Farmers’ Markets vs. Whole Foods

When eating organic turns to eating neurotic

Like many people today who fit in the same general census demographic as myself, I have increasingly become obsessed with food. Not in the typical Main Line, Starbucks-toting, “I’m on a diet” kind of way, but more of an over-thinking way. Seeking organic, while avoiding processed and factory farming, being a locavore, kind-to-animals-and-the-earth, ethical and quasi-vegetarian kind of way. And being this way has really started to feel like a neurosis. It’s also time-consuming and a lot of work.

[SIGNUP]It began so innocently. Upon discovering the methods of raising veal, many years ago, I refused to support it and stopped eating it. Slowly this expanded into not liking the means employed in the factory farming of pigs and cows. Then, along came mad cow disease, the horrible videos on the news and, of course, Oprah—Patron Saint of the Anti-Burger, though I’m not altogether sure she doesn’t actually eat burgers these days because it sure looked like she and Gail would eat just about anything on their camping trip (and no, I’m not going there). Then there was a piece on “60 Minutes” about the pork industry and its unpleasant conditions and toxic runoff and pollution of ground water, and finally I just stopped eating pork and beef because the enjoyment was gone. Meat didn’t taste as good once I got my damn conscience involved.

The next thing I knew I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and worrying about corn in everything. Really, it’s ubiquitous. Once I found out that farmed fish are being fed corn—seriously—that’s when I had to download the Monterey Aquarium’s Sustainable Fish App. That won’t slow you down at all when ordering dinner in a restaurant. And as if it weren’t bad enough that the government subsidizing of corn secretly landed it as a major ingredient of almost everything we eat, then they genetically modified it. So that became a new concern. Apparently I wasn’t concerned enough already.

So of course the next step was going to farmers’ markets on Saturdays with my reusable bags, and I even joined a farm co-op to buy the smallest heads of broccoli ever harvested at three times the normal price because they were grown 20 minutes away without pesticides. To hell with giant, chemical-laden, genetically modified Acme produce that I could actually make a whole meal with. I’m supporting our local farmers! So what if the vegetable soup only serves two. Or one and a half. We can supplement with the really expensive, healthy organic bread that’s hard as a rock.

But the whole local-produce thing started to spiral out of control. I was ending up with a vegetable drawer full of things I never ended up cooking, because I’m not quite as creative in the kitchen as I kid myself into believing I will be. Week after week, seasonal things like 10 tiny turnips, a $5 Romanesco cauliflower the size of a golf ball, or local artichokes that I still haven’t figured out how to manipulate into dinner went bad. Bags of unwashed organic lettuces would be trumped by the supermarket bag of pre-washed lettuce my husband bought because it’s easier to just rip open and serve. Plus I never seemed to have the ingredients I actually needed for all my old standby recipes. I had to worry less about the local farmers and go back to supporting Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods with an actual shopping list.

Still, the meat thing is an ongoing issue. I’m down to organic, free-range poultry and wild, sustainable fish, and while I don’t feel particularly good about eating even those, I can’t seem to figure out how to live without them. God help me if I get to know any chickens personally or my daughter gets a goldfish, because then I’ll have to go vegan, and that just seems like something that requires even more effort than I’m already exerting. Which is a lot.

In a perfect world, I would like to be “vegan-ish” like vegan guru and cookbook author Kathy Preston. She’s the Juvedermed one who turned Oprah and her staff vegan-ish for a few weeks; they claimed to love it, but probably went for burgers after the show. The problem is, every time I go to Whole Foods and look at the soy cheese and the fake meat products, I can’t help but recoil. They seem so … processed—the exact thing I’m trying so hard to get away from. The vegan foods seem like a paradox because anything that’s made to look like something it isn’t gives the impression of being unhealthy. I can’t bring myself to buy Tofurkey. I’m just not there yet.

Of course, there are the days when I’ve gone to three grocery stores for organics or crossed the region to buy my husband a grass-fed steak (because I can’t take everyone else down with me in my meatless obsession), I just want to say “fuck it” and hit the McDonald’s Drive-Thru for a Big Mac. For those moments, I keep the organic raw almonds in the console of the car.