Friday, July 22, 2005

Some ketchup on your heirloom tomato?

What a fabulous op-ed. Finally, a high-profile take-down of the fine-ingredients, organic-foods smugness movement being led by Alice Waters. As I've admitted here before, I can't help but think better of a cheese that's called "artisanal," or of an apricot from a farmers' market rather than a supermarket or deli. But, like Julie Powell, I dislike the moral high ground taken by consumers of farm-fresh everything. Certainly humanely raised and slaughtered meat is more ethical to consume than the opposite, but in-depth descriptions of how happy the cow was during its life creep me out--you're still eating an animal that was killed so that you could order the beef with broccoli, when the tofu with snow peas would have been just fine. I am not a vegetarian, but I do think that vegetarians do, in a way, have something over those who consume only organic, grassfed, and free-range meat. OK, this was a bit of a tangent, but nevertheless, the same goes for things like the muffins at Pain Quotidien. All the ingredients are super-organic, which apparently is why some of the smallest muffins in the city cost over $3. And finally, Whole Foods may have tasty vegetables, but by choosing it over Dagostino's you will not, I'm afraid, bring about world peace.

Still, there's one flaw in Powell's op-ed: While I have no doubt that Western Beef is cheaper than Chelsea Market, it's often the case that, for many items, supermarkets in upscale areas are less expensive than those in poorer neighborhoods. Relatedly, dumpy-looking supermarkets or delis with a "nothing fancy" vibe do not necessarily cost less to shop at than frou-frou-looking places in the same neighborhood. There's a certain threshold, of course, at which supermarkets or farmers' markets get crazily expensive--Chelsea Market being a perfect example, and Whole Foods just crossing the line--but before that point is reached, you often get more for your dollar at a place where the people around you are in Chanel than at one where your fellow shoppers are in Old Navy. I'd heard about this phenomenon, but hadn't really witnessed it until seeing that Hyde Park's unimpressive 55th St. Co-op supermarket was in fact more expensive than the Gold Coast/"trixie" supermarkets to the north.

So why does this matter? Because Powell's point about class rests on the assumption that poorer people are shopping at less expensive places than the wealthy. "Low-end" and low-quality doesn't necessarily mean low prices, so an argument could be made that the good-ingredients movement is, at least in part, a movement to bring lower-priced, high-quality produce to a larger audience. A recent (somewhat irritating) Vogue article celebrated Alice Waters' attempt to bring such foods to the public schools. This is a direct but potentially offensive way of going about things. But just putting ideas like "microgreens" into the public consciousness may mean that more people--not just the super-wealthy--will start demanding better and cheaper fruits and vegetables. Perhaps in this one case, the rich really do have a point. Cooking is delightful, but smoked meats, French sauces, and burritos, the foods Powell praises, are not going to make Americans any healthier. Why not try and raise everyone's standard of living, and make obesity less common among rich and poor alike?

Powell writes: "I confess that half an hour browsing in that utopia of produce - or the new Whole Foods Market at the square's south end - often leaves me longing for the antiseptic but nonjudgmental aisles of low-end supermarkets like Key Food or Western Beef." She may confess a longing, but where does she actually shop? People choose higher-quality food, unless price or fear of pretention keep them away. So what I would advocate are antiseptic, nonjudgmental high-end supermarkets like the Fairway, but with a bit more aisle space, because good food at decent prices in a non-pretentious atmosphere need not involve quite so many collisions.


Anonymous said...

Fairway is antiseptic???

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

No, it isn't. It's not smug or cozy, and is definitely as no-frills as a gourmet food place could possibly be. But fair enough, it's not at all antiseptic. It could use an antiseptic. I stand corrected.

Victor said...

Which "trixie" supermarket do you mean? I suspect that most of the difference in price between chain supermarkets (Jewel, Dominick's) and the Hyde Park Coop is due to economies of scale.

Also, it isn't clear to me that the segment of the Hyde Park population that shops at the Coop is on the lower end of the South Side economic spectrum. Plenty of professors and students shop there.

And, as for students on tight budgets, their current financial situation may not correspond to their taste in food, which is likely shaped by past experience and future expectation of being in a different social class than many of their neighbors.

Anonymous said...

I also assumed she was comparing Whole Foods to Jewel/Dominick's-type stores, not corner groceries or delis, which are actually convenience stores and not supermarkets. Chain supermarkets are significantly cheaper than the Co-op, and they're in poor neighborhoods as well as wealthy ones.

mel bennelli said...

Nice post. You’re so right. There’s decidedly something "morally superior," and even Gucci-esque about the “farm-fresh” / “organic” foods kick. The bit about “how happy the cow was” cracked me up. I've yet to read one of those yet. But I'm waiting for the chance.

Have you guys seen what these loopy cats over at “Ankle Biting Pundits” did with a quirky but very nice op-ed by Sarah Vowell, Maureen Dowd’s temporary replacement at the Times? Maybe the title of their site forgives their bile in advance. Still, it seems more like the old “criticize what you don’t understand” routine. Sad. Here's the Ankle Biters. I hope I get the code tag right. Otherwise feel free to delete this.

Happy blogging.