Wednesday, May 17, 2006 (my birthday!)
Connected Organizations for a Responsible Economy (CORE) is a Colorado cleantech and sustainability business trade organization. This week, its Boulder Business Breakfast topic was “Healthy and Natural Eating – Functional Foods, Dietary Supplements, and Organic Claims.” An attorney from Patton Boggs spoke on the three federal agencies (USDA, FTC, FDA) that govern and monitor natural and healthy foods, their claims and advertisements. This week, The New Yorker published “Paradise Sold, What are you buying when you buy organic?” which reviews three books criticizing the mainstreaming of the organic food movement and focuses on Whole Foods. The Wal-Mart announcement to offer organic food continues to get press. And, a Harper’s Magazine article, “Swine of the Times, The Making of the Modern Pig,” in the May issue is a stomach-turner that may keep you off pork until the details are banished to a recess of the brain. Little about the industrialization of mass food production will surprise if you’ve read “Fast Food Nation, The Dark Side of the all-American Meal” or some of Michael Pollan’s books and articles (“Power Steer” for starters).
The point in “Paradise Sold,” (and exemplified by Whole Foods and Wal-Mart organic food suppliers) is that organic, once counterculture, has attained “cultural legitimacy” and “cherished ideals have simply become part of the sales pitch.” Organics avoid synthetic fertilizers, as well as toxic pesticides, fumigants and herbicides, gene modification and irradiation. But compliance with the USDA’s standards for organic does not ensure the food is produced locally or with sustainable practices by a small producer.
Wal-Mart is to organic food as Kmart and Martha Stewart are to fine living: ersatz, lucrative. But what of Real Food, Whole Foods, Wild Oats and the companies they have gobbled up along the way (Fresh Fields, Bread and Circuses)? There’s something else in their brand and marketing – beyond organics and free-ranging chickens and pigs – that keeps me opening my wallet…wide. There’s something more to it than a cheaper bag of Earthbound organic lettuce (the Wal-Mart pitch).
I was raised a “foodie.” My mother, a gourmet, whips up hollandaise, boeuf bourguignon and sweetbreads as easily as other parents deliver dinner in a paper bag. She did treat us to McD’s now and then; Yodels and Ring Dings, New England processed food staples, weighed down the lunch boxes. Those treats were sanctioned no-no’s – so good and so bad for you; their unhealthy, sugary bad selves were never considered real food. My mother brought home metal milk cans of unpasteurized cow’s milk from the farmer in Waccabuc, New York – this, before a developer leveled the barn. She altered her commute home to stop at Maneros Steak House in Greenwich for filet mignon which she showed us how to thinly slice and eat raw. She introduced us to artichokes and steak tar-tar early on, instructing how to pull the leaves down to the heart of the artichoke and how to blend the egg yolk and capers into the raw red meat of tar-tar. Dinner themes were often influenced by the boyfriend du jour (kilbasa with the Polish guy, borscht – borş – with the Romanian tennis player). Cheese came from the local cheese shop in Katonah. With home-rolled sushi and a tasting dinner of abalone, squid, and octopus from the fish market in Mount Kisco, she expanded our land-locked horizons. She made sticky buns with guava jelly and popovers from scratch which we lathered with butter. Salad dressings started with garlic, olive oil, a wooden spoon and a seasoned bowl. Meat loaf started in the Hamilton Beach grinder. On her less-than-an-acre homestead just 40 miles from Manhattan, we had eggs from chickens, and lots of manure from her horses for a prolific garden of basil, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots and snap peas. We didn’t utter the words organic or natural. It just was.
In my mid-teens in the mid-70s, I was a farm hand for two doctors in Pound Ridge, New York. Drs. Mary Alice White and Jan Duker (psychologist and psychiatrist, respectively) fertilized their extensive organic garden with chicken manure (I shoveled mounds of it from the back of the coop they cleverly designed). During my breaks, they fed me herbal tea and soy nuts by a wood burning stove (I lugged cords upon cords of wood to feed the stove and an outdoor sauna). They supplemented the chicken manure garden fertilizer with mail-order seaweed and manure from my mother’s horses (I hauled mounds of, what I consider to be the true, black gold.) When the doctors moved to Lakeville, Connecticut to an exquisite old farmhouse, the garden grew exponentially, as did Dr. Duker’s apiary. There, they fed me Skinner’s Raisin Bran with goat’s milk, drizzled with Duker-harvested honey. (Skinner’s Raisin Bran with local goat’s milk is as far from Cocoa Puffs and BHT cow’s milk as a girl can get, and I held my nose to get it down.) The doctors mail ordered their canned goods from Walnut Acres. And when their chickens stopped laying eggs, they were slaughtered, as humanely, they explained, as possible: the old hens were calmed with coos and hung upside down by their feet; the doctors slit the artery in the neck, and drove a knife up through the brain; once the blood drained, the bodies were dunked in a kettle of boiling water to loosen the feathers which were removed and the chicken was prepared for freezing. The night of my first (and only) chicken killing – 25 hens – the farmer across the road, a single woman, prepared fried chicken. I couldn’t eat it. The doctors chuckled and gave me a pass. Dr. Mary Alice White, now gone, is the mother of Christopher Kimball, the founder, editor and publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and host of the syndicated PBS cooking show America’s Test Kitchen. It was a strained relationship (she was quite headstrong), but both Dr. White and her son express a grand appreciation for food quality, in ingredients, preparation and presentation.
So when I pass through the doors of a Whole Foods, I am reminded of the connection to the earth, to real food. The hyper-lit, hyper-sanitized, hyper-refrigerated aisles of Wal-Mart, Safeway, King Soopers, etc. contrast starkly with the abundant colors, soft sounds and alluring smells of Whole Foods – which may not sell the true-blue natural foods of the doctors and my mother. It may be a bit of marketing palaver and some of the real thing, but in a life where my gardens have come and gone in painful separations, where my choices to live close the earth are limited, Whole Foods is as close as I can get before mail-ordering my meat from, say, James Ranch, or driving 14 miles to my favorite boutique cheese shop, St. Killians, or waiting for the Cherry Creek farmer’s market to roll around in the spring and summer months. (And, hey, it’s not lost on me that those natural food vendors at the farmer’s markets drove a long way to get to here – whether it be Union Square in Manhattan or Cherry Creek in Denver.) It isn’t just about the food, either. Whole Foods purchases renewable energy credits (green tags) to off-set 100% of its electricity. I’ve yet to engage with an employee who is anything but pleasant and present. Grazing the aisles, particularly around holidays, is a filling and scrumptious exercise (and, great marketing, naturally).
I recently moved into my boyfriend’s house in southeast Denver. It’s in a 70s suburban development and the very idea of it made me cry (much as I love my boyfriend). But get this: I can walk to a brand new Whole Foods. Today I sat at its café counter and plugged into its (free) Wi-Fi – under a large sign listing the high performance (green) building principles used in the construction of the building…Marmoleum, 3-Form resin, low-VOC paints, toxin-free particle-board substitute. All materials found in my bio-bus…all reasons why it’s more than organics that gets me through the door.