Sunday, August 24, 2008

Alice Waters: My Farmers' Market Problem

Why can't I just wander mellowly of a Sunday morning, enjoying the sunshine, the downy peaches and rosy red onions, the company of my cultured food-loving compatriots at the Farmers' Market? 

I don't know! I've been going to farmers' markets regularly for the last twelve years, and yet I always feel like a bit of chump. I am trying to figure out why. Two thoughts:

1. The prices. I know Alice Waters and Michael Pollan think we should be paying more for food, and I agree. Agrobusiness shortcuts have artificially lowered the prices of food. But how do we know what the price should be? If you can buy a pound of wonderful peaches at a Utah fruitstand for 99 cents should you really pay $3.75/pound at a Bay Area farmers' market? If you can buy five bunches of scallions for a buck at the Chinese grocery store should you really pay a buck per bunch at the Farmers' Market?

Maybe. Maybe not. I need more evidence. I can take it on faith that I should pay half again as much -- or even twice as much -- for an organic scallion. But five times as much? 

2. The scene. I like the low-key afternoon farmers' markets in shopping malls. There, you get people going about their humdrum daily business and -- wow! Look at these handsome apples for sale just outside Walgreens! I think I'll make a pie when I get home.

The weekend "destination" farmers' markets can be overwhelming and pretentious. 

Yesterday, I overheard a woman ask a dealer, "Are these heirloom tomatoes?"

He answered, "They're Early Girls."

She walked away.

Ridiculous! Sad! Early Girls aren't heirlooms -- they're hybrids -- but they're fantastic. In fact, I prefer them to all the lumpy, striped, oddly-sized heirlooms I have tasted over the decades. But "heirloom" has become a buzzword, and people are all about the buzzwords at the Farmers' Market. 

Socially speaking, I prefer the Safeway experience. No one is trying to be cool in Safeway. They are just stocking up on Wheat Thins and bathroom cleaning products and strawberry jam. It is very calming to stroll down those colorful, orderly aisles. The posturing outside world is far, far away when you're in the middle of a big, temperature-controlled Safeway. You are not trying to express yourself, make a statement, or change the planet with your food purchases. You are just buying food.

Or should I say "food?" 

Because, the tomatoes are terrible. Ditto the peaches. And they don't have beef cheeks or fifteen kinds of baby lettuce or shell beans or purple basil and the chicken is pumped full of hormones and the salmon full of orange dye and they put all the sugary (correction: corn syrupy) cereals at eye level with your kids and I know, I know, I know, how screwed up our food system is. Safeway is its ultimate expression. 

So, I go to the farmers' market, and probably always will. And I will probably always feel a little mixed up about it.


  1. This is going to my last comment, I swear! I have been commenting all over the place on your blog this afternoon. But you have captured *exactly* how I feel about farmers' markets. THANK you. I feel weirdly conflicted about them - the prices, the pretension - but then I go to the local Giant grocery store and can't find decent anything. I imagine it's riskier saying this kind of thing in California than it is here outside Washington DC, however. :) -Gail in Maryland

  2. I totally feel this way too. And I too am reading through the archives!