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August 11, 2007

A Parallel Universe

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Harry Potter books depict a kind of dual-universe Britain. There is the Britain we are familiar with. And then there is a hidden Britain, populated by wizards and witches, where technology is magic-driven.

I recently discovered that there is something similar going on right here in the USA.

Not witches, wizards and magic. What I found was a parallel universe -- namely, Whole Foods Market.

Okay, I've actually been poking my nose into Whole Foods for a few years, in the form of their Monterey, CA store next to the Del Monte mall. But the parallel-ness didn't really hit home until yesterday when we did some shopping at their Roosevelt neighborhood store in Seattle.

Up one aisle and down another we pushed the cart. We gazed at row after row of jars, cans, boxes, etc. Almost none of the brands were familiar to me.

And there was that word ORGANIC. It was on almost every item. I didn't check, but it wouldn't have surprised me if the zip-lock baggies were labeled ORGANIC.

At one point I gave a sigh of relief to see some French's mustard on a shelf -- next to mustard of an ORGANIC brand I'd never seen before.

I suppose it's yet another character failing of mine, but I am not of the ORGANIC faith. I find Whole Foods weird, creepy. It was comforting half an hour later to be in a conventional supermarket looking for items Whole Foods didn't carry.



posted by Donald at August 11, 2007


Yes, Muggles aren't very welcome in the Whole Foods world. By which I mean, people who make less than $100k a year.

Posted by: Bryan on August 11, 2007 2:44 PM

I love the idea of organic zip-lock bags ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 11, 2007 3:17 PM

My mother-in-law is dyed-in-the-wool Austinite, home of the Whole Foods corporate headquarters. She goes to the flagship store (at the base of their office building) religiously every day to get one thing or the other. I'll go to Whole Foods from time to time, since their cheese section and bakery are better than your average grocery store. I do find it difficult to trust the whole range of Organic products on the shelves though, for the simplest reason that they are not subject to the same kind of regulation as conventional products. In Texas we enjoy the Central Market chain of stores, which directly comnpletes against Whole Foods in major urban markets. Central Market sells a lot of Organic products as well, along with every kind of imported food as well. Thus their cheese and cured meat section is huge, their packaged food features brands popular in Europe, and the selection is more than twice as large as Whole Foods. You pay a premium there, which is why I'll go to such stores only on special occasions.

Posted by: corbusier on August 11, 2007 6:05 PM

I like Whole Foods stores much better than the average supermarket, which I find cold, sterile, inhuman and which usually only stock the Big Brands who shell out Big Bucks for shelf space. Example: I enjoy peanut butter on toast, but discovered all the Big Brands, like Jiffy, are loaded with sugar/high fructose corn syrup and added oils/fats. Whole Foods carries several brands that are made with peanuts and no adultarants. Not everything albelled organic is necessarily better, but at least WF carries alternatives to the Big Brand processed junk that often contains more corn syrup, MSG, fake colors, an fake flavors than actual food content.

I also like the physical ambience of WF. The wood floors and layout are warmer and more human-scaled than the icebox supermarkets.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 11, 2007 6:13 PM

This follows hard on the heels of the "natural" craze.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 11, 2007 7:12 PM

Though we're closer to a four figure income than six, my wife and I frequently shop at Whole Foods. We find them more expensive for certain items and comparable on others. As long time consumers of organic and "alternative" foods many if not most of their brands are familiar to us. Locally the Hannaford grocery chain has been ramping up their organic and local offerings for some time, well in advance the opening of the first Whole Foods Market in the state, so we split our visits between them. We also regularly shop at the local farmer's market, have a CSA share with one of the farmers and a handful of other local markets.

Fifteen plus years ago a bout of health problems led us to discover that my wife is allergic to wheat and mildly to dairy. Perhaps there is a miracle drug from Pfiezer that would allow her to eat processed them, but it seemed easier, cheaper, and more logical to find foods she could eat.

We were already primarily vegetarian (no red meat, but poultry or fish once or twice a month) so it wasn't a complete jolt to the system. Searching for gluten free products was, at the time, almost impossible except in health food stores.

Our own hierarchy of preference when food shopping is local organic, local conventional, big organic, big conventional.

