Dispatches: On The Bowery Whole Foods

First, a few words on the neighborhood.  Inside the door, above a landscape of crushed-ice, a long wooden board has been affixed to the wall, the purpose of which quickly becomes clear.  Fish, having been selected from the tank in front, sail wriggling through the air, hit the board, bounce, skitter along it, hit the far inside wall, and fall to the ice below to be grabbed, alive, and filleted by the staff in back.  Below the plank that ensures the fishmongers’ accuracy, the heads of large salmon, recently detached, continue to yawn and gawp reflexively.   In front sit wooden baskets of soft-shell crabs, porgies, shrimp of all sizes, razor clams with their phallic, protruding siphons, and numerous flatfish, all whole and waiting for inspection by customers who wouldn’t think of buying a fish without checking its gills for redness and pressing its scaly sides for taut resilience.  Squeezed between the wall and the crab and lobster tanks sits a large black bucket, nearly the size of a garbage can, from which the topmost of many layers of frogs stare up.

Such is a typical fish stall on Mott Street, in downtown Manhattan.  But many other food shops south of Houston Street and east of Lafayette Street, of all cuisines and nationalities, share the stall’s intensity, if not always the sheer directness of the relationship between people and the animals they eat that obtains there.  In the window of Despana, a newish food boutique on Broome that specializes in Spanish delicacies such as paprikas, olives, cheeses, and oils, hangs a salt-cured pig’s hind leg, hoof and all, unmistakably a severed mammalian limb, waiting to be sliced into transparencies of Serrano ham.  Inside Dom’s, a nearby Italian grocer, chickens complete with head and feet (the better to be added to to your stockpot) lie in cases beneath gamy homemade sausages that age hanging from the ceiling.  The Essex Market’s Dominican butchers sell goat meat and oxtails, while pig stomachs and tripe are available nearby.  Not only the Sullivan Street bakery but the Balthazar bakery, Ceci-Cela, the Falai bakery and several others turn out impeccable breads.

Bangkok Grocery, the city’s best purveyor of galangal, shrimp pastes, lime leaves, fish sauces, and other Thai ingredients, is a few blocks below Canal on the San Francisco-esque, tilted Mosco Street.  Back up on Mott sits DiPalo’s, the legendary supplier of the best Parmigiano-Reggiano and other Italian artisanal products in this country.  Catty corner from it one can buy the city’s best Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sandwich, at Banh Mi Saigon Bakery.  (This opinion professionally corroborated by the always scintillating J. Slab at The Porkchop Express.)  Vegetable sellers and more fishmongers from China’s Fujian Province line Grand Street all the way to Hester, where a right turn brings you to Il Labatorio del Gelato, New York’s most lauded ice cream makers, and a little beyond that a wide-ranging chocolate shop where you can find most of the finest single-bean productions of Michel Cluizel, Valrhona, and other chocolate titans.  Next door is Alejandro Alcocer’s excellent food shop, Orange, and restaurant, Brown.  Over another block on Grand is Doughnut Plant, where Mark Singer makes his grandfather’s recipes using organic ingredients.  And back up to Houston sits Katz’s, the pastrami champion of New York City.

Back west a few blocks on Houston is the new Bowery Whole Foods.  Is it just me who finds still finds appending the word “Bowery” to such amenities as pricey supermarkets oxymoronic?  Or has the word Bowery already shed its downmarket connotations, or rather, already accrued the upmarket status into which downmarket connotations are now magically transformed?  Whichever confusing permutation it is, the branch itself comically interrupts perhaps the densest, most diverse, and best collection of individual food shops in the United States.  Whole Foods, the American food economy’s answer to Crate and Barrel, is no doubt a useful intervention in most suburban contexts in which there are thirty enormous chain pharmacies for every good butcher or fish shop.  If you live on the exurban outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, presumably Whole Foods appreciably increases the diversity of available food. 

But on Bowery and Houston, Whole Foods represents a much poorer form of food diversity than what is already there.  And, food shops are not just food shops: they are a solidified form of the social relationships that obtain between people in an particular place.  The unofficial little vegetable market that pops up on weekends on Forsyth Street under the Manhattan