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Belly Aching

The Hand That Feeds You

Though you can still count on it for antibiotic-free cheese, the farmers’ market has become a macrocosm of first-world food neuroses. True stories from behind the rustic wax-paper-lined baskets.

Abby Manock, Farmer 2010. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Diet.

After working at the farmers’ market, I’ve come to love fresh local food—and hate the people who buy it.

Every Saturday before dawn, I traveled from deep within Brooklyn to the northern tip of Manhattan to welcome a truck fresh from the fertile Hudson Valley loaded with fist-sized beets, shaggy bunches of kale, quarts of yogurt, loaves of organic spelt breads, and almost all the staples of a pesticide-free fridge.

As the sun rose, my coworkers and I moved with automatic precision, unpacking the day’s merchandise from plastic totes and stacking it in rustic wooden crates and wax-paper-lined baskets. We’d soon be greeted by our first customers of the day. As we shifted from foot to foot—sweating or shivering depending on the season—we prepared ourselves for an onslaught of self-congratulations.

“Love what you all do for the world!” a faceless man shouted from behind the greens of the four bunches of carrots he was hugging. “I’m a teacher! I’m helping the young minds of the world grow! And you’re helping the bodies!”

Most weeks, he repeated some version of this to us. But one morning, after barking self-approbations, he spun around and growled at an apparently disabled young girl talking loudly at the next stand over to “SHUT THE HELL UP.” Because, it seems, that helping the minds of the world grow doesn’t require you be nice to them.

As I soon found, this sense of entitlement was very much the rule rather than the exception among our nutritional pilgrims. We were the gatekeepers to Mother Nature’s finest offerings, a weekly recurring role in their self-validating fantasy.

At the market, none of these customers ever expect to stand in line. Even though an hour earlier he may have waited patiently for the bank teller, never daring to inch outside the confines of a springy stanchion, a man who wants to buy a bunch of biodynamic beets will huff, burning holes in market staff with beady, well-nourished eyes until it’s his turn to pay.

Raw fermentation produces excellent intestinal flora! Dandelion greens are great for PMS! Granola causes inflammation!

Shopping at the market brings the expectation of a particular type of experience—it’s less luxurious than buying a Hermès handbag, and there’s more fresh air than the dining room at Masa, but your average farmers’ market customers are specialty consumers.

There was the woman who wanted to know whether broccoli would stay fresh for a week in her fridge, since, as she explained, “I’m cooking for my dog next weekend, and I want to be sure whatever vegetables I buy won’t lose their nutritional value.” I stared dumbly at her sweet, inquiring face, unable to find an answer. Then she bought several pounds of $9-a-pound ground beef.

Or the woman who would pet, study—even gently nibble—the lettuce before determining the perfect head.

“I only eat my food raw, and this lettuce has so much flavor,” she’d coo.

Raw fermentation produces excellent intestinal flora! Dandelion greens are great for PMS! Granola causes inflammation! When I worked at the farmers’ market, people who shopped there seemed to believe we were just the folks to talk to about their chronic fatigue syndrome, anemia, or lactose intolerance.

Nearly every customer wants you to pamper their conscience and, in many cases, their jaw-dropping accumulation of first-world food-related neuroses.

 

When I was 13, doctors found a small malignancy on my grandmother’s kidney. While recovering from the surgery that removed the organ and the tumor, she stopped eating and dropped about 15 percent of her body weight in a few harrowing months. My grandma’s family came to the U.S. from Poland for a visit in 1914. World War I and 95 years later, they’re still here. Life in Poland was rough, I think, and it was a little better in America. But in 1933, after the stock market crash and economic depression that cost my great-grandfather all his investments, my grandma dropped out of high school and went to work in a Toronto purse factory. The Depression and an inherited fear of starvation: Based on these experiences, my grandmother has always seen plumpness, like that of her own mother and sister, as signs of wealth and good health. To be skinny, as she was becoming with every meal she pushed away, meant she was sick (and poor): how the cancer made her feel.

We had to buy her new clothes, and my mom would get them in noisy colors—we joked that she looked like a banana in a new bright yellow sweatsuit. I can still picture how tired and defeated she looked in those sweats, pushing a plate of food away from her because she just didn’t feel hungry.

After six months, my grandma started seeing a psychiatrist. He prescribed an antidepressant, her appetite returned, she gained back the weight—an accurate indication of physical and mental health—and turned 94 this month.

Like my grandmother, the shoppers at the farmers’ market are falling prey to an overpowering association between “good” food and a “good” life. Once that association takes hold, a space like the farmers’ market becomes an informal health clinic, or a four-star dining room.

Last April Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser published an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled, “Why Being a Foodie Isn’t ‘Elitist.’” I admire the way Schlosser has brought the realities of industrial agriculture to mainstream attention. Like millions of others, I’ve learned a lot from his work. I do not think that industrial agriculture should feed Americans—or any humans, for that matter. And while Schlosser is primarily defending the sustainable food movement from attacks by big farming interests, he acknowledges the elitism toward eating and food production—a focus on what’s exceptional or not widely available—that, “if left unchecked…could sideline the [sustainable food] movement or make it irrelevant.”

When the purchase of high-quality food regularly comes with a discussion of one’s irritable bowel, the American Farm Bureau Federation is winning.

But Schlosser’s main complaint is with the American Farm Bureau Federation’s attempt to paint the sustainable food movement as “elitist” and “fascist.” These politically connected industrial farmers are assholes. Exorbitantly wealthy assholes. They call trends in sustainability “elitist” because that’s how they’d like them to be. They’d like to keep healthy food produced under sustainable circumstances available to only the wealthiest and most obsessive members of our society. The rest of us can go ahead and eat hydrogen peroxide-treated beef “products.”

Based on my experiences at the farmers’ market, I’m sorry to report that when the purchase of high-quality food regularly comes with a discussion of one’s irritable bowel, the American Farm Bureau Federation is winning.

Because what my grandma experienced 80 years ago is still true today: Consumption of good food—whatever “good” happens to be—entitles you to good health. This equation of privilege with health drives me crazy: The way that an experience of privilege now means exerting an exacting control over your food whether you’re making sure to eat every color of your chakra (true story!) or only alkalines. I like the food sold at the farmers’ market. I want it to be widely available. That can’t happen if organic and sustainable food is marketed and consumed as something special. Everyone deserves antibiotic-free cheese.

My grandma stopped driving and retired from her job as an office assistant about a year ago (that’s right, at the age of 93) and since then the pace of her life has slowed. Recently, she has been suffering from nausea and loss of appetite again. I know my grandmother is scared about losing control of her body and about dying, but though most Americans would consider her lifestyle to be modest, when you think about it, my grandmother is one of the wealthiest, healthiest and most fortunate people in the history of the planet. She basically won.

But she doesn’t feel that way, and whether her recent symptoms are psychological or related to an undiagnosed illness, they’re still real and affecting the quality of her life. Though demanding customers at the famers’ market irritate me, I understand that their physical ailments and anxieties are real, too. These endless questions and concerns are born of fears like my grandmother’s. I wish I could tell them that even if the beets aren’t organic, everything will be OK.

biopic

TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka