not a race, blah blah, and so forth. As I've babbled here before, it's in no way an insult to atypical-looking American Jews - black or blond - to say that the bulk of us look like Sarah Silverman, give or take. < /where I get side-tracked >

Anyway, clearly, the desire to make hair blonder and straighter than was already the case cuts across ethnic lines - what interests me is the significance of these terms depending on the group, even among groups who tend to come by neither trait naturally, and, of course, the use of 'natural'.

-Final item on the agenda: For better or worse, I have perfected the Eiskaffee.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cheapness Studies still exists, and more

***Cheapness Studies lives on.***

Now, back to your usual programming.

-Kei's is not a fashion blog per se, but note the fabulous lipstick-hat combo in the last photo in this post. I may attempt to imitate this look.

-Dear Prudence confronts the timeless issue of bathroom reading, and with grace, I should add: "Our literacy rate would plummet if people stopped reading in the bathroom!" Yoffe, you're onto something.

-What have they done to the poodles? (Thank you, New York Magazine.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Self-knowledge

I've re-learned the following about myself while going through old papers and things at my parents':

-I was a truly mediocre student until senior year of high school.

-French paradox be damned: I did get fat the term I studied in Paris, and look quite different in those photos from just before and just after. Yes, it's true, the weight came off effortlessly, without diet or workouts, upon returning to Chicago. Sometimes the presence versus absence of delicious pastries works not paradoxically (sorry, Frank Bruni) but rather just as you'd expect.

-I had blond highlights at one point. The photos might be worth saving as a reminder not to do that again.

-High school English teachers saw potential for me as a fiction (!) writer. Oh well.

-There are all kinds of items bearing evidence of my 'participation' in athletic endeavors. As in, I'm of the generation for which self-esteem was the issue of the day, and it was thought too traumatic to let athletically-talentless kids participate in sports and not get any ribbons or anything. Which I suppose beats the latest generation, which if reports are accurate never gets off the couch.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Major acquisitions UPDATED

Excuses, excuses, I bought shoes. $35 shoes, but still, money was exchanged for footwear. There's no denying it.

< excuse > Turns out that a summer of endless walking around should mean bringing along sensible shoes. I failed to do so, and ended up with two beat-up pairs of flats; running shoes I can neither run nor walk in comfortably; also-beat-up silver Pumas at least a half-size too small; and a pristine pair of beige/tan/nude/whatever spectator pumps that will be great when it's neither rainy nor over 90 degrees, but that for now just sit there looking like they belong to some more glamorous person than myself. < /excuse >

Here's how it went: I entered a West Side shoe store that had a "70% Off" sign, because of the sign, of course, but knowing full well that said discounted items would be the more hideous of last spring's impractical-even-if-they-were-attractive stilettos. Once inside, I fought off a brand representative intent on selling me a French sneaker somewhere between Keds and Converse and remarkably like a shoe whose name I've forgotten that effectively made you popular if you wore it in sixth grade in 1994.

The brand this woman was there to promote did look more or less like what I wanted, and had a name that suggested French-Jewish (dare I say Francophilic-Zionistic?) origins, but cost more than either of the familiar makes it resembled, and on top of that had all these odd dents around the ankle-heel area that the saleswoman insisted would break in in time (do shoe-salesfolk genuinely believe the adults they are dealing with have never before bought shoes, and will fall for the 'it doesn't remotely fit now, but one distant day it will' scam? Yes, shoes break in, but slightly, and only if they're leather. Stiff canvas dents are going nowhere.) She gave quite a speech in marketing lingo about how she's attempting to get the word out about this exclusive item from France, but barely available in the States, so much so that afterwards I up and got a log of goat cheese made in Vermont.

(The woman was also offering anyone who so much as glanced at the shoes a glass of Champagne. I refused each of the numerous times this was offered, and later overheard two of the store's regular staff discussing whether any customers were accepting a glass, and apparently none were. This made me think both of how everyone knows alcohol lowers shopping inhibitions, and of how some early-20th-C French writer once referred to Jews as "la race sans ivrognes." Clearly, the UWS - however much changed in recent years - is still not the place to use Champagne as a catalyst for shopping.)

