Voluptuous Veg and Prurient Protein
I've always thought that if cooking shows and cookbook photography are food porn, then the modern grocery store might just be the culinary version of a sex club. No longer are you sitting passively on your couch fantasizing about Giada DeLaurentis's prowess with melons or Sandra Lee's banana peeling technique. At the store, you're in control, imbued with the power to push and prod produce and protein on your own terms.
Of course, even with the rise of food TV and culinary media, we know that fewer people are cooking at home. A Department of Energy survey that tracked home cooking trends between 1993 and 2001 found that the percentage of U.S. households that cooked meals in the home once a week or less increased from 3.8 percent to 7.1 percent.
So what's going on? Maybe the act of grocery shopping isn't participatory like a sex club, rather it's still like porn, a voyeuristic endeavor more akin to going to a strip club.
I know I personally fetishize grocery stores like Imelda Marcos reveres shoes. For Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, it might be Manolo or Jimmy, but for me, it's Fox and Obel. Grocery shopping is my compulsive athletic competition.
I visit at least three stores weekly. Trader Joe's for cheap staples and wine deals. Then there's a specialty run to Whole Foods or the Green City Farmers' Market for farm fresh produce, and, finally, a stop at the local big box, Dominick's for the overfarmed, genetically modified, or processed things I can't live without: molded and formed lunch meats, and Kraft mac and cheese, and pepperoni pizza Hot Pockets (I know the hottest places in hell are being stoked for me, but there's something inescapably tasty about cardboard pastry filled with spicy chunks of pseudo-meat when you're on the go).
On a really ambitious week, I also hit up local butchers such as Paulina Meat Market or Gepperth's (open for more than 100 years and filled with prime aged New York strip and ruddy house-made sausages) for my carnivorous desires and Dirk's for my pescatarian needs. My record, for a dinner party last year: seven grocery stores plus fresh masa from a local tortilleria for sopes. Damn you, Rick Bayless!
And so, last month, when a 55,000-square-foot Whole Foods (Chicago's largest) opened in my neighborhood, I headed straight there, camera in hand and tongue wagging.
One of the reasons I can even manage grocery shopping at so many places is that being a freelance food writer does afford me the flexibility to shop during the day, when only the Starbucks latteaccessorized, Bugaboo strollertoting moms are in store. (I've recently become an Intelligentsia mochaaccessorized Bugaboo-toting dad, so it's not like there's anything wrong with thatOK, I hate myself.)
Based on previous experience, I figured hopping in on opening day at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon would be no problem. After all, I think about food as much as Peyton Manning thinks about throwing touchdowns. Normal people actually have soccer games, business commitments, and drinking benders to attend to. Or so I thought.
It took me two spins around the three-level garage just to find parking. Then I had to hoof it up a flight of stairs just to get to the main floor, where I found the Bugaboo army reinforced by the bike messenger mafia, the tree-hugging terrorists, and, unexpectedly, the Brooks Brothers guerrillas. When the hell did people start lying to their bosses to get to the opening day of a grocery store?
I now knew I was wrong. Going to the grocery store wasn't remotely like going to the strip club, rather it was more like making the pilgrimage to Fenway for game one of the 2004 World Series to see the Red Sox end 86 years of futility.
Of course, this wasn't just any grocery store. The new Whole Foods was outfitted with a smokehouse turning out planks of pork ribs with pink smoke rings and perfectly caramelized bark. There was also a fresh noodle bar, a sushi station, a juice bar, and an in-house gelateria slinging a rich and pliant plantain-flavored scoop. There were self-serve wine sample stations where you could snatch a small pour from a $150-plus bottle of Opus One for a mere eight bucks. Gleaming fillets of turbot and translucent ridged skate wing held court next to smoked salmon candy, etc, etc.
I suppose this should cheer me. Maybe it means people are returning to the kitchen and actually using cookbooks not just as an entertaining tome on impossible prowess à la the Kama Sutra but as a real how-to manual.
But I don't think that's the case. The frozen food section, which in most Whole Foods is generally stashed away in a corner like a dirty peep show booth, rivaled those at any Safeway in size. There was also plenty of home-meal replacement and take-out rotisserie chicken.
They way I see it, grocery shopping these days is actually more like consumerism as therapy, where sussing out an organic honeydew or snatching up artisanal small-batch chevre is akin to choosing your favorite color of iPod Nano or snatching up Michael Graves's designed kitchen utensils at Target.
I wonder, though, how many of those melons then rot away in the back of Sub-Zero crispers once the rush of the acquisition has been completed. Maybe I should head to a strip club to contemplate this question. After all, with people's proclivities now so enthusiastically geared toward food, they won't be around forever.