What we eat

Just about everyone I know’s got a special food plan for the fall. One friend’s not eating gluten. Another gave up booze for a couple weeks. One fine fellow walked around with a sports bottle full of cayenne water and lemon until his eyes were red. Some other folks I know go South Beach periodically, and one family even vowed to give up anything that comes in a package, except for dried fruits and nuts. As for me and my ladyfriend, we’re coming to the end of six weeks without wheat and sugar: kind of dramatic, I know, but we did it once before, six or seven years ago, and it worked well to jumpstart our systems — giving up either of these things is (I imagine) like detoxing from a drug — and forced us to reckon more fully than normal with what it is we actually eat.

One byproduct of this experiment is that it’s changed my shopping habits, probably for good. In part because I buy food for four — and have lived, for several years, in neighborhoods not known for their grocery options — I’ve depended on the old push-cart method, an east side staple for centuries. I take my little granny cart, the kind you buy on the street in Chinatown, and walk twenty minutes or so until I get to a Pathmark over by the Manhattan Bridge. When I started shopping there a year after we moved to New York, I realized how badly the smaller, closer grocery stores had been ripping us off: my grocery bill was cut nearly in half. In part this has to do with real estate; a small corner grocery can’t stock as many varieties of any given item as a major chain store can, so they can’t really offer regular sales. Topping that off, the smaller stores target different demographics, and the ones that are aiming higher than food stamp stock often ratchet up their prices to make you feel like you’re getting something worthwhile. The walk to Pathmark and the walk back pushing a week’s worth of food was worth it, simply because I could buy butter for under $3 a pound, cereal for under $3 a box, and something for my kids’ lunches that didn’t cost a fortune.

But this fall, no sugar no wheat, has left me in search of other options, especially for fresh food, which we’ve taken in much greater quantities to fill the processed- and packaged-foods hole left when you get rid of something as simple as sugar. When you have to pick up fresh food once a week, even a bike ride to Pathmark doesn’t seem to make sense, let alone multiple trips with the cart. Besides, all the fluorescent Yellow #5 in the pickles I’d been buying had left me wondering whether cheaper foods were worth the cost of putting that crap in our bodies. (Why not buy my pickles from an actual, hand-made pickle shop? We have one nearby!) So I’ve started heading up to Union Square two or three times a week for the Greenmarket, and I’ve even found myself braving the infamous lines in Trader Joe’s and (gasp!) the infamous prices at Whole Foods — frequently enough that I feel confident making some observations about all three. Please chime in if you have additional observations about these food sources; most opinionated eaters do.

black clothes required

Starting with the Behemoth on the Bowery. Depending on your relationship to the Whole Foods chain, you either celebrated when your local store opened or you cringed. If the latter, it was probably because you knew you’d be sucked in sooner or later, even in small doses. I have friends who fall on either side of the love-hate divide, including a childhood friend who works for the corporation itself, finding new locations, and another who used to buy her groceries on 23rd street even though she lived all the way down on John. When the store opened on the Bowery (making it so much more convenient for the residents of the local mens’ shelters and flop houses to get their organic foods), a friend of mine publicly lamented its inevitable contribution to the suburbanization of the Lower East Side. His piece prompted a nasty response from Andrew Sullivan, who called him a hipster prig, and dozens of comments from angry Americans like this one, from Alaska: “You guys are snobs. … But there is a chance to save yourselves and your pets (your children already hate you): get a gun and end your lives. Do them (pets) and all of us a favour. Vive la whole foods.”

