Asad Raza, one of the proprietors of the excellent 3 Quarks Daily blog, wrote a long provocative essay about alienation in Whole Foods Market, contrasting shopping there with shopping at some of the butcher shops and fish stands and so on in Lower Manhattan. In Whole Foods, Raza contends, groceries are mediated by explanatory text and rendered safe—kind of like foreign countries in Disney’s Epcot center. Whereas at vegetable stands in Chinatown, consumers have a much more direct relation to food, trusting their senses instead of the copy.
The Bowery Whole Foods tells us something remarkable about its shoppers: how ignorant they are of where they are and how alienated they are from food. Perusing it, the thing that impresses you most is the pervasive labeling, the enormous amounts of information appended to everything. Everywhere are little identificatory notes, signs overhead, brochures on what to do with their sausages (eat them?), glossy photos of the smiling man who supposedly dredged up your mussels or baited the hook upon which your (always already headless and filleted) wild salmon met its end. This is food shopping for people who have come to trust only that which is mediated by text, addenda, explanations, certifications. It is a website come to life, or a piece of life for those who prefer websites: each piece of signage functions as the hyperlink that clicks through to a capsule review.
The food has become text, something we read and write rather than consume; we communicate with it and corrupt our sensual relationship with it, thinking it rather than tasting it. It’s a similar point to the one I was making about music a few weeks ago. Raza is suggesting a more authentic relation to food that is corrupted when we turn it into information we can master and identify ourselves with—it may be more pleasant to we information workers to know things than to eat things.
There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers. The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other. Instead, it’s purely about the foods themselves: one’s interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest…. These neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness. Yet a principle like seasonality is sacrificed to the lure of exotic, irradiated produce available year-round. Such are the characteristics of the so-called “foodies.” Even the term suggests a cute and infantile hobby. And it does seem infantile to shop at Whole Foods while all around you sits the very food cultures about which Whole Foods’ publicity materials fantasize.
He has a point here; it seems odd to choose Whole Foods over the more authentic food shops around it. (It’s not really all that odd though; those shops can be insular and hard to negotiate; Whole Foods charges more to provide customers with a more conveniently familiar experience.) Raza argues that “in a world in which we’ve been socialized to distrust the claims of brands, we paradoxically require ever greater documentations of authenticity, ever wordier mediations between ourselves and things.” But Raza’s own apparent mastery of the food scene on the Lower East Side and his evocative description of it calls his own discourse into question; his eloquence about food is not entirely different than the Whole Foods blurbs, and he is supplying some website content that could supplant direct experience in the process of trying to inspire it. If we use his essay as a tourist guide to butcher shops, then our experience of those shops may be no different than our experience in Whole Foods. Slumming it in old-school bakeries and fish stands is not necessarily any more authentic, since authenticity depends on the subject position of the consumer and whatever patterns and intentions that consumer follows through with over time. Food tourists are food tourists, whether they are at the novice level of shopping in Whole Foods, or at the advanced level of gutting fish on Grand Street. Any way we get our food in the city is going to be alienated and inauthentic relative to some other way of procuring; to fetishize one or the other can ultimately seem an attempt at self-aggrandizement, for dignifying whatever progress we have made toward our own ideal. Raza’s critique of foodie infantilism seems misleading: His criticism is that foodies’ yearn for safe experiences of esoteric consumption, but I think one becomes more of a foodie the more daredevilish one’s consumption becomes. The goal is to make eating an experience rather than a routine—make it an activity in which one can deploy connoisseur knowledge and come away with untoppable stories. (Are snobbery and vanity infantile? Perhaps.) But to escape the pejorative connotations of foodie-ism, one commonly tries to associate food practices with sociopolitical goals; this move supplies a rationale for consumption choices theoretically external to personal identity building. You can go to the co-op or the green market and have environmentally and politically wholesome reasons for your food choices that you can refer to when someone wants to prick you for your pretensions. But this has the unfortunate effects of tainting those wholesome aims with the stench of privilege, which in turn supplies the enemies of such notions with a useful line of attack: sustainability movements, etc., become the province of self-satisfied do-gooders who have the luxury for such preoccupations.