Monday, July 25, 2005

A Worsening Temper

Writing for the New York Times must be one of the most stressful jobs on earth, given how many of its feature writers seem to be on the verge of psychological disintegration.

Consider the case of Julie Powell. She's worried that the Union Square farmers' market in New York - a perfectly lovely, innocuous, and inexpensive place that I used to visit every week - is "judging" her. Actually, she's not just worried about it; she's angry about it:

My worsening temper can be calibrated precisely not to the longer days but rather to another unrelenting symbol of the season: the blossoming farmers' market I walk through in Manhattan's Union Square. 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.
What this aberrant, idiosyncratic reflex has to do with the rest of us is anybody's guess. Most of us, I suspect, understand the desire of farmers to sell fresh produce direct to consumers and the desire of consumers to buy fresh produce direct from farmers. But where normal people see a commonplace free-market tradition going back centuries, Powell sees a conspiracy to make good people (e.g., her own sweet self) feel bad through the promotion of organic farming.

Since she has no rational justification for treating this weird stance as relevant to anyone but herself, she's obliged to conjure one up out of thin air. Thus, we learn that her "worsening temper" isn't caused by (for example) petty, carping priggishness, but by her exquisitely refined moral sense:
[T]here remains buried in this philosophy two things that just get my hackles up. The first and most dangerous aspect is the temptation of economic elitism. Of course, food has always been about class. In his classic meditation "The Physiology of Taste," first published in 1825, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin suggested a series of three "gastronomical tests," menus designed to expose the culinary sensitivity - or lack thereof - of one's dining companions...
So we're expected to fret over the clear and present danger of "economic elitism," even though "food has always been about class." I also note that Powell is rapturously conversant with Brillat-Savarin, which is at least suggestive of economic elitism (as are most "lifestyle" features in the Times).

But no sooner does Powell announce that the temptation of economic elitism is the "most dangerous aspect" of organic groceries than she changes her mind:
This sort of garden-variety condescension is eternal, and relatively harmless.

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.
Shopping requires time and money, friends; please make a note of it.

The impossibility of following Powell's argument here makes me wonder if she missed her calling as a three-card monte dealer. Economic elitism is dangerous, but also eternal and relatively harmless. Ethical buying is insidious, but there's nothing wrong with it.

Of course, whether or not eating wild Brazil nuts actually helps the rainforest isn't worthy of discussion, any more than assessments of external costs or government subsidies are allowable when talking about relative prices. The only thing that matters is how your buying decisions make Powell - and the "low-end" shoppers she claims to represent - feel.

Now, there are many, many forms of conspicuous consumption that don't come in for this sort of dyspeptic pseudo-ethical scrutiny in the pages of the Times. What apparently bothers Powell - what always bothers commentators like Powell - is the mere concept of ethical buying. Loading up on status-conferring geegaws out of sheer cupidity is normal and laudable; I suspect that an article on the "insidious dangers" of paying $25,000 for a Rolex would never make it past the editors.

Gratifying one's palate with fois gras or veal or caviar is also normal. What Thorsten Veblen called "the ceremonial differentiation of the dietary" is perfectly acceptable, so long as it stems from hedonistic self-regard rather than from even the most tentative form of social concern. One may shop at Zabar's - or dine at Aureole - without sparing a thought for the clientele of Key Food. It's only when one pays premium prices for, say, fair-trade chocolate that one's motivations must be dissected and one's hidden selfishness or venality smoked out.
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?
A very touching question. Or it would be, if it weren't for that fact that mainstream American political culture - from the President on down - already equates penury with immorality. Like other propositions of Social Darwinism, it's prominently represented in the GOP's domestic platform, where it serves as an argument against social welfare programs and bankruptcy protections.

Obviously, the mother who buys food at Western Beef or Key Food isn't "bad." But the system that sells her meat that's pumped full of hormones - or worse yet, antibiotics - is very bad indeed. Unfortunately, the fact that it's economically convenient, and therefore morally acceptable, to feed the poor on contaminated low-quality meat is not the issue for Powell. She's too busy worrying whether shoppers at "low-end" grocery stores are getting sneered at by effete upperclass snobs. From there, the oddball anthropomorphic notion that the Union Square farmers' market is "judgmental" is just one blind leap of illogic away.


Eli said...

Doesn't she have a nanny to fire or something?