My own experience with Whole Foods has been mixed. When we lived in Boston, we had a smaller version in our neighborhood, formerly a local chainstore called Bread and Circus, which has long-since been rolled into the WF snowball. We used to call it “Whole Paycheck.” Sure, responding to pressure from customers the chain has tried to offer locally grown, reduced-priced options on produce, and the 365 brand isn’t that much more expensive than store brands elsewhere. Sure, the prepared foods counters are expansive and generally delicious, and the meats and fish (for the most part) are plump and supposedly raised in humane conditions. But how much of this is just marketing? Look closely and the labels still tell you that most of these products were shipped from the other side of the globe. And loads of what you buy in packages — in spite of the no preservative thing — still aren’t good for you, even if they cost $3 more per pound. Bottom line is, I couldn’t buy my whole week’s worth of groceries there, even if the prices were lower. I guess I fall on the side that fears something sinister when foods are so clearly marketed to the affluent, when everything looks a little too perfect in the display cases. We’re lucky enough to live in a place where we have local vendors for most of this stuff; one goal I have this fall is to meet more of them.

ringing your bell?

When Trader Joe’s opened up on 14th street a couple years ago, so many people I know rejoiced. Here, they trumpeted, is a chain that wants to bring better food to the masses, even though most of it comes in plastic or the freezer section. Since their prices are just about as good as Pathmark’s on many things, I decided to try to use them to replace a certain portion of my weekly trip to the megastore. Cereal, cheese, snack foods for the kids. Hell, I even went in for some of the peeled and chopped butternut squash, thinking I could use the extra 10 minutes it would save me next time I wanted to make a batch of soup. And in some ways the trips up and back on my bike, carting as much as I can in my basket or dangling from the handlebars, have paid off: I’d rather give my kids their cheddar puffs than regular chips, etc. But mostly what I’ve learned, aside from the fact that all these packages threaten to take the fun out of cooking, is that much of what you get at this store comes saturated with sugar, including pre-seasoned meats and poultry. (That Korean Bul Kogi? Soaked in sugar water.) When you’ve been off the drug for a couple weeks, even something as innocuous as a box of sushi from a chain store will set off your geiger counter. The rice was gummy — bad enough — but it was also so sweet we were certain it had been packaged for McDonald’s. Sure enough, the ingredients list ratted the bastards out. Again, why subject ourselves to this in the name of convenience when we conveniently have real sushi for decent prices steps away from the house?

I [heart] Jersey tomatoes!

(Photo via L. Beyerstein’s flikr page)

If only I could figure out how to get all my food from the Union Square Greenmarket, though maybe the lesson the Greenmarket teaches is that it’s worth it to go out of your way to buy food from as many people as it takes to get good stuff, even if that means shopping at more places than just the Greenmarket. I’ve been buying produce there a couple times a week since we returned from summer travels, and the difference in our diet has been extreme. Seasonal delights — heirloom tomatoes, Jersey beefsteaks, luscious low-acid yellows — mounds of actual vegetables, not chopped and canned and wrapped in plastic. Line-caught-fish mongers, locally grown beef. Upstate apples. Honey harvested on New York rooftops. Goat cheese sold out of the back of a van by the women who patiently made it themselves. It took some getting used to — you have to go open to buying what’s there, not necessarily what you want — and no, there are no bananas, of course. But my dollar went a long way, the food was fantastic, and most of it came from less than 180 miles away.

Last week, for the first time, I went to the market with my friend Sacha, who’s been shopping there for almost twenty years. She’s a free-lance, certified holistic health counselor, whose services include pickling workshops, diet planning, and tours through the market, teaching folks how to manage it. Shopping at the market with Sacha was like having someone give you a secret password, like learning the local language. She knew dozens of vendors by name — the guy she buys smoked trout from every Wednesday; the blokes who grow their wheatgrass in Brooklyn; the people with the amazing year-aged cheddar, crackling with crystals. We sampled and strolled; she’d point to her favorite place for greens or whole-grain breads or colorful eggs harvested from free range chickens someone has imported from South America. A friend we were with bought a box of salad flowers, a rainbow of tastes and colors, which we snacked on while we walked. At one Long Island fishmonger, we purchased scallops as big as a golf ball, for less than a dollar, and ate them as sushi, right on the spot. What could beat the taste of that big buttery morsel, fresh from the ocean? I’m going back Wednesday to buy a dozen oysters, 75 cents a piece.