After some hours of pondering and iced coffee and almond croissant consumption, I decided on the American variant - bright red Keds. (I also seriously considered navy, beige...) I thought they looked sort of now, more so than just about everything else I own, which I figured was probably a good thing, but my mother articulated just what it is they look, and the word she used was "hipster." She's onto something - Googling 'keds hipster' brought me to this page bearing an image of, alas, my new shoes. Oh well. If people think I chose flats over heels and $35 over something more expensive ironically, so much the better.

UPDATE

Keds are not, in fact, so very now. A 2006 Sartorialist post reveals them to be so very 2006; the commenters there insist that the shoe's revival is totally passé, perhaps dating as far back as 2005. Still, this has to be an improvement from looking so very 1998, as per usual, that is, unless 1998-revival is the new thing...

Friday, August 21, 2009

This is not a post

Between apartment-hunting and various attempts at being a grad student in the time that leaves, WWPD has been neglected. But it will return at some point.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ice

Back in America, land of ice. I ask my Europhile countrymen, not the slightly Europhilic but the sort who believe Europe can do no wrong, to consider that continent's complete lack of beverages with ice. Even an iced latte macchiato in Munich - tasty as it was - had at most a sliver of a cube. Europe has its benefits - (the better aspects of) socialism, the refusal to over-pasteurize cheese, the willingness of good-looking men to wear narrow-cut clothes - but the ice thing is kind of a problem.

I will now enter head-first into the frightening but familiar world of Duane Reade, Bobst, and apartment-hunting.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fashion-lifestyle disequilibrium

David Brooks has written about something he calls, if I remember right, status-income disequilibrium, the result of over-educated humanities types noticing that boorish bankers live in comfort while they themselves know how to pronounce foie gras but can't afford it. I know I should be experiencing this, but dishwasher dreams aside, I can afford all the cheese I care to consume, so this is not my main concern. I'm far more preoccupied with another discrepancy: that between the clothing I wish to wear and my day-to-day life.

The world of fashion blogs, at least the ones I prefer, is one of DIY studded clothes that end up looking more space-age than punk, of pale-pink bike shorts styled in such a way they actually look good, of goth-inspired gauzy materials draped in ways I'd have never come up with, paired with shoes and a haircut specific to this one out-of-the-way corner of Copenhagen I'd never even find if I were to visit Copenhagen. My world is one of either a tee or a tank in either gray, black, or white, paired with either jeans or black pants and either ballet flats or silver Pumas. In winter, black leather boots, a sweater, and an overcoat enter the mix, but that's about it.

It goes beyond clothes. The best fashion bloggers all seem to DJ at parties that start well after whatever mix of teaching, reading, grocery shopping, and cooking has caused me to pass out on the couch in front of "Two and a Half Men" while my boyfriend does the dishes. The less edgy sites, meanwhile, focus on relatively well-known models, stylists, editors, models, and the like as they congregate outside fashion shows in eight-inch heels for luncheons of cigarettes with a side order of cigarettes. To be Fashion is to be not merely thin but indifferent to food - see for instance this blogger relating having chosen a fur hat from Ebay over dinner. Whereas if I don't get that bowl of pasta come 8 pm, I'm in no shape to even get through the first 15 minutes of a sitcom, let alone make it however many subway rides it takes to go to wherever the young people are going these days.

The fashion-lifestyle disequilibrium affects me, it seems, on a purchase-by-purchase basis. I became obsessed with a pair of 40-euro lilac-colored patent leather jazz-shoe-type oxfords (?) with terribly thin soles... until I accepted that these were too strange and not durable enough to become my new everyday shoes, and that I'm not willing to forgo the Eiskaffes a frivolous 40-euro purchase would require. (Had they been, say, Yves Klein blue, it would have been a different story.) I didn't even adore the shoes, just the idea of being the sort of person who'd wear such shoes, perhaps paired with some gauzy-goth scarf and hand-studded bracelet.