Anonymous said...

She's looking at the whole issue from the consumer's end, which in my opinion is false. I only buy organics and not just for my own health. I think it's unethical to spray kids with pesticides as they pick my strawberries. If by buying organic strawberries a handful of children and adults are spared the spray, then good.

And food stamps? Sorry; Whole Foods takes them. I've seen consumers in New Orleans and here in Chicago use them at check out. What a surprise it would be to her, I'm sure, to discover that people from all social and economic strata are concerned with the mark they're leaving on the world.

I feel a moral obligation to consume thoughtfully. This obligation is more important to me than money. For the past three years my husband and I have earned very little. Teaching in New Orleans is a half-step up from your basic food service job: paid a pittance and expensive benefits. My husband was on a graduate student fellowship and stipend, so you know how little he was making. Still we only shopped organic (and still do). We didn't eat out much at all and frankly didn't miss it because the "elitist" food we cooked was so delicious.

Our culture is driven by thoughtless consumption, which leads us to ask the wrong questions. We question how the Red Cross spends our $25 donation but we don't question how Nike spends the $150 we gave them for a pair of running shoes. We believe we are entitled to every shiny new thing we want, regardless of the actual cost. Because, of course, we only equate cost with dollars spent, not the "unreal" costs of environmental degradation, and human exploitation and suffering.

Our Julie/Julia former salon blogger lives in Manhattan. She is a woman of privilege and yet she judges others. Ask any farmworker in the US, many of whom are children because we don't have child labor laws regarding agriculture, where they'd rather work: a poisoned field that endangers their own health and the sustainability of food production, or an organic field that poses no additional dangers besides sun exposure and back-breaking work.

It's a pretty clear choice, I think.

Rmj said...


been shopping at "Whole Foods Market" since it was one store on Lamar that flooded regularly, and was known as "Whole Floods."

And we pay more now for "organic" milk because the wife and child like skim milk, and the WF brand tastes better (richer, too, for some reason). Ditto the chicken and beef (of which we eat little, for no good reason). It tastes better.

I worked one summer with people living on minimum wage as construction laborers. Their lunches were bologna sandwiches on white bread. The cheapest "meat" available, in other words, on the least bread-like substance known to humankind. It's hard to even call some of that "stuff" food. But it was cheap and filling. I've seen organics come down in price, go up in quality, and expand in quantity and availability, far beyond the "boutique" or a Whole Foods store. Perhaps I can help that spread a bit further, while helping my family and myself. Not to mention the ethical questions Kate raises (one more reason we eat "free-range" chicken and "natural" beef.)

I bake my own breads as much as possible, because there are no decent bakeries around me, and the ones I know of are outrageously expensive. Am I elitist, because I prefer my bread to Wonder Bread? I buy "organic" and "natural" where I can, for my health, and to support the farmers/ranchers.

I agree, Whole Foods customers can sometimes be too cool for school, but hey, I don't have to have dinner with them. And lastly, consider this: as petroluem supplies run lower, so, too, do the petrochemical fertilizers that made the "Green Revolution" possible. Gonna be a hard rain that falls then, eh?

Phila said...

On the other hand is the meaning of the whining of a mosquito worthy of your time and talent? Perhaps not.

Speechless, my "time and talent" are routinely spent on things far less interesting than this! And the excellence of all these comments makes me certain that shaking this particular tree was not in vain.

All these comments are worth responding to at length, but not having the time right now, I've got to say that I'm glad Eli picked up on the weird similarity of this piece to the Helen Olen case, which was in the back of my mind when I wrote it. Both of them can't seem to help lashing out incoherently at things that make them uncomfortable, even if in doing so they reveal more unflattering truths about themselves than about the subjects they hope to "expose."

Perhaps they were both inspired by Daniel Okrent, who's also tried to pass off petty resentments as morally pure teachings.

Phila said...

Well, it looks like I have a few moments after all.

AJ, all excellent points, and your discussion of "authenticity" is probably very pertinent here. Powell presents herself as "authentic" for sneering at the farmers' market, and defending a food distribution system that was imposed on the poor. Stores like Key Food don't reflect consumer needs; they reflect corporate ecomonies of scale. Her intent seems to be to use the poor as poker chips in hopes of bluffing us. Indulging in class warfare in order to strengthen the mechanisms of class oppression has a long tradition, Lord knows.