I never really thought of CONVENTIONAL as a faith before, but perhaps it is. One has faith that ADM, Monsanto, General Foods, et al will utilize the economies of scale, bio-engineering, global commodities trading and so forth to provide consumers with the best food the world has to offer, consistantly and at a good price. One has faith that people up stream from the kid stacking shelves check all the hows, whats, wheres & whens of the actual food being offered to assure that it is healthy and safe. With this faith one can comfortably know no more than they prefer Coke to Pepsi and go shopping.

If ORGANIC is a faith, like any faith there are countless different sects, diverse orthodoxies, heresies and all the rest. I would say that a preference for organic is, for us, at least as much about eating the best, tastiest, most aesthetically pleasing food we can. We are not food=fuel, greater efficiency is the goal, eaters.

Posted by: Chris White on August 11, 2007 7:13 PM

Trader Joe's is much better.

Posted by: Peter on August 11, 2007 10:11 PM

I live mostly (and have for decades) in the organic/healthy/foodie part of the food world myself, so the conventional brands and supermarkets look weird to me. I'm not a believer exactly -- I probably qualify as "hopeful" at most. But like Peter L. and Chris I like the atmosphere, and I find the food more satisfying and tastier. I do hate the Whole Foods prices ... Supermarket-type-store-wise, I think I'm happiest shopping at Trader Joe's. Hey, that's a good blog posting topic -- which supermarket-type stores are you happiest at? I hate the new style of warehouse-like (and warehouse-scale) food stores. Give me a conventional supermarket layout, only with much, much fresher/better food in it ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 11, 2007 10:19 PM

Like Peter, I'm a Trader Joe's guy. Where I live, I've got a TJs, Whole Foods, and two mega marts within a half mile radius.

I do the bulk of my shopping at TJs with side-trips to WF and the mega marts for specialty items. I made a lime curd tort the other day, which necessitated a trip to WF for its superior produce. However, I wasn't about to spend $5.70 for two whole wheat (and gluten free!) pie shells. So I ran across the street to Albertson's for a $1.25 Keebler.

The suburban kid in me loves the wonderful selection of junk food and large variety of the the mega marts, but like Michael I'm definitely happiest at the smaller TJ/WF-type stores.

Posted by: Bryan on August 11, 2007 10:45 PM

Probably the one thing that annoys a lot of people about the success of places like Whole Foods is the implied message of superiority that's part of the appeal of organic food. Looking carefully at all the packaging of the products on the shelf, very little of it talks about how tasty, convenient,or even novel the product is. Rather, the product is worth its value because that it's all natural, not harmful to the environment, or will help contribute to a politically correct charity. Regardless if you prefer them or not, the packaging and promotion of much the organic food implies that one is a better person over others who don't choose them. Whether one doesn't think of themselves as better than others because what they choose to buy, it seems to me that when one buys conventional items in a normal grocery store, there's no smugness involved in making the choice. The packaging of conventional items is almost always about the food itself with rarely any reference to a greater cause or idealized world-view. They don't bill themselves as healthier than organic and they don't promise that you will be part of a more harmonious state of being with the world at large.

Posted by: corbusier on August 11, 2007 11:54 PM

I don't buy the whole "Whole Foods" will save the world craze. Just because something is supposed to be "organic" (arent't GM foods just as organic as anything else? What the hell do they mean by organic anyway) is doesn't mean it's healthier.

Anyway, here's an interesting article on the "dark side" of Whole Foods:

Posted by: GB on August 12, 2007 1:17 AM

I enjoyed a hearty laugh when I saw the new, block-sized Whole Foods at 252 Seventh Ave in Manhattan. You see, that was my great-great-grandfather's address for several decades in the 19th century, when he earned his keep making cigars.

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on August 12, 2007 2:23 AM

You all might be interested to know that Eugene, Oregon's activist citizenry raised such a hue and cry against Whole Foods building a store in Eugene that we don't have one. Eugene has several locally owned markets selling locally grown organic produce and other food types offered by Whole Foods and the citizenry rose up in defense of these markets. In addition, the plan was for Whole Foods to build a customer parking garage and that, too, was met with formidable resistance.

I would imagine that at corporate, the Whole Foods operators figured Eugene, given its demographics, would be a perfect city for one of their stores.

Turns out they underestimated the devotion many Eugene shoppers possess for the stores already
doing business.

The smaller scale Trader Joe's, I should add, is doing very well.

Posted by: raymond pert on August 12, 2007 3:45 AM

I do find it difficult to trust the whole range of Organic products on the shelves though, for the simplest reason that they are not subject to the same kind of regulation as conventional products.

That would be a reason for me to trust the produce more.