27 responses to “What we eat”

  1. Josh says:

    Hey, I just got back from the inaugural voyage of my new granny-cart. (Which came with incongruously rugged, off-roadesque tires. As a novice grannycarter I wonder, do people actually go backpacking with these things?)
    On a supermarket level, I live on the other side of the world, not just geographically, but culturally as well, from New York. Spain is undergoing a clunky, uncomfortable transition from its third world past to a shiny new, fully globalized, Euro-tinged present. Not too long ago, I would go to the open market just down the street from my house and ¡haggle! for fresh fruit, meat and fish; usually from an acquaintance of the guy who had grown, raised or caught the food in question. Buying food took time – it’s hard to haggle quickly, especially when one has to intersperse the economics with anecdotes about grandkids and suggestions for new recipes – but cost pennies (err, pesetas). The shoppers cut across almost the full economic and generational spectrum. Now, I still go to the open market, but haggling is no longer possible, my only partners in the queue are run down pensioners and sorry traditionalists, and the products come from Africa or some other, unknown location. Prices have risen dramatically, mostly due to the country’s maladjustment to the Euro. For cheap food, one must now go to a big, impersonal, multinational supermarket. There, wage earners and the younger generation can shop elbow to elbow with the yuppies, and be in and out the door with nary a word to the folks who work the cash registers. I continue to shop at the market, in part because I like the ritual of wandering the rows of stands, saying hello to neighbors, sheepishly admitting that I’ve finally joined the ranks of the housewives with carts club, but mostly because I believe that by keeping my money “in the neighborhood”, my more expensive food is actually cheaper in the long run.
    I’m sure that sometime in the near future some entrepreneurial type will open a whole foods type store, and offer the hip kids who were so quick to abandon the open market the same quality of produce, but with a higher price tag, and wrapped in plastic rather than newsprint. I guess that’s what they call “progress”.

  2. A White Bear says:

    For the truly, madly, deeply sanctimonious, there’s always the Park Slope Food Cooperative. I sicken guests by asking them to look at the price labels on my huge hunk of Bucherondin–$1.83!–or at the totals for my massive weekly produce buys. I’ve never in my life been so well fed. Having access to actually cheap, organic, mind-bogglingly diverse produce options makes the prospect of not cooking every night seem a sin. I used to buy Amy’s frozen pot pies, for God’s sakes! Now I eat a golden kiwi ($0.37) while chopping up beets ($0.40) and celeriac ($0.56) for a soup.

    The problem is, I can never leave. My rent is going up to $1200 next month, and I can’t really afford it. But I’m five minutes from the Co-op! What will I do when it’s time to get a job with this PhD?

  3. Dave says:

    I’m always just about to joint the co-op, but I admit I’m afraid of commitment.

    Has anyone else seen Our Daily Bread? It’s an amazing documentary that has no narration, just shot after beautiful shot of the details of industrial food production: migrant workers picking lettuce before dawn, fish being vacuumed(!) from a fjord, the skins of beef cattle being peeled off by a hydraulic apparatus. Bryan’s Whole Foods discussion reminded me of a scene of women sorting apples into perfect little styrofoam trays, rejecting any apple that had the slightest flaw. Anyway, it’s a hard film to watch but well worth it.

  4. Dave says:

    Besides fear of commitment, one of the things that keeps me from joining the co-op is that I don’t really know how to cook seasonally. This also keeps me from going to greenmarkets — I’m unable to improvise with ingredients outside of some pretty narrow parameters. Could anyone recommend one cookbook that would be good on seasonal use of produce and that’s pitched at the everyday cook, not the fancy cook? I have the Bittman and enjoy it, but it’s not keyed to seasons at all.

  5. dave —

    the moosewood daily special focuses on soups and salads, easy enough to prepare, and mostly seasonal. if you want to add meat, it’s easy enough.

    i kept thinking of your descriptions of our daily bread while i was writing this morning. i still haven’t seen it but would like to.

    one thing sacha told me the other day is that seasonal eating often eliminates seasonal allergies. pretty amazing.

