On my way to the beach house where I was to spend Memorial Day week-end, I called my hosts and asked them what I should pick up for lunch.
“Don’t stop at Ralph’s” they advised “The new market at Trancas is now open and it’s great”.
Wonderful, I thought. That particular shopping mall, the last outpost for groceries before Ventura, another 20 miles farther north, had been under renovation forever. I pulled in the crowded parking lot early on Saturday morning – it was misty and cool and not a beach day at all. All the better, fewer throngs on the beach and more room for the dogs to roam around. The new market turned out to be called Vintage, which I thought was an odd moniker when associated with food, even though the primary definition of the word is, indeed, quality.
A band was playing outside, alongside a lady distributing free shots of tomato juice. I grabbed a basket and wandered through the pretty aisles, all distressed wood and bins filled to the brim with organic produce. I threw some ripe apricots in a bag – they looked just perfect – until I spotted the price of $5.99 a pound. Gee! This was going to be an expensive lunch. And it was – by the time I had picked up a few vegetables, some oil and vinegar, some tuna, shrimp, some pastries and a few others bits and bobs, the bill came to over $100. I realize I was paying for Malibu, the beach, the organic produce, the band outside. And the overall prettiness of the place. Still.
While in New York, I took a tour of Eataly, Mario Batali’s version of the food emporia of the same name that were initially conceived by the Slow Food Movement in Italy. In Rome, sofagirl and I roamed around the four floors of the largest Eataly built so far, and we traipsed back home with bags laden with bread, cheese, produce and other pretty, and expensive, goodies we couldn’t stop ourselves from buying. The New York version is the same concept on steroids, with every square inch filled with some food related product: in one fell swoop the customer can sit down and enjoy a meal (pizza, pasta, meat, fish – anything one’s heart desires) and then fill a few bags with either raw food items or Alessi gadgets, cookbooks, aprons – anything remotely tied to cooking.
Strangely enough, I remained unmoved. Everything looked beautiful and appetizing, but I just didn’t want it. I have reached the point where, when it comes to food, I crave simple. Not colorful or perfect or designer. Just simple. I have noticed my forays to try the latest restaurants have dwindled, content to stay home and make some pasta with the first crop of cherry tomatoes, charred on the grill.
Could it be the abundance of cooking tv shows, food websites, pornographic pictures of cakes has finally pushed me over the edge? Or maybe cooking for a living?
I have been a sucker for prettiness all my life – when forced to choose between form and function, I will choose form every time. I suppose it’s only human to be attracted to beauty, or one’s personal version of it. But, when it comes to food, we might have strayed too far in the opposite direction.
A few years ago I was exploring Bourough Market in London, and, just outside, I spotted a cafe with barrels and bags of coffee used as decor, looking so simple and stylish I stopped to take photographs. If I ever open a place of my own, I thought, this is what I would want it to look like. I sat down for a delicious coffee, surreptitiously read the Guardian over the shoulder of the man next to me, and off I went on my next sightseeing destination. But, if I stop to think of coffee shops in London, what first comes to mind is the caff a few steps from Green Park Tube station, where I would stop in the morning for breakfast before work: two slices of fluffy white toast, salted butter and generic jam with a cup of weak coffee. I would never go for it now: my breakfast table is graced by organic and fair trade bitter African coffee that would raise the dead; the bread is made from unpronounceable seeds; the butter is from happy cows and the jam does not contain a speck of sugar – I have truly become the target of the marketing people behind designer food.
But when I think of that caff, and the myriads of them that used to dot London, what warms my memory is the waitress who wouldn’t bother to ask me what I wanted anymore, the other lonely patrons with their Times and Guardian and Daily Mail, unencumbered of their English reserve and always eager to exchange a few words. It felt a bit like a second home, and I was not breaking bread alone.
Food has become fashionable, so trendy in fact that we feel compelled to take shots of what we eat and share them with the world. But what places like Eataly cannot offer, beyond the pretty utensils, the wondrous cakes, the handmade chocolates and the perfectly roasted chicken, is the feeling of a safe place where to break bread with family and strangers alike. They are too polished, too perfect, in the way a home kitchen and home cooked food should never aspire to be.
It’s fun to go for a grand meal once in a while but, once the grand meal becomes the norm, the fun dissipates, together with the shots on Instagram, and it all becomes the same blur.
My nostalgia certainly doesn’t stretch back to white bread or watery coffee but it does make me reach for the blemished plum, the spinach covered in dirt, or the spotty bananas, maybe to remind me of the connection with the earth, and that food doesn’t spring out of the mind of marketers.
In Europe, the EU has strict rules as to what produce should look like – not taste – but look: no blemishes, no yellow leaves. They went as far as rejecting curved cucumbers until someone must have pointed out the ridiculousness of it all. Every year, farmers all over the continent throw out tons of food that does not meet the “beauty criteria”. In Portugal, a lady by the name of Isabel Soares, recognized the craziness and founded Fruta Freia (Ugly Fruit), a sort of coop that buys, at very discounted prices, the fruit and vegetables that farmers cannot send to market, and then packages them in crate that she sells, mainly to low-income families, for about $5. Perfectly good and nutritious food that doesn’t look perfect.
At Vantage Market in Malibu, I did find some peaches that looked as if they had been knocked about, but perfectly ripe. No, they did not discount them and now they are staring at me from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. I bit into one last night. And it was perfect.
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