It's this mentality that prevents me from purchasing accessories, period, with the notable exception of a bright-pink jersey-material Uniqlo scarf. Last year in Cologne (why am I always in Germany? A question for another time), I decided against a beautiful jersey-fabric scarf in Yves Klein blue because it didn't fulfill any practical role in my wardrobe. The Uniqlo purchase was my much-belated consolation. I need to be more like this woman, clearly.

I feel, for a mix of practical and nonsensical reasons, that to dress the way I want to dress involves not so much more money than I have as leading a different life entirely. That's the dilemma. Thoughts?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Is there a Brooklyn in Germany?

In Italy, we were trying to find TV we wanted to watch in our hotel room when suddenly we found a truly amazing informercial. The product? One of those electronic devices that's supposed to make you lose weight and tone up without any exertion whatsoever. But rather than, say, a vibrating belt, this was a vibrating platform you had to stand on for 'just 15 minutes a day' or something like that. What the infomercial amounted to, then, was women in next to nothing shown on these machines, with special attention paid to their quivering, cellulite-free rears. The mix between the cheesy-to-no-end visuals and the Italian man's voice in the background promising a 'vacation credit' with your purchase (and the implied vacation spent with fellow owners of this product) was almost too much to take.

The infomercial's main point seemed to be that you should choose their vibrating platform over those made by others (there are others?) because theirs, they explained, in English all of a sudden, was "Made in Italy," whereas the others were junk due to having been made in China. (Yes, there was a xenophobic interlude about Asian goods between the butt-shaking scenes.) The name of this fine Italian company? Amerika Star.

I was slightly offended - if not shocked - that my country is seen as representative of this type of product, one designed explicitly for the lazy and vain. I was also reminded of a mattress chain in Israel called American Comfort, suggesting a massive suburban home with separate bedrooms and king-size beds for each child and air conditioners and dishwashers in each room, if not espresso machines on each floor.

The trend of giving an American name to a local product (albeit one not necessarily manufactured locally) extends to Germany and elsewhere in Europe. One sees plenty of the reverse in the States - lattes, Haagen Dazs and its gratuitous umlaut and double vowel, the fact that a restaurant can charge 30% more if it calls itself something with "Le," "La", or "Chez" - but one imagines Europeans not to go for things - the occasional Levis and burger aside - that scream American. But it seems to go both ways.

Munich - and to a lesser extent, Heidelberg - is filled with Starbucks (Starbuckses?), but also with American-style coffee bars of German origin, modeled on the 'independent coffee shops' of college towns, with menus in a mix of English, German, and American-coffee-shop Italian, that offer bagels and muffins. Always bagels and muffins. I even passed a store that sold a special multitiered container specially designed for housing one's muffins. The San Francisco Coffee Company, all over Munich, does not appear to have a San Francisco branch, but it looks primed to replace the Biergarten.


Europe as it once was.

As an American who can't get over the wonderful German-Austrian tradition of mixing coffee with ice cream, I find it baffling that people here line up for anything that comes 'to go' (although people don't often seem to get the items to go) and in a cup with a clear plastic dome on top. Or I did, until I discovered what I think is a German take on an American take on Italian coffee: the latte macchiato. The drink, which sometimes comes in a special glass that says "Latte Macchiato", consists of some trace amount of espresso with sweet milk, plus a thick layer of foam on top. It's quite good, although not quite at Eiskaffee level. Just as Americans may have perfected that European mainstay, the rustic farmers-market, Europeans win at innovative ways to make coffee more fattening and thus more delicious.

But it's not just coffee. Clothing, too, comes from stores with names that evoke the States, at a time when fashionable Americans look in horror at countrymen whose clothing identifies them as such, and when Americans imagine Europeans to be aesthetically put off by anything hinting at Americanness. Yet American Apparel has a spot on Heidelberg's quaint main shopping street, where it looks ridiculously out-of-place, along with two around the corner from each other in Munich, near the university. That the store not only is but also upfront calls itself "American" does not seem to have taken anything from its hipster caché, given the constant flow into those shops of German young people already in that style of clothing. But those wishing to dress American but shop European can also go with European chains like New Yorker, Forever 18, Marc O'Polo (a Ralph Lauren-esque shop), Madonna (from which was recently blasting Madonna music - is this legal?) or, in Belgium at least, Brooklyn. Is there a Brooklyn in Germany? Who knows.


