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Culture Shock at the Supermarket
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Copyright © 2004 Nikki Rose. All rights reserved
Culture Shock at the Supermarket
by Nikki Rose
first printed by Slow Food, 2004

I returned to my homeland of Washington, DC recently, after living in the
mountains for three years -- not the Blue Ridge but the Lassithi in Crete.

Many new trends had developed: the art of drinking coffee while walking was one.
Lunch hours had been cut to minutes and people circled office blocks while
consuming hot dogs, pizza or fancy wrap sandwiches. Stress levels seemed so
magnified; people were rushing through life whether they needed to or not.

Dining in decent restaurants resembled a fast-food experience -- hardly enjoyable
as people seemed obligated to scrape their plates in 12 minutes or less. I felt
uncomfortable for adjusting to the Greek way of nibbling and chatting for two or
three hours. Granted, I still had a stressful job, but somehow the rest of it was
different. I had never been accused of being normal when I lived in DC, but now I
was hopelessly out of the loop. Had sitting or socializing while eating been
banned? I was relieved to find that my family and friends were dining illegally-slowly
whenever they had the chance.

A new gourmet mega-market had finally opened in my old neighborhood, a
welcome improvement as we had suffered for decades in a culinary dead zone just
north of the financial district. Feeling the need for specialized psychoanalysis after
shopping at the old ball-and-chain, where seemingly nice people became monsters
upon crossing its threshold and the sight of the wilting produce could bring one to
tears, THE market was the salvation we'd been waiting for.

On my first visit, I entered with great anticipation, along with my chef-buddy visiting
from New York. The produce section was a glorious sight with a sparkling rainbow
of crisp vegetables piled to the ceiling. Signs designating ‘conventionally cultivated’
and ‘organic’ hung above the unconfirmed good stuff and bad stuff. Organic
dandelion greens...incredible! We reserve a whole day to collect and prepare wild
greens back at my new digs. I embarked on a manic shopping spree: leeks,
dandelion, arugula, Swiss chard, radishes, petite this, petite that. Then it hit me,
the price of organic carrots. My friend from New York doesn't embarrass easily, but
when I gasped at the carrots and dramatically barreled out that $600 per pound
was a bit steep, his face developed the red glow of hydroponic tomatoes.

Once I had a small audience, I rattled off my views on the state of the
unsustainably cultivated union. Now I know why people don't have time to cook,
they have to work overtime to pay for organically cultivated weeds. Granted, it's a
struggle to grow organic in a world smothered in toxins, but some prices seemed
extreme and certainly beyond the average person's budget, namely mine. I
opened the debate on how big the gap is between what struggling organic farmers
make and what THE market is raking in. My friend nervously glanced over his
shoulder, either anticipating a confrontation with a security guard or scanning the
escape routes.

Back in the hills of my new home base, my partner and I buy the most heavenly
olive oil I've ever tasted from the guy who makes it -- straight from the village
factory spigot. We have to make an appointment, which means we let him know
we're coming and hope he'll be there, stay for dinner, kiss the children and load up
the trunk with luscious liquid gold that costs $3 a liter. I was thrilled to see the fine
selection of olive oils at THE market. I also hoped that people were buying it
because I know olive growers deserve all the meager local currency they earn.
Besides, it's good for you, most everyone aside from the dairy or peanut board
says so.

My friend and I lingered beside the fountain of youth stocks for a moment to see
what hot brands were being swooped up. People came by and carefully inspected
bottles and prices. Some were suckered into a half-liter of French marketing
mastery in a pretty bottle on sale for $18. Most people just gazed at the selection,
looked confused and walked away. The house brand, described as simply Italian
extra-virgin cold-pressed, was reasonably priced. Sold! Three cheers to THE
Market for making E.V.C.P.O.O. accessible to the people. A lot of robust Greek
olive oil is shipped off in bulk to Italy to be combined with their lighter varieties then
bottled and branded as an Italian product. Good, then perhaps we're doing our bit
for the farmers of two nations at once, if they're getting a fair share of the deal.

I thought we'd try a nice roast salmon or halibut for dinner. My friend, a confessed
carnivore, said that fish would be lovely as a first course. We glanced at the
impressive offerings of Poseidon's treasures. OK, at these prices, people like us
don't do first courses. Next to the gleaming seafood counter were stacks of little
containers of octopus salads and such. Who's buying these exotic delicacies? Are
they transformed into fabulous specials at the eleventh hour by THE catering
department? Since we both cooked for a living, we're prone to speculate on such
things.

We stepped lightly towards the bustling meat counter. The lamb shanks just
leaped out at us, haven't made them in ages. Time-consuming to prepare, but
we'd make the time. Just a decade ago, lamb shanks were about as popular as
pig's feet here, a flavorful dish appreciated only by those in the know, something
most people imagined was consumed without silverware by Henry VIII or Fred
Flintstone. Today, the price for six meaty bones was the equivalent of my daily
salary. No truffles included. As we were planning a special event, THE market
butcher enjoyed an easy sale.

I made the mistake of letting my friend go to the wine section alone while I went in
search of cannellini beans to accompany our hopefully exquisite braised lamb
shanks. We studied wines in school, so I thought he'd be savvy. The Châteauneuf-
du-Pape was a bargain for employed CEOs, but do people like us deserve an
ounce or two? Indeed we do. We also stopped off at the fabulous cheese section
and picked up a few small samples to tide us over while the shanks were braising.