When I was living in Toronto, I did all my shopping at the Loblaw's near High Park, which was - as you say - full to bursting with organic produce, as many chains are in the States these days.

In AJ's post - and everyone else's, I think - the point about "eating well and not spending a fortune" is important. Something I didn't bother to point out is that the Union Square farmers' market is - like every farmers' markets I've ever been to - very cheap. The one near my current house has heirloom tomatoes for about $2.00 per pound; at Whole Foods, they're about $7.00 per pound. Sellers routinely throw in extras, make deals, or offer giveaways, especially near closing time. Powell's eagerness to conflate the farmers' market with Whole Foods is one of the things that makes her seem like a lunatic, IMO. Much of the food there is not organic, and both the sellers and buyers come from a wide range of races and socioeconomic classes.

Kate, Speechless, and RMJ all cover the reasons why shopping at Whole Foods is an emininently reasonable thing to do. I shop there very often myself, less from conviction than from the fact that it's the nearest store to my house. But we try to do as much of our shopping as possible at the many farmers' markets, and at an independent organic market in SF which actually has a wider, cheaper, and more local selection of organic produce than WH.

Eli said...

I would also like to point out the irony of the "Oh, organic foods are too EXPENSIVE!" piece appearing within a few days of the "Computer infected with spyware? Throw it away and get a new one!" article in the same paper...

Eli said...

And yeah, I can't put my finger on exactly *why* this reminded me of Helen Olen, but I think my take on it was that they were both trying very very hard to rationalize and even congratulate themselves for their own boorish behavior & mindset.

Further proof that the NYT is turning into a Republican paper.

@whut said...

Backyard gardeners with superior weeding skills may win out! GM has inadvertently created a super-weed:

Anonymous said...

I've been reading the NYTs for a long time and this is perhaps one of the most stupid things I've ever read in the op-ed section. It is so bad that to point the finger at the author is not fair - the editor is to blame. The current trend in the NYT is distressing - the nanny articles, one foodie attacking another. It is turning into People magazine.

My impression is what the author wanted to write was "I've heard Alice Waters chirping along on NPR and she sure is annoying and pretentious. Her organic food schtick is tired. In fact I'm tired of the whole California food thing - New York and Paris are where its at." Fair enough - fine blog post. But the process of intellectualizing these thoughts that she went through to turn a lowly diss into an op-ed piece is where things went horribly wrong.

There are many idiotic things to point out as you fine people have done. The author makes it sound like shopping organic is for the elite, but any poor person can cook - just like Julia Child says. Clearly the author has not been living in America for the past two decades. It is more expensive to cook anything than to eat fast food. Turn to nearly any page of the Julia Child book and you get recipes that call for seemingly basic food products like "fresh thyme" "heavy cream" "white wine." Last time I checked at the local Albertson's thyme alone is $1.50, the cheapest white wine is $5-6 a bottle. How much is a burrito at Taco Bell? Or a basic fast food burger?

Go into Western Beef and ask the average shopper if they:
A. Have ever heard of Alice Waters or Julia Childs.
B. Have ever heard of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
C. Read the New York Times.
D. Would believe that a food blogger got several hundred thousand dollars to publish a book based on her blog, quit her day job and then wrote an op-ed article in the nation's most elite newspaper attacking the established food elite as elitist.
E. Would believe that the nation's most elite newspaper would sink so low as to publish such drivel.

Cervantes said...

Yes indeed Phila, this was without any doubt the absolutely stupidest thing I have ever seen in the NYWT. Of course, there are plenty of ties.

I don't really know what I can add to the excoriation of this idiocy except to say that plenty of low income urban people -- mostly Puerto Rican -- shop at the farmer's market in Willimantic. And my neighbor at Brown Farm raises organic free range goats which he sells to a slaughterhouse there and they sell the meat mostly to Jamaican immigrants. The multiethnic, working class population there helps to support the surrounding farms. They don't do it because they're social climbers, they do it because the food is cheap and good.

That's what the farm and the city should be all about.

Anonymous said...

As middle ground I offer "trader joe's" (limited availability)

Well made food that won't raise your stingy elitist hackles.

NYMary said...

Great post, Phila. ANd I have nothing to add to the intelligence and thoughtfulness already expressed here.

But I thought you'd want to see this.

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