Annie loves Trader Joe’s. I mean loves them. I’m surprised the company’s logo isn’t tattooed on her butt. Until I met her, however, I had never stepped inside one of their stores.
I’ve experienced jihadist attachment to supermarkets before. I dated several women in Manhattan, and for them it was Whole Foods, Fairway or starve. After a couple of years chauffeuring them on grocery runs, I began to suspect they liked me because I owned a car. When I discussed the possibility of living in Dirty Jerz they exclaimed, “But my stores aren’t there!” You have to hand it to those marketing guys; they’ve fetishized these places into indispensable components of city life – making urbanites loathe escaping stratospheric rents for bigger homes in the suburbs.
Ironically, over the past few years, Fairway and Whole Foods opened outposts a short drive from my house. A Trader Joe’s sprang up five minutes away. In response all the local chains are imitating their new competitors, turning my shopping choices into focus grouped homogenized clones of one another. They also opened an ALDI a mile away. I went in it with Ann and didn’t like it. “So this is what supermarkets used to look like in the Soviet Union!” I said. “Swimwear! Evening wear!”
Ann does most of the food shopping so I don’t bitch about where she goes. She’s a very savvy and thrifty shopper. But when she recently shanghaied me to Trader Joe’s, she got angry with my foot dragging. True, I can be lazy, but that wasn’t the reason.
“What’s your problem?” she says, exasperated. “You like the food from Trader Joe’s!”
“I do,” I say. “But the place gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Have you ever noticed the staff is way too happy to see you and have box-cutters?”
The staff at Trader Joe’s are actually very nice. The bell thing drives me batshit, but I’ve never run into a surly cashier. Ever. Not even a sad looking stock boy. The cynical part of me that’s lived through corporate jingoism and foodie bootlicking propaganda finds this very unsettling. Trader Joe’s, for all it’s semi-hippie commune branding, is part of a retail empire owned by a multi-billionaire. I have to wonder if there’s a corporate apparatchik in the back exhorting everyone to smile and dumping Zoloft into the Kool-Aid dispenser.
Before the culinary evangelization of the past fifteen years, going to the store was just that, going to the store. When I was a kid it wasn’t a lifestyle choice or religious experience. It was a vital function. You bought your Wonder Bread without an iota of guilt and didn’t agonize over whether the tuna you bought was sustainably farmed or genociding Flipper’s kin. Today’s food stores are a far cry from the working class food marts of my youth.
That’s to the New Food Movement; we now have an endless amount of stores and food choices to plow through. That’s not altogether bad. The coffee selection is a hell of a lot better than the old days. I can get Hawaiian Kona just about everywhere. I can buy crate loads of good tuna and Kirkland Gin at Costco, Fairway has the best cheeses and Trader Joe’s puts out very good pre-made meals – TV dinners basically – but good. And in all these places, the selection of produce is an improvement over the supermarkets of the 1970′s.
But, if I’m honest, it’s not Trader Joe’s shtick that bugs me – it’s the customers. Watching yoga-panted mommies sipping those tiny paper cups of coffee while scrutinizing package labels induces flashbacks to my food-service combat days at The Bistro; struggling to placate pretentious food-as-lifestyle drones who somehow managed to sexualize, politicize, over-romanticize and polarize the most basic human function – eating.
The whole organic hoopla is a case in point. If I had a nickel for every time a customer grilled me over the philosophical and ecological provenance of the food, I’d be writing this from my mansion in the south of France. I’m not going to bore you with studies that have shown organic food isn’t any healthier than its non-organic counterparts – or that organic farming isn’t a viable option when trying to feed billions of people. I am absolutely sure many people pick the organic option because they honestly believe its better for them and their children. Fine. But let’s face it; many people are organic because they want to feel better about themselves. For them food isn’t sustenance, it’s a statement. It’s often a quick, easy and rather masturbatory piece of faux virtuousness. How else can you explain purchasing organic vodka? Are you kidding? You want to pickle your liver and stroke your social consciousness too?
Of course, the advertising guys took this and ran with it. Now there are people who are really sincere about this stuff. God bless. But too many people jump on the sustainable/organic bandwagon because it’s fashionable feel-good horseshit. I will never forget restaurant customers who were more concerned about the ethics of their food, but couldn’t be bothered about ethics among humans. I’m talking about those smug patrons who demanded free-range chickens but told me to get rid of the homeless guy looking in the front window. That disconnect disgusted me. It still does. That’s why I get aggravated in Trader Joe’s.
Now before you all start sending me hate mail, I don’t think everyone who goes to Whole Foods, Fairway or Trader’s is a deluded Yuppie snob. I go there too! But because I was brutalized by food Nazis, I’ve developed a hyper-vigilance about this stuff; like an ex-serviceman always on the lookout for snipers. It’s probably unhealthy and yes, I’m being a bit of an asshole. But if you’ve trawled the aisles of these stores, I’m sure you’ve encountered some of the food Taliban and their outsized precious sensibilities.
I tell all this to Annie but she’s unimpressed. She’s not an ideologue regarding food and looks on my rages with a healthy amount of skepticism.
“Yeah,” she says. “But I bought a pound of Trader Joe’s chocolate three days ago and it’s gone.”
“Okay,” I sigh. “Let’s go.”
Busted. I love the chocolate at Traders. I just wish they’d bring back those Thai tuna dishes in the foil packs. Where the hell did they go? Why do they turn you on to a product and then get rid of it? I swear, those little snacks in the back remind me of heroin dealers hooking people on free samples.
It’s half an hour before closing and the parking lot at Trader Joe’s is mobbed. Once inside I have to navigate my shopping cart around throngs of people nibbling on freebies and doing biblical exegeses on the ingredients in the organic shepherd’s pie. But as I begin to hyperventilate, Annie shoots me a wicked look.
Time to keep my mouth shut.