If I could find everything I need at farmer's market (not "organic", just normal market, where normal farmers sell their stuff), I'd do it instead of supermarkets.

Posted by: Tat on August 12, 2007 7:14 AM

I love Whole Foods even though I'm a skeptic on the importance of organic foods. If the prices were lower, I'd shop there almost exclusively. I don't know how much you've tried, but their food is for the most part better (-tasting if not healthier, which it probably also is) than regular supermarket fare.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on August 12, 2007 8:01 AM

The day will dawn when it isn't a two-hour trip each way to a Trader Joe's and then perhaps my supermarket loyalties will shift, although I'll still go the the farmer's market or local purveyors first.

Even cursory research gives us a pretty good picture of what is going on with conventional agri-business. Here in Maine the state just granted conventional farmers the right to grow a particular GMO corn. BT corn produces its own insecticide targeted toward a worm that can attack the ears. Of course, it also is toxic to a wide range of other insects and critters including monarch butterflies and a host of other beneficial organisms. Other patented GMO corn enables the plants to survive particular herbicides (patented by the same company), which are then applied to the fields in far higher doses than previously possible. Why it makes sense to shift agriculture toward a big business model where seed corn cannot be kept by farmers for planting next year due to intellectual property rights laws and where the recommended care of the crops means dumping loads more toxic chemicals on the land than previously possible without killing the crop seems rather short sighted.

When "tasty, convenient, or even novel" often mean Twinkies or Cocoa Puffs, and organic comes with the expectation that at least all of the ingredients are actually food rather than a blend of ingredients including various chemicals, choosing organic seems reasonable and prudent. When organic touts its health and environmental advantages it is simply using the same marketing practices as any other enterprise. If one wants healthier food and cares about protecting the environment they (we) might choose Newman's Own rather than Kraft when we reach for salads dressing. And if we then discover it tastes better we've found a new favorite brand.

I always love the way supporters of conventional agriculture and big business capitalism use the ways in which big organic does not completely live up to the utopian ideals of the most extreme supporters of organics as a reason to dismiss the entire enterprise. John MacKay has indeed made some stupid and unethical moves as Whole Foods CEO. Shareholders or the WFM Board might revolt and replace him with someone less controversial. Why, however, a company's CEO being less than heroically noble when seeking to build market share is either a surprise or reason to move ones business from WFM to Wal-Mart escapes me.

Posted by: Chris White on August 12, 2007 8:15 AM

Although my mother is American, she fed us growing up as if we we were French. She learned to cook from her French mother-in-law while being a stay-at-home mother in France for many years. I look at the emergence of organic grocery stores in the U.S. from my own perspective as a person with a French culinary upbringing. Therefore I value delicate flavors and textures and high-quality ingredients. I find the growth of Organic food stores as a generally good thing because they offer a higher quality product than your average grocery store, and have little by little improved the offerings at these cheaper stores. That being said, I still prefer products that are refined and industrially produced over those that proudly bill their organic/natural properties. Although the French (in my opinion) have unfounded fears about GMO's, Organic grocery stores make little sense over there. Their average "Intermarche", "Carrefour" or "Casino", the major boring grocery chains over a variety of highly processed food that is tastier and more wonderful than most of the organic brands I have tried, which I found to be quite unexceptional. That's why I prefer stores that specialize in importing food from abroad rather than touting its smug message as a somehow more healthy and socially responsible store...Central Market rules!!!

Posted by: corbusier on August 12, 2007 9:49 AM

Now you have to understand that Donald is living in a locale in which even a Safeway might physically resemble a Whole Foods so the visual difference may not always be that great i.e. being satisfied with the supermarket in an upscale Seattle neighborhood implies no indifference to pleasant surroundings.

Otherwise I took his comments as meant jokingly -- humorously provocative -- as no one could possibly not care about whether they eat poisoned food -- even if they pretend to. He's just a skeptic, which is not a bad thing.

Posted by: Seattle Man on August 12, 2007 12:14 PM

I'm trying to wrap my mind around how anyone "fed as if we were French rather American" ends up with preference for highly processed food. Even more curious is a preference for stores that specialize in importing food from abroad over those touting the amount of organic foods they carry. Of course, there is the internal contradiction that food imported from many EU countries is already more organic and unlikely to contain GMO ingredients because those countries have been slower to open their food production to high tech innovations whose long term benefits remain murky.

