Sunday, November 22, 2009

food and its relationships

I think that for the vast majority of Americans, food is depersonalized. You go to a grocery store where you don't know anybody, having no idea where the food came from. You go to restaurants where you don't really know how they prepared the food, and it's usually handed to you in layers of wrapping through a window as your car is running.

Like all things, food is different in New Orleans. As a culture, we eat red beans on Monday. Even if you don't personally eat red beans, you know it's red-bean eating day. People here start talking about their next meal before they finish the one they're currently on. And in the line at the grocery store, it is very usual to ask somebody what they're doing with the food they're buying. We frequently swap recipes and ideas and share good deals with total strangers. It's our way, in part because there are no strangers in New Orleans. So even in the most depersonalized situation - rows of wrapped and sanitized foods from who knows where - it's pretty personalized.

I've stepped it up a notch, too. Farmers markets are an amazing source of information. Not only do I get to meet the people providing the food and know that it's local (though some of our local is pretty far, truth be told - some of those vendors drive a few hours), but they share the greatest ideas ever - recipes and culture.

Today I went to the grocery store up the road for a can of green chiles and an onion, and was startled at the tag on the onion: Peru. Now, no offense to the lovely people of Peru, but why am I eating their onions? And where do the chiles come from? I really like the grocery store because I think it does a real community service - most people walk there (which is good because there's no parking - I almost always walk or bike myself), and as a locally-owned business keeps revenues in the city - plus some of their products are organic. I'll shop there as necessary because I like supporting them.

And then this afternoon I went to the Food Coop, sort of. It hasn't really opened yet - won't until next year - but they are selling a few things. It's only 1.5 miles from my house so biking is the way to go (which is always a bonus for me) and they actually really had a great deal on some things. Organic raw almonds cost $12/pound at Whole Foods ($11.99) but at the coop, only $6.58/pound. Awesome. They were super disorganized and a fellow kept walking through shouting "I'm here to help if anybody needs it!" when it was apparent to me what needed to be done (weighing, labeling, etc.). Everybody kept asking my name and introducing themselves and trying to give me information I already have. They couldn't figure out how to make change, but they took my wishlist suggestions and asked my advice. I will be returning, definitely.

Living in New Orleans, I have long lost my expectation or even desire for things to run smoothly and efficiently. When I first moved here I was exasperated at all the U-turns I had to make to get anywhere (a plethora of one way streets and no left turn signs), but now I just roll with it. So, I have to make a U-turn. It's a metaphor for life in New Orleans. Rarely do I get where I want to go as I thought I wanted to get there, but always something wonderful happens and I meet all sorts of people along the way.

Rarely do I set foot in a "regular" supermarket now because I find it so depressing - all the trans fats and the clerks on food stamps and the harsh lighting and unsanitary baskets, they make me just turn around and walk out. I expect relationships to the people who provide my food, and I reject a cellophaned plastic world.

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