"I believe our technologies, Elizabeth, these machines we now live with, are evolving, to use your word, faster than our emotions can accomodate."
He headed for bed, but I was curious.
"Do you mean, in the face of it all, in the face of everything changing, a whole way of life gone in a generation, that we have become numb?"
"I mean that the speeding bus goes flying off the mountain road."
- from "The Walls At Yogpar" in Resistance, by Barry Lopez
On Saturday I went shopping for food three different times, in three different places -- using three different modes of transportation. I know that I am lucky to be able to go shopping at three different places, to get exactly what I want. I have the luxury of time (at least on the weekend), I have transportation, I have someone else to go shopping with me, I have money -- at least money enough to be choosy, if not always to get exactly what I would like. And yet the other morning, despite my good fortune, something rankled within me. It may not have helped that I was reading Resistance on my bus ride to my Nia dance class (as well as the middle one of the three marketing excursions), and came across the quote above.
It wasn't about going to all the different places. I've lived and travelled in places where I've shopped like that before. I lived in Aix-en-Provence one summer, and I went to many different places for provisions. I had a little apartment shared with another student. Whoever was awake first would grab a fistful of change and run down four flights to the boulangerie for a fresh hot baguette to have with butter so good it was a whole new category of food, as far as I was concerned. I made friends with the butcher down the street and practiced my French as I asked for chicken or tried to find out just how spicy the merguez sausage really was. I found that if I ran out of class just at noon, when we finished, I could catch the last hour or so of the daily market for salad greens, and raspberries and apricots, and looking at things that were new or strange to me, trying to ask what they were.
And Aix, for all its villagey adorableness, wasn't exactly provincial. It was and is filled with a very fancy selection of shops -- and if I'd chosen, I could have gotten all my supplies at the big Monoprix supermarket. It's just that even though I was shopping at lots of different stores, they were all close by. Everything was in walking distance. Storekeepers knew each other, and they knew their clients. Even in the short time I was there I came to know people, just by the act of shopping. In other cultures, in other places, going to many places to find food is a way of life. We don't do it by custom here -- at least not any more -- and not quite yet again, although I think many among us hope that our society may be devolving back to some more villagey ways of life -- perhaps this kind of shopping among them.
Saturday's odyssey looked like this: I went from an early trip to the farmers' market (subway) for all my lovely, local, seasonal fruits and vegetables, home to drop off the first load, then to dance class and my favorite specialty market for organic dairy products as well as a few other things that only they carry (bus), and then later in the day to a big, noxious market out of the city that (despite or perhaps because of its predilection for employees posing as dancing cows and chickens) has excellent meat at a fraction of city prices (car). The last shopping leg was combined with a trip up to see my father, and bring him some groceries too. But considering all that different shopping just for our own household, I felt a little ashamed of myself. What an overprivileged little snit I am, being so finicky about having everything just so. And then I began to think about my shame.
Is it wrong to want to support the small family farmers who truck their goods in so early in the morning? That one I know the answer to. Of course not. But I spend more there than I would for supermarket produce, so I end up compensating by trying to buy meat at a cheaper venue. Much as I would love to, I cannot afford the $17 a pound that beautiful, locally-raised lamb chops would cost me at the farmers' market -- at least not on a regular basis. The protein needs of our household, particularly my own, dictate that we eat pretty high on the food chain. So I spend on the produce, and spend down on the meat. In between, I go to another store to buy things I can find neither at the farmers' market, nor at the dancing cow palace of meat. And because the shopping in my neighborhood is, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty awful, I try to get a week's food shopping done most Saturdays. Most times I don't actually go to three places, but in the summer, when the market is flourishing, I often go to two.
Would it make me a better person to shop more often at the stores in my neighborhood? The freshness of the food is often questionable, and sadly the cleanliness of the establishments leave a lot to be desired. I can think about this in a number of ways. Either I'm the overprivileged, gentrifying little snit who lives in my neighborhood for the cheap rent but turns up my nose at shopping there (I'm not, really. Honest. I speak Spanish, talk to my neighbors, and bring muffins and other goodies to a sick man in the next building on a regular basis). Or I'm engaged in an act of resistance, a personal boycott against big supermarket chains that are dirtier and uglier in my neighborhood than elsewhere in the city, where food is allowed to spoil on the shelves and no-one seems to care or bother, since the corporate entities involved in the "big food" system still make their profit. I'm staging a personal protest against a system that has allowed us to get so far away from our food -- and from everything and everyone else as well. Do I think I'm challenging the status quo of the fast-food nation? Certainly I believe that since we never eat fast food, and only use takeout as an occasional option/treat when we're very tired, I must be bucking the system merely by making high quality homemade food for us every day. What a saint I am. But that's the quandary -- I can only see it from these two vantage points, sinner or saint.
I suppose I think (to use the quote from "The Walls At Yogpar" out of context) that parts of our food system (the large conglomerate parts, obviously) are like a bus that's flying off the mountain road. I'm living in a neighborhood where I see village life all the time, in tiny increments: the man who peels oranges on a spiral machine and sells them on the street corner; the woman who sells peeled mangos on a stick, the "taco ladies" on 105th Street who have their little stand; the woman selling oatmeal and tamales out of big containers on the street in the early morning when I'm on my way to work. It's not that I don't recognize my own contradictions. I constantly romanticize the notion of wanting a simpler way of life, but then again, you will take my iBook from me when you pry it from my cold dead hands -- or when you replace it with a new one. And a simpler way of life would imply shopping in my own neighborhood rather than running to hell and gone just for food, for goodness' sake.
And that's the crux of it, right there. For goodness' sake. In order to have a little goodness in our lives, something good that's within my control. That much I can do. I can control how we eat, and where our food comes from. And I recognize that not everyone has even that small luxury anymore.
I don't have a neat way to tie up this post and put a little ribbon on the top, since I'm still struggling with my feelings about food, access, privilege, neighborhoods and all the other multiply-layered questions that these issues raise, once we allow them out for an airing. Please feel free to weigh in here. I'd really love to know what you're thinking.