... and now, with harem pants alone bearing the responsibility of differentiating women's fashion on the two continents.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Jews never were much for farming

Here in Germany, I'm mostly too busy reading 500-page PDFs of French novels or stuffing my face with new and exciting combinations of coffee and ice cream (and these are, alas, infinite) to get worked up about politics. But.

CNN International's Middle East special segment should win a prize for shamelessly one-sided portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not for general nausea-inducing qualities. In a bit I watched, promising to be about how The Olive, that symbol of peace, was a site of tensions in the West Bank, a very white CNN journalist visited a Palestinian family picking olives 'the old way', 'the way it's always been done,' (not sure if these are direct quotes, because I watched this a couple days ago, but this was the gist), going on and on about how the techniques these particular Palestinians use to pluck olives aren't as efficient as the modern newfangled ones, but gosh darn it this is how it's always been done, since time immemorial, and what a coincidence, this produces the best olive oil. He also went on at length about certain olive trees that have been in the region 'since Roman times' - the way this was juxtaposed with shots of very elderly olive pickers, and with discussions of how 'generations' of Palestinians have picked olives on this very spot suggested that a point was being made about the Palestinians - even this particular family - having been on this particular spot forever.

The fusion of the Palestinian cause with the newly-trendy fondness for 'traditional' (read: inefficient in such a way that is aesthetically pleasing to Westerners with no first-hand knowledge of farming, industrial or otherwise) and locality-specific agriculture was really what brought the segment over the top. All the combo needs is a tote bag made out of keffiyeh print to take with you to the market - fortunately just such bags are found in trendy shops in Germany, so we're halfway there.

Anyway. The conflict had to be introduced for there to be a story, so between the plucking and the oil extraction we met up with the "Jewish settlers", an angry bunch of men in yarmulkes, who, CNN's representative explained to us, are protesting the traditional harvesting activities of these sweet innocent wouldn't-hurt-a-fly agriculturalists who've been working The Land since long before those evil cosmopolitan Jews showed up. There are also IDF soldiers who, meany-meanies that they are, are filmed 'stopping' CNN from filming, although it's clear enough that CNN got its story and then some.

It wasn't, apparently, worth it to CNN to explain what reason Israel or the settlers gave for wanting to stop the olive-picking. The guy presented it as though the only possibilities were a) that the Jews are simply bad people, or b) that Jews are anti-agriculture, both of which are views that have, historically and to this day, had their share of adherents.

Rather than just presenting the process and commenting, in whatever biased a way he might have done, the man from CNN actually helps the Palestinian farmers in the plucking and the oil-production, as in, by plucking, etc., himself, learning both processes so as to show the viewer just how rustic and inefficient and charming the whole endeavor is, the work of people whose land is rightfully theirs, because no new arrival would have come up with something so involved. Here's where the shamelessness comes into play. Imagine if he had donned IDF fatigues - or better yet, the shorts-and-sandals garb of the settlers - and participated in that side of the discussion. Because the point of the conflict was ostensibly to portray a conflict. Even if he had come to the conclusion that the Palestinians were in the right on the issue of the olive-plucking (or, if he's so inclined, on all issues, always), and even for god's sake if the Palestinians were in the right on this issue of this particular tree (which I'm willing to admit is a possibility, although from the segment, this much is unclear), this might have come across through at least the pretense of a neutral introduction to the story as both sides present it, without having the journalist himself filmed helping one side and protesting the other.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Rants, and rants to come

Cheapness Studies lives on.

