Saturday, August 23, 2008

Culture (and nectarine) jamming

Today I made a list, and stuck to it!

1 1/2 lbs. yellow string beans
3 heirloom tomatoes
2 lbs. green and yellow zucchini
2 jalapenos
1 1/2 lbs. carrots
2 ears bicolor corn
1 lb. cranberry beans
1 bunch kale
1 bunch chard
1 lb. (mixed) sorrel, pea shoots, and salad greens
1/2 lb. shallots
2 heads Rocambole garlic
1 bunch Italian parsley
1 bunch thyme
1 box blackberries
2 lbs. peaches
3 lbs. nectarines
Total spent: $68

Nectarines are rapidly disappearing, so I'm going to have to decide whether to eat or jam this batch. I think I might do half and half - even two jars of jam from these otherworldly nectarines will be wonderful to have on hand for winter. In other fruit news, I'm going to attempt to make vanilla bean creme anglaise to pour over the blackberries for dessert tonight.

I'm currently reading Unmarketable by Anne Elizabeth Moore, and while what's socking me in the stomach about every four pages are her astute and unflinching observations about the way corporations co-opt underground culture, including music (and the spectrum of complicity from the underground artists and producers she names, several of whom are friends and about half of whom I've worked with), the connections to the way food is marketed are unmistakeable.

The USG, for all its sprawl, flapping banners, and denim-clad, often-grubby-handed vendors, can instill in shoppers a sense of local pride, as well as a feeling of connection to the food and the land; above all, meeting and talking to the people who grow our food creates a sense of community and trust. Emotional responses to consumption (discussed in depth by Moore) are nothing new, and in this case, they're based on genuine shared experience.

Across the street, shoppers entering Whole Foods are encouraged toward the same emotional responses, but for these shoppers the responses are engineered by the marketing departments who put together the stores. Though local produce constitutes a relatively low proportion of what's available at Whole Foods Union Square at any given time, the word "local" in various home-style fonts swirls around the high-heaped market-style displays, implying that just by shopping at Whole Foods, the local community is enriched. Slogans throughout the store make frequent use of the pronoun "we," encouraging a sense of attachment to some (false, artificially constructed) Whole Foods community.

Perhaps most ludicrous is Whole Foods' current attempt to brand themselves as an economical choice, offering "smart shopper" tours that tout sales and their in-store brands - thoough it doesn't appear that any actual price-cutting has attended this new marketing effort. However, Moore makes the point that nowadays advertising messages don't need to be true; even claims that are instantly refutable are made in such a way that consumers will unknowingly embrace the associated "feeling" (in this case, connecting Whole Foods with economical shopping) even when the facts speak otherwise.

Emotion-based branding is so extensive that most of us probably don't realize how much we've been affected by it. I've recognized some of my own attachments: e.g. no matter how much I disdain its ownership by Nike, or how tacky I find their new shoes, there is an unshakeable place in my heart for Converse. When I was a kid, they were still the shoes of the counterculture, and when I put on my first pair in 7th grade, this symbol of misunderstood cool salved the everyday torture of middle school for a nerdy smart girl. Regardless of how much the company and I have both changed, that association is too powerful to dissolve.

Given its connections with comfort, family, body image, self-control, and health, food is already a highly emotional area for many of us; thus food shopping, already rife with anxiety and perceived stigmas, provides immediate emotional access to marketers. The more we hear often-misleading mainstream media coverage of the locavore movement and carbon footprints, meat recalls, e.coli outbreaks from spinach, the debates over the value of organics, or the healthfulness of dairy products, eggs, or fish, the more vulnerable we become to the type of food marketing (like that practiced by Whole Foods) that offers to soothe the seething worry.

As with most powerful marketing initiatives of our age, the irony is palpable: across the street from the "eat here and you'll be fine"-messaged Whole Foods (and its plethora of nutrient-fortified, lab-formulated, sugar-laden, processed "health" junk food) are food choices that can genuinely negate these anxieties. The meat, eggs, and milk are pasture-raised from local, grazing animals and therefore pose little or no risk of heart disease; some of the vegetables are organic while some are not, but none of them are processed in the type of facilities that are vulnerable to e.coli contamination; the locally-baked breads are preservative-free: in short, it's unlikely that any meal sourced from the greenmarket will be detrimental to health.

Whole Foods and many of the corporate-organic "health" brands it sells benefit from keeping us confused about what's good to eat, then offering their brand as an umbrella answer - though many of the foods they sell range from simply unhealthy to actually toxic. Local farmers, who sell genuinely healthful, sustainable foods, don't market themselves. Whole Foods is crowded every time I shop there, but so is the greenmarket, and increasingly so: while our branded world honestly terrifies me, the weekly crowds at the greenmarket offer some room for hope.


pollyanna cowgirl said...

Wow! This post was so illuminating and a reminder that "good" marketing isn't necessarily honest. I feel glad that my last grocery shopping purchase was at Rainbow, but I'll feel gladder (more glad? more gladder?) when I've finally gone to the farmer's market.

PS. I'm eating an apple with pink flesh!

anna said...

I love Rainbow. I would be so happy to have such a rad hippy emporium so close to my house!! All those bulk bins really get the natural foods nerd in me going.

But the farmer's market is great. All the farmers love talking about fruits and vegetables, just like me! Though usually I go there too early in the morning to want to talk about anything.