Mission accomplished, we browsed a bit to see what else was on offer in this vast
temple of health and well being. One isle was lined with little vials of potions
assuring the secrets to immortality; Asian remedies for every modern ailment, oils
for massage, aromatherapy and what not. Can't one just toss a few sprigs of
spearmint in the bath, as the great Roman emperors had done, and call it a day?

Two women were having a serious chat about this expansive ancient-turned-new-
age medicine cabinet. A glance at their shopping basket didn't coincide with their
mission. Processed food. Not even so much as a bunch of fresh parsley sprouting
from the pile of cardboard and shimmering wrapping paper. Organic labeling, mind
you, but lab food nonetheless. Boxes from the sub-zero department containing all-
healthy meals made with love in a big (pristine?) warehouse. Nutrient-packed
sweet-potato and eggplant chips fried in clinically approved oil were tucked into
eco-friendly bags with photos of a pure and beautiful landscape. Trenton didn't
look like that the last time I passed through.

Full stop. We have become so processed we don't even notice it any more. It has
crept up on us gradually and now we can't live without it. First we were told we
wanted bright white flour and stripped rice, but cheese must be orange. Then we
had to have bland but blemish-free apples and pears. I hoped these lost souls
searching for holistic health in three easy steps were not punishing themselves
with powdered energy drinks instead of a decent fresh fruit salad and a handful of
almonds. A couple of years ago, muscle-builders-in-a-can were reserved for the
niche market gym-lords. The irony of competitive sport, when the intention to
become the picture of health is sometimes negated by the desire to be Hercules.
Conjuring up the allure of synthetically-produced biceps beyond the rationale of
Hippocrates or Popeye, marketing is intended to triumph over common sense and
doctor's orders.

Back in the sticks, Greece is not a nation of healthaholics, per se, even though the
miracle Mediterranean Diet studies stemmed from here and their health stats and
magical culinary combos are still on the ‘best of this planet’ list. Many Greeks still
maintain a close connection to agriculture, are aware of their food sources and
quality, can easily identify a real tomato and may even climb mountains to enjoy
decent food. As for mega-agribusiness food safety scares, no one's exempt. All
the more reason to maintain good relations with the shepherd!

Generation X is much the same everywhere these days with international chain-
expansion and cool ad campaigns, so Greek teens are happily surfing the
processed food wave when their grandmothers aren't looking. Gotta unload those
GM corn tortillas somewhere in this world— they last forever don't they? One can
only hope that a remedy will be discovered before the powerful lab food marketing
bug spreads across the globe.

As we approached THE market check-out counter, my heart started to beat out my
chest, thinking of the price we'd have to pay for all this good living. The cashier
gave me a funny glance...lots of stuff to weigh...she mumbled, looking at the piles
of fresh produce tumbling onto the conveyor belt. I felt as though we were
supposed to apologize for not buying neatly packaged, invisible-chef gourmet
items with a handy label to scan. Should I explain that I already enjoy enough bad
habits, still legal in this country unless I'm operating heavy machinery or ignore
designated-area signs, and my love of good food does not permit laboratory
cuisine to be on my vice list?

A large single-malt scotch came to mind while trapped between the rumbling front
line of conveyor belts, rolling out more organic chips, premade hummus, tabbouleh
and containers of limp lettuce from THE salad bar, surely fresh at some point, now
decomposing from exposure, handled and mangled by the masses. Clanging
bottles of ginseng and green tea cocktails with very cool rain forest labeling, 500
times more expensive than a little tin of the straight stuff, indicated there's no time
for tea. Watson, that's why the produce is so expensive, it's simply for show.

My musings were interrupted. For once, I unintentionally made a scene with the
cannellini beans I had gathered from the bulk organic legumes section. I just put
some in a bag and threw them in my basket—wrong! The cashier scolded me, I
was supposed to have followed THE instructions and attached a code-label for this
item from that section. The hydroponic tomato glow started to form on my cheeks. I
apologized profusely, confessed that I was from out of town and uninformed of THE
market etiquette, but politely estimated the price to be $600 per pound. I sure
hope the organic farmers are getting a cut of this action.

Prepared for the worst, my buddy handed over a plastic card representing
payment of our extravagant adventure and we headed toward the elevator,
arguing about his demented offer to bear the brunt alone. A young British couple
joined us in the handy lift to the parking lot, whispering while surveying their
mountain of purchases. I was tempted to ask what they thought of the prices here,
but had stirred up enough crop dust for one day.

If THE market really is sharing the wealth with struggling farmers, I will gladly pay
the price. Sustainable organic farmers have been trying to tell us for years that the
price of their food is the real price of food.  I’ll add “clean and safe” here.  
Subsidies for industrial farming make this surreal. Even in the case of subsidies,
farmers rarely receive THE market share of our agribusiness. People supplying lab
seeds, pesticides, machinery, or processing have never united in the tens of
thousands to fight for their livelihood on this great city’s Mall. Only farmers have.  If
THE market is not supporting a sustainable partnership with our farmers, should
we, the consumers, sit back and accept this?  At the least, we can actively push for
more farmers’ markets in Washington so that we know we are directly supporting
the people dedicated to supplying us with clean and safe food.

©Nikki Rose