  6. Missy says:

    I can testify to the wonders of your no sugar or wheat (except communion wafers, I remember the instructions noting) diet. I lost 20 lbs in 3 months and never looked or felt better. Of course, several months after finishing it I was in Paris and fell off the bread wagon and things have been downhill from there.

    The best thing to happen to my eating habits was joining a local natural food store’s weekly produce program. For $15 dollars a week I get a box full of locally grown, seasonal vegetables and fruit, and then I just have to figure out what to do with them. The store clerks are really chatty and will offer suggestions, but mostly I find myself on the internet trying to figure out what to do with things. I think that’s your best cookbook option, Dave. Two years into it I’m still having fun broadening my pallet. I don’t know how I ate before I knew about kale. Over the weekend, for example, I made a chunky potato leek chowder, figured out how to make dandelion greens a little less bitter, and whipped up a truly stunning spaghetti squash lasagna-type thing. And discovered Ambrosia apples. Heaven!

    p.s. With apologies to Adriana, who tells wonderful stories of co-op life, I’d be hesitant to join the co-op, too. Great prices, great selection, but they’re also kind of scary and punitive, no?

  7. sj says:

    hey everyone, you know, if you want to preserve some the season’s bounty to enjoy in the deep winter, why not come to my pickling workshop this Thursday. drop me an email and i will share the details.
    And don’t be intimidated by eating seasonally – the beauty of it for the most part is that it’s largely food enjoyed by the most simple of preparation.
    and if anyone wants to come to the farmer’s market with me let me know, it’s my favourite thing to do.
    sacha x

  8. Scotty says:

    Gosh, I remember the simpler (and less fraught with danger) days of food shopping, sitting in the cart with my mother’s cigarette smoke in my face.

  9. Rachel says:

    I’m lucky enough to live in a place that’s politcally progressive and near a lot of agriculture, so it’s easy to support the “locavore” movement. Having the farmer’s market and the co-op within walking distance has really changed the whole way I eat. Bread’s still in my diet, but it’s a multigrain loaf baked at a cooperative down the street. Madison is a food lover’s paradise!

    The best thing, though, has been joining a local CSA (community-supported agriculture)–and it’s even partially covered by our health insurance, which totally rocks. Every week is like Christmas.

    Lest I sound like one of those smug foodies, though, I have to cop to loving Trader Joe’s– especially their cheesy poofs, pasta sauces, and the whole damn freezer case. I also succumb to Whole Foods’ near-pornographic aesthetic perfection, especially for non-local items I can’t do without, like citrus fruits. (And have you ever picked up one of their wood-fired pizzas? Whooee!)

    Dave, for seasonal cookbooks, try:
    Molly O’Neill, A Well-Seasoned Appetite
    Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries
    Deborah Madison, Local Flavors

  10. Rachel says:

    p.s. No meat, booze, processed foods, fine. But is life without gluten really worth living? I remain unconvinced.

  11. AW says:

    Your post brings back great memories of shopping at the Union Square Market. My favorite purchase from there: a Christmas tree that the vendor bundled up in twine and that I dragged back to my apartment.

    Scotty–laughed out loud at your comment. And Dave, thanks for asking the same question I had about everyday cooking–and to others for the recommendations.

  12. scott — you made me laugh out loud too.

    and rach — i was hoping people would chime in with their favorite things about the stores i named. i know what i *don’t* like, but i’m sure there’s plenty there to try. i’m not sure why i would buy pizza at whole foods rather than, say, lombardi’s. can you explain?

  13. Robyn says:

    When I tried to do the “no sugar no wheat” thing, I ate loads of dried fruit and nuts (unsulphured fruit, and “raw” nuts if possible). Which probably isn’t that great for you. I mean, dried fruit IS sugar, just not processed. Euh. Well.

    Now you’re making me feel like I should do some special diet thing this fall. Except I probably won’t because I’ve become too accustomed to eating whatever’s in front of my face. :( I foresee weight gain in my future.

    My mum and I shop at Whole Foods at least once a week. :[ We can’t help it! We live 5 minutes away from a Pathmark, but it kinda sucks even though it’s huge. Whole Foods is more like 25 minutes away. During the summer we’d also go to farmer’s markets, which mostly close up by the time fall rolls around.