Here at WWPD, expect posts about unquestioning Europhilia; Michael Pollan's possibly anti-feminist use of "empower"; and the perhaps irreversible changes to brain chemistry brought on by living off bread and cheese and spaetzles and cheese and reading about French anti-Semitism at a German library. But first, Maurice Barrès's uprooted rural 20-somethings need further examination.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Tours, grand and less so

Michael Kimmelman asks why we bother lining up to look at art, and concludes the following:

So tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.
According to Kimmelman, The Culture is in bad shape because we rush through museums. He relates this complaint to that of the Slow Food movement - as with all negative responses to modern times, it all comes down to Things Today Just Move So Fast Not Like In My Day. First the railroads, and for the slow-pace nostalgic, it's been downhill ever since. And as with all arguments about the failings of Young People Today (or in this case, People Today), we are provided with a Golden Age against which we may contrast our own:
Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint — to record their memories and help them see better. Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.
He's right that technology comes into play, but it seems that the main difference isn't so much the camera (or the camera-phone) as the airplane, particularly cheap air travel. Going to Europe is no longer restricted to the cultural elite. Nor, for that matter, is going to America for a Western European - if that were the case, the hordes around every lower Broadway shoe store would not be quite so impressive. Crossing the Atlantic is hardly free, but it's now available to those for whom "meeting politicians" is not an option.

So, why do people - tourists and locals alike - go to museums? The easy answer is, because it's expected. With tourists, it's embarrassing to return from a European trip and, when asked what you did while you were away, to say, "Rome Pub Crawl 2009!!! Woohooo!" So museums thus attract a fair number of visitors who would really rather be enjoying a lower drinking age, or shopping for shoes. And with locals, it's a sign of a deprived background to have, say, grown up in NY and not seen the Met, which partly explains why schoolchildren are so often shuttled there against their will.

Kimmelman writes, dare I say sneeringly, of a trip to the Louvre, "A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them." He goes on to explain, "If you have ever gone to a museum with a good artist you probably discovered that they don’t worry so much about what art history books or wall labels tell them is right or wrong, because they’re selfish consumers, freed to look by their own interests."

Asking visitors not to look at wall labels isn't a way of liberating them to 'just look', but is instead ordering them to have blind faith in The Curator, to believe that just because an object is in a museum, it is Important, and is thus worth more than a minute of your time. The labels, if done right, tell you why the sculpture of a dog you're supposed to ponder with such intensity is of more interest than the actual dogs outside, the painting of a socialite more special than the real-life ones lunching around the Met. If we did not know why certain objects were supposed to be of more significance than others, most museum visitors would find as many compelling things to look at on the block surrounding a given museum as within the museum itself. If we are to accept that some objects matter more than others, and that experts are within their rights to determine which, it's only fair that we, the ignoramuses to whom this is not immediately apparent upon glancing, context-free, at a given work, should be in on what led these experts to make their decisions.

Unless there's a particular museum I've been wanting to see - and for whatever reason, these museums, or the parts of the permanent collections I've been looking forward to, are always closed whenever I visit a place. Brussels, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, why must you keep 'refurbishing' your late medieval paintings whenever I'm nearby? - I prefer just walking around either tourist or residential areas to lining up, getting the ticket, proving to the security team that I am in fact not there to blow the place up, and then, when the payment ('see, I'm a student, look at this weird purple card you've never seen before, I promise that's what it means') and metal detection is over, catching all kinds of new colds from all over the First World, what with being so tightly packed before each work. Wandering around gives you a better sense of a city than does finding out which works from around the world that city's museum managed, for whatever reasons, to acquire. Entering a major European art museum, much like going into an H&M, you all of a sudden feel you could be anywhere. Whereas getting yelled at for not having exact change at a Parisian patisserie, but then finding that the pastry well makes up for it, that you need to go to Paris for.

What I do appreciate about museums is sometimes but not always the art. Often, it's just fun to look at all the people from around the world who've congregated, to see how they dress and wear their hair, to listen to the various languages they speak and attempt to guess what countries they're from, to attempt to figure out whether harem pants are on their way out or, rather, about to gain a following across the Atlantic, and so forth. This activity also works just fine in non-museum settings, but on rainy days, a museum can't be beat.

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.
And,
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.