I'm also curious whether those who enjoy tasty refined and industrially produced foods are somehow managing to avoid all of the detrimental effects of that our current diet can lead to; obesity, heart problems, allergies, diabetes and on the list goes. Or whether they simply ignore all data on those effects as being distorted propaganda from government bureaucrats trying to scare us. Although, I have to say, I can only remember a handful of boys in my junior high with boobies, today I see packs of them roaming the mall on the lookout for their next sugar fix, wishing they'd get trainer bras and stop jiggling their mutant mammaries at the crowd.

Posted by: Chris White on August 12, 2007 12:44 PM

The most organic thing you can buy is a diamond, followed shortly by coal and gasoline. All "organic" means is "having carbon present in its molecular structure". Organic chemistry is not the study of food at Whole Foods, as anyone who's ever taken it can tell you...

I've always wondered where the marketing term "organic" came from?

Posted by: Foobarista on August 12, 2007 3:24 PM

from [internal] organs that's going to be affected? From [musical instrument] organs that'll flow heavenly melodies all around you?

Posted by: Tat on August 12, 2007 6:49 PM

Seattle Man stole much of my thunder, as a good % of supermarkets throughout the Seattle area are pretty upscale with a diverse range of goods. My complaint is they often separate organics and "health food" in their own section away from other similar products on the main aisles.

As for organics, it is mostly a scam. Mushrooms are more toxic than your average non-organic vegetable. According to Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California-Berkeley, the inventor of the Ames test which is the test that gauges levels of carcinogens:

"We get more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than we do in all the pesticide residues you eat in a day."

Also, organics are more land intensive than regular crops. It is the suburban sprawl of the food world.

Posted by: AP on August 12, 2007 7:30 PM

I find myself thinking about some of what appear to me to be internal contradictions between positions taken by Donald and others here at 2BH. Specifically I find myself comparing the anti-modernist stance vis a vis art and architecture and the nativist stance on immigration and culture, then attempting to figure out how the philosophy underlying those positions gibe with a pro-agribusiness as usual stance that is at best skeptical of the organic-slow food-local farmers' market movement in agriculture.

When a late nineteenth century portrait artist is highlighted the message is 'here's an artist who followed time honored traditions to make familiarly pleasing images that people like, isn't that better than supposed aesthetic progress for the sake of modernity?' Yet, when the 'doing it the old fashioned way, back to the land', agricultural movement is discussed the fruits (pun intended) of their return to traditional farming are scorned as some kind of leftist hippie scam.

Even if we set aside for a moment the global trade component (all those apples from New Zealand and bananas from Costa Rica) big agribusiness is about as 'modernist' as it gets. Virtually all the GMO tinkering being done is to create produce that will survive the modern, highly mechanized care, harvesting and distributions system, or to make crops that can withstand the extreme chemotherapy of massive use of herbicides and pesticides, not to increase the taste or health qualities of the food. And it also means that a couple of gene markers identify a seed as being patent protected, even if that seed was the result of cross pollination in a field three miles away. [Goggle Monsanto lawsuits sometime.] Big agribusiness also thrives on the use of semi-skilled labor at the lowest wage possible. By now we should all have a pretty good idea where the ingredients in those microwavable frozen Stouffers Beef Stroganoff dinners and Cap'n Crunch cereals come from.

So, can any of the Blowhard commentators who dismiss modernism in all its many guises and want to close the borders explain how those positions are consistent with a dismissal of organic foods and local farmers' markets?

Posted by: Chris White on August 13, 2007 9:48 AM

I see things like Whole Foods as the New Urbanism of agriculture. Whenever one pops up, people flock to it like mad and their brand loyalty is almost messianic. I use this analogy because New Urbanism has been touted much on this here blog, and I really don't understand the point of this post. So you went into a store you'd never been in and saw strange things that were unfamiliar to you, wherein your head began spinning until the welcome sight of some French's mustard coaxed you out of your reverie. I mean, what is with these dirty hippies, being industrious and all and coming up with their own brands without notifying you? The nerve.

I don't mean to be rude, but this comes off as nothing more than old fogeyism. I suppose it has sparked some more thoughtful comments from both sides of the aisle. Pun intended.