    When I lived at Water Street I did my shopping like so: before or after class I would stop by the Greenmarket and pick fruit/veg/bread/eggs/whatnot and when I was back in my dorm I’d shop in Chinatown. I didn’t know anyone who shopped in Chinatown (my roommate never did at least!) but there I could buy loads of oranges, persimmons, baked goods, noodles, and random veggies for cheaps. AWESOME!

    And now I live in NJ. Sigh.

  14. Rachel says:

    Well, Bry, in New York you probably wouldn’t go to Whole Foods for pizza. But it’s still really good. I can’t get used to the idea of NYC with Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. When I lived there, most of my shopping was in Queens, in Astoria and Jackson Heights–goats strung up in shop windows and all. And who can forget the giant frogs piled in drywall buckets for sale in Chinatown?! Beat that, TJ’s.

  15. Kate the Great says:

    I’ve lived in the West all my life. I shop at Albertsons and Smiths. When we go to the scratch-and-dent store, we’re being adventurous. I went to a Farmer’s Market once during this summer, but I think my city is just starting up one because it was mostly jewelry and T-shirts.

    Yet I hear all these fascinating concepts. I read all about co-ops from Adriana, and I think we’ve got two or three “Whole Foods” stores in our town. But I’m still trying to figure out what Whole Foods means, and I don’t know what Pathmark is. It’s like this fascinating, alien world that is wonderful, but I don’t know how to step into it.

    Maybe my main problem is time. Our grocery shopping includes going to Smiths at 9 at night because it’s the only thing open. My cooking has improved, though. I’m no longer making either Hamburger Helper or Hot Pockets every night for dinner. I have onions and tomatoes and potatoes in my fridge; I too look for recipes online using the things I’ve got in the fridge.

    When I’ve got more time, how do I step into this world of Whole Foods? Do I find a Whole Foods store near me? Or do I plunge in and go find a farmer’s market that meets every Saturday morning? Is Trader’s Joe worth trying? I’ve heard some people curse it and some people worship it.

    I’m thoroughly confused.

  16. Kate the Great says:

    I guess I should clarify; I’m land-bound. New Mexico and Utah. We hope to move to Washington/Oregon in maybe a year.

  17. Jen says:

    Out here in the Southland we don’t have Pathmark, but we do have Whole Foods and I avoid it like the plague. Instead I go to the Hollywood farmer’s market every Sunday – it’s great and organic and all that, but definitely not cheap, but I feel much better shopping there because it’s much healthier and I’m supporting local farmers. Conversely, our local mercado has incredibly cheap produce, although it’s not always in the best shape, and laden with pesticides, I’m sure. I wonder if the Greenmarket is cheaper than the supermarkets because produce is generally more expensive on the east coast?

    For cookbooks, I highly recommend “Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone” by Deborah Madison – among other things, this book has recipes for single vegetables, which makes seasonal cooking much easier.

  18. Bryan says:

    kate — “whole foods” is a mega-chain that over the last five years or so bought out a number of smaller regional chains. more here, including a store finder if you want to know how far you’d have to drive to get to one. i’m sure you’ll have more food options in oregon.

    pathmark is the equivalent of albertson’s or smith’s. they’re not as prevalent in manhattan as they are in suburbs or jersey because it’s hard to find space for a store that size.

    you’ve helped me realize that i do, in fact, have lots of options, even if it feels like i have to walk or bike a long way to get to them: waa, waa. i guess it’s not that big a deal to be able to walk to a variety of places.

    rach: WF on the bowery does seem a little out of place. but the landed gentry seems to like it!

  19. Missy says:

    Rachel, how does the CSA work? Is it like a co-op? How is it covered by your insurance? Intriguing.

  20. Josh says:

    Kate, in Abq.my folks get many of their groceries from a tiny farmer’s market (no a chain store, a place where farmers sell their produce) on 12th and ¿Candelaria? I know its on 12th anyway. or, if you’ve got more land around you than the average New Yorker, you could try growing some of your own produce.

