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Class Foodfare

Feb
18
2008

Luscious leeks: A pearl-white bulb shading into emerald green with sandy soil still clinging to the roots. I miss them.

Click to view larger versionWhen I lived in Eugene, Oregon Saturday mornings were my shopping day. It wasn’t unusual for me to begin at 9:00 with a trip to the farmers’ market in downtown Eugene, where, during the summer months, I could find those luscious leeks, ravishing radishes, baby beets, and even wild mushrooms on occasion – all picked early Friday evening or Saturday morning.

Sometimes I’d also make a side trip to the fish market, where I could find fish caught, at most, a couple of days before. Then I’d head to Oasis, a local grocery store much like Whole Foods. I’ve always loving grocery shopping and Oasis was like attending Sunday Mass at the cathedral in Chartres. The store had any produce I couldn’t find at the farmers’ market plus an excellent meat department and huge cheese selection. (I understand that Whole Foods has since bought them out – a damned shame.)

My last stop was at the big chain grocery, Albertsons, for the staples such as detergent, milk, and toilet paper because these products were far cheaper than at Oasis. I was usually home by 11:30 having spent two and a half hours traveling no more than 10 miles but having had a chance to study Eugene – and American – cultural stratification.

The oft misquoted Brillat-Savarin actually wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” a subtly different statement than, “You are what you eat.” These days it would be as true to say, “Tell me where you buy food, and I will tell you what you are.”

Eugene’s farmers’ market was manned by, for lack of a better description, hippies. In addition to the vegetable vendors there were people selling tie-dyed t-shirts, beads, drug paraphernalia, and all the other accoutrements of the 1960′s. I loved that market. Most of the customers were students from the university and other members of Eugene’s counter-culture. And the streets around the square were filled with wildly painted minivans and pickup trucks as well as a seasoning of well-used Volvos.

My second stop, Oasis, attracted the upper crust – folks who might have once been hippies but now prefer late-model Volvos and BMWs to the beaters of their youth. I suspect that unlike me, most of Oasis’ customers could afford to also buy their laundry detergent and toilet paper there. Price wasn’t an issue for these folks.

Meat and fruit bought and paid for, I was off to Albertson’s along with pretty much everyone else in town: farmers manning Ford F150s, schoolteachers driving sensible Mazdas, bank tellers in foolish Buicks, and Latino farm workers nursing sagging, nondescript trucks. Critics of movements like as organic farming, purchasing locally raised products, and the Slow Food seem to have a single gripe that appears in several different forms but boils down to: Local/organic/slow food is expensive and is therefore elitist – and the parking lots seem to support this thesis.

I’m going to skip over the presumption that there’s something wrong with being elite (don’t we all strive to excel in some way?) because it’s not really the critic’s point. Their point is that buying an organic carrot or a locally raised steak is a type of classism and those engaged in it are putting on airs they don’t deserve. They argue poor people simply can’t afford such food and to assert they should eat it is to be guilty of arrogance.

I can’t say that some classism doesn’t exist; I don’t know everyone’s motives for their purchases. But from what I can tell it’s not common.There’s nothing elitist in caring passionately about food, about cooking, about sharing their knowledge and expertise; successes and failures; love and passion with others — whatever one’s social position may be.

I’m a pretty typical foodie. I didn’t set out to cook for a living, I simply fell into it when my old job of editing computer programming magazines disappeared into the Internet vortex and I figured that 40 years of experience in front of my stove might pay for something to put on that stove. It does, barely. Last year I made less than $20,000 and yet I bought most of my vegetables during the summer at the farmers’ market where I paid about a 10 percent premium over the grocery store (largely due to my tomato addiction). During the year, I buy a significant part of my meat from locals at an average 25 percent additional cost. I do this mainly because I think the food I buy tastes better but also because I do care about our ecological, financial, and social environments. There are plenty more like me.

Next week I’m going to be doing a talk at a local community center. My audience will be pre-adolescent to pubescent girls from low-income families. I was asked to talk about being a personal chef and I’ll do that, but I’ll do it while giving them a cooking lesson and, I hope, a view of food that’s good even if not loaded with salt or sugar. I’ll also pay for the ingredients out of my pocket. I’m no saint, but this matters to me because the real issue isn’t class, it’s education. It’s knowing how to create magic when dollars and time are sparse.

So, if you shop at run-down marcados in the Hispanic section of town and are a regular at farmers’ markets, if Whole Foods is on your route and you buy local meat and eggs every Friday off the back of a farmer’s truck in a vacant grocery store’s parking lot, then you are a member of a genuinely elite group: Those who care about what they eat. And that ain’t about class or cash, baby. It’s about good food – regardless of what you drive to find it.

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