As for the topic at hand, I'd shop more at Whole Foods if it was cheaper. And closer. One is opening up a few miles away, so we'll see.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 10:10 AM

I agree that is interesting, CW, although the reverse could be said about you (and me). Why do us modernist loving art fans hate the modernist geniuses running big ag? We should be appreciating their deconstruction of the food form.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 11:09 AM

What I don't like about Whole Foods is that half the stuff there is processed. It was made from better ingredients I guess but it's still dubiously related to food. Also the vibe is creepy, as many other people have said.

What I do like are farmer's markets. Buying from local farmers means you get fresher food, for one thing. Also, they may not follow all the rules you need to be organic--they use conventional fertilizers/pesticides, maybe--but because they're necessarily smaller, they're not growing their foods in giant hydroponic tanks and they're not splicing lizard genes into your tomatoes. As a result, the food tastes better. I couldn't explain why but it is so.

My mother is European and she has totally embraced the organic/whole/local culture, because it is what she grew up with, without having any special words for it. In Europe they've done a better job of preserving traditional farming methods, so my grandmother for example still buys her bread from this one old dude in the next town who bakes a bunch of bread every morning. The last few decades in America are the aberration, not the ORGANIC movement.

Posted by: BP on August 13, 2007 11:38 AM

The patriarch - as you noted on another thread, I (and you) DO appreciate good traditional art, we do not ascribe to a 'modernism only' aesthetic. Furthermore, I have never tried to defend all modernism or all abstraction or, for that matter, all food labeled "organic" as being necessarily superior solely by virtue of those definitions. In fact, it is the vehement insistence on there being one correct aesthetic that causes us to react as we do to certain comments. So, I don't see any real contradiction with my distrust of big agribusiness when it comes to GMO corn and the like.

As I noted above and in nearly every food related thread, my hierarchy of preference is local organic, local conventional, big organic, big conventional. I am more likely to buy a warm baguette (made with processed white flour & without an organic certificate) from a local baker than a loaf of organic whole wheat bread from who knows where at Whole Foods which will in turn beat out Wonderbread at the Safeway any time. We eat our own home grown organic tomatoes for a month or so (I just finished a tomato sandwich made with an heirloom Zebra tomato ... now THAT'S what a tomato is supposed to taste like!) and augment that with organic tomatoes from the farmers market. the rest of the year we eat very few fresh tomatoes and those are generally from a local purveyor who uses a hydroponic system in a greenhouse. Conventional supermarket tomatoes now have virtually no taste and barely feel like tomatoes. They are, however red and pretty and don't bruise too easily.

As BP notes, "the last few decades in America are the aberration, not the ORGANIC movement."

Posted by: Chris White on August 13, 2007 1:44 PM

I was joking, CW.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 13, 2007 3:04 PM

I thought you were, but one can never be to careful around here ... and it gave me an opening to tout heirloom tomatoes. How much more traditional can you get than an heirloom tomato?

Posted by: Chris White on August 13, 2007 4:55 PM

I recently had a pretty similar experience that I blogged about here.

Posted by: Ilkka Kokkarinen on August 13, 2007 5:18 PM

So let's go past theory and get down to basics. What did you have to eat tonight? How much did you enjoy it? Was it an average meal or a special occasion dinner? What, if anything do you know about the origin of all the ingredients? Can you track it passed the retail market?

We had:

Eggplant (my way of frying slices uses cornmeal, egg and salt), rice, tomato sauce with carrots and summer squash, and corn on the cob. I had a beer and my wife lemonade.

We thought it was tasty, filling and very satisfying. My (gluten and dairy challenged) wife has been away for a week on an island where she ate more meat, dairy and wheat than she should out of politeness and necessity with minor health consequences, she was extremely pleased with tonight's 'comfort food' supper.

The rice, cornmeal, carrots and lemonade were all "commercial organic" from Whole Foods. The rice was from Lundberg Family Farms, a CA based company; the lemonade was from the company 'Santa Cruz', also CA I presume. I don't really know the sources for the cornmeal and carrots.

The corn was local convention also purchased at Whole Foods. Gillespie Farms is about fifteen miles from us and we sometimes go there to buy directly from them.

The egg was from Sparrow Farm, a local organic free-range operation; the eggplant and summer squash both organic from Fishbowl Farm (with whom we have a CSA share) & both selected at our local farmers' market. I won't say we're truly friends sharing intimate details about our lives, but we're on a first name basis with the farmer.

The salt was Maine Sea Salt given to us by a houseguest. And the tomato was a big heirloom variety we have going by the front door. The tomato plant came from the farmers market.

Posted by: Chris White on August 13, 2007 7:09 PM

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