  21. Bryan says:

    we’re thinking about buying into a CSA, but we’ve heard the winter is all artichokes all the time. we do love artichokes, but geez …

    have you weathered a winter in your CSA rachel?

  22. Rachel says:

    No, so far we’ve only signed up seasonally. Info on our CSA here. They’re really modest about how much food you get with a standard share; it’s really more like 2 or 3 big grocery bags’ worth.

    The insurance break works on a rebate system; many plans also grant them on gym memberships. I really like the idea of exercise & diet contributing to the “wellness” model of health care. Instead of lining the pockets of pharmaceutical companies, why not work out, eat veggies, and try not to get sick in the first place?

    A lot of farms around here have greenhouses for winter growing, so maybe I’ll have to look into it. (You can only do so many things with artichokes!) It’s well worth it, especially when most farmer’s markets go into hibernation during the winter months.

  23. Missy says:

    I’m jealous. Looks like way more variety than is available at my store, where we’re pretty much subject to the whims of the owner. As much as I like greens, three different kinds per week starts to overwhelm. Thus my irrational excitement over a damn spaghetti squash. I want fava beans! You’ve inspired me to seek out other options.

  24. Beth W says:

    This summer I did an exclusion diet to discover if there were foods upsetting my system. I cut milk, wheat, soy and corn. It turned out wheat was the only one that bothers me. It’s really hard and not fun but I feel better. While on the diet, I found that Whole Foods had the most products with the fewest ingredients. For instance, you can actually find crackers with only rice and water. The process made me much more aware of all the junk added to foods. Whole Foods prices are comparable to a regular grocery store (and sometimes cheaper) on certain items like cereal and beans. They also have a large selection of wheat free baking items you won’t find at TJs.

    My parents belong to a CSA in Oregon. It runs from about May to October when things are growing. It’s only vegetables (no fruit) but it’s great. They share with another family because there is so much food.

    For vegetable cookbooks I would agree with others and recommend Deborah Madison. Her book Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone is one of my favorites. It’s like a reference book on vegetables plus lots more. I also have Local Flavors, which highlights seasonal foods found in farmer’s markets. It’s a beautiful book but the produce is more unusual and I actually haven’t used it.

  25. Kate the Great says:

    Bryan– I’m happy I helped you realize something. It makes me feel like part of the TGW community.

    Josh– We lived close to Juan Tabo, but my mom did frequent a Farmer’s Market on either Eubank or San Antonio until it went out of business. I didn’t realize what she was trying to do until I went back for my wedding. Are there many stores like those Farmer’s Markets nowadays or do we have to go to the farmer’s markets held on Saturdays in the summer to get our fix?

    Land’s not an option. I live in an apartment. Our new apartment managers just gave us the option of buying pots/planters and growing on the apartment property, but it was the middle of September when they came.

  26. Josh says:

    Kate — Unfortunatly, as a born and bred valley-rat, my nose would start bleeding (figuratively) from the altitude if I ever ventured further east than Carlisle, so I don’t really know too much about what was going on in the “Heights”. Nor am I of much use as to current goings-on, I haven’t lived in Abq. since 1990, but from conversations with my folks, I have the sensation that they go to the “mercado” year-round.
    I too live in an apartment, albeit one with a nice balcony, but still manage to produce my own tomatoes, peppers, the occasional green chilie, and one or two tangerines (hopefully more next season). If you have windows, time and a bit of ingenuity, a hydroponic garden might be a stop-gap solution for your fresh veggie needs.

  27. Kate the Great says:

    Ah. Time is the only thing I don’t have out of those things.

    It’s okay. Just because I lived there, doesn’t mean I went to school there. A lot of my friends and people I associated with were from South Valley. My parents hated driving me to their houses, but they’ve got something up their butts that wouldn’t let me ride the bus down there, either.

    And I haven’t been there since 2003; just tells you how long I’ve been in school. Strange how you only miss your hometown when you’re moved from it.