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Shopping vs ‘sourcing’: scrap the sanctimony

October 4, 2009

ecoshoppingIn adding the postscript links to the Julia Child post here the other day I was led to the Julie Powell New York Times op-ed piece on organic food that apparently raised the hackles of foodie multitudes in the States a while back. I happen to agree with every word she writes in this piece about food snobbery and class. Her main objection is the moral high ground taken by those who only eat organic food, and their derision of ordinary folks who shop at crappy supermarkets:

What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There’s nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money.

When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality. The milk at Whole Foods is hormone-free; the milk at Western Beef is presumably full of the stuff – and substantially less expensive. The chicken at Whole Foods is organic and cage-free; the chicken at Western Beef is not. Is the woman who buys her children’s food at the place where they take her food stamps therefore a bad mother?

“That’s not cooking, that’s shopping.” This epigram has been attributed to Julia Child and several other chefs of an older generation, in reference to the tenets of California Cuisine. It is sometimes used – often pronounced in a snooty French accent or Childean warble – by devotees of the organic movement (like Doug Hamilton, writer and director of the documentary “Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution”) to mock these fusty old-school cooks. For the newer generation, a love for traditional fine cuisine is cast as fussy and snobbish, while spending lots of money is, curiously, considered egalitarian and wise.

Like Powell, I’m as farmers-market addicted as the next gal, and I prefer to buy organic and free range stuff for the sake of the soil and the animals rather than any belief in its ‘safety’ for my own health (the various studies concluding that organic food is no healthier for humans than other food are perhaps dispiriting, but they are there – and claims from organic food producers like this one, that “Eating non-organic food will lead to ill-health with medical costs that will be far greater than the price of healthy eating” are  just simplistic rubbish).

If I’m honest, one of the main reasons I like to ‘source’ (we can’t say ‘buy’ anymore, don’t you know?) food from small fancy grocers and farmer’s markets is that it just feels nicer.

Supermarkets are ugly, and horribly lit, and often more expensive than other shops, and there’s hideous music, and the fresh food has been in cold storage for a year, and one is confronted by more people speaking viciously to their children, and the packaging is aesthetically displeasing and there’s too much plastic, and the cold food section freezes your bones, and the space is vast and impersonal and noisy, and so the whole experience just makes one feel one has been turned into a mindless participant in the whole mass-production, over-processed consumerist nightmare.

So it stands to reason that visiting a market where there’s open air, and one person selling meat, and another selling cheese, and another selling salad (picked leaves in bags rather than whole lettuces, I might add; I’m not averse to that kind of packaging and processing)  and so on, is a whole lot more pleasurable. But morally superior it ain’t. And it can far too easily topple into into fashion-driven pretentiousness (as we’ve discussed before), and, as Powell points out in her piece, can be as unattractively consumerist as any supermarket:

With his gastronomic tests, Brillat-Savarin sought to find others like himself, of whatever economic status, who truly enjoyed food. It’s easy to do the same today, but the method isn’t to assume that everyone at Whole Foods is wise and everyone at the Western Beef benighted.

Instead, look in their carts. Some shop at Western Beef for nothing more than diet cola and frozen bagels; some at Whole Foods for premade sushi and overdesigned bottles of green tea. These people have much in common. So, too, do the professorial types poring over the sweet corn and dewy blueberries at the greenmarket and the Honduran family at the discount grocery, piling their cart high with rice and dried beans and canned tomatoes and all the other stuff you need to make something out of nothing much.

End of rant. Read the whole Powell opinion piece here.


7 comments

  1. Here’s a confession. I’ve never been to a farmer’s market. I love feeling morally inferior. It’s my comfort zone.


    • Oh my locally-grown truffle-infused home-schooled STARS, Jamie! How on earth did you get past the howtoshuck border patrol??


  2. Disguised myself as a friendly, harmless garden gnome. No-one suspected a thing. Nyuk nyuk.


  3. I have to admit to a supermarket renaissance in our household due to both a new baby and a new mortgage. I used to happily trail all over Sydney for different produce, and generally not even look at price tags, but with my wee man in tow, trailing now relates to at home duties! I still find it cheaper to go to certain butchers, but have to avoid others at all costs, and I’ve found the supermarket much improved in the deli selection. It’s not organic or locavore, but I don’t think this makes me a planetary terrorist. I will agree it doesn’t feel as nice!


  4. I love the farmers’ market because as you say, Charlotte, it just feels good. It’s a lovely way to buy groceries. And I don’t just mean the rather privileged, expensive version near my place – I mean the frenetic pace of fresh produce changing hands at Flemington Markets, where no one cares about anything but buying and selling good, fresh food at a fair price. Never has such an insane environment made better sense.


  5. Agree – more money in purse no cause for sanctimony. I do too frequently resort to supermarkets, ugly though they are, because when time is short I can get stuff for dinner, milk, juice, bread, toilet paper, dog food etc etc all in one flying visit. (Unless they are being really mean, I feel sorry for the frazzled hissing parents.)


    • I do too Fiona – the parents I mean. Except when, as witnessed recently, a mother hissed to her daughter that she was “a little bitch”. Nice. Also when witnessed father yanking a daughter to him by the HAIR. Deeply distressing. Could be just my shopping centre – it’s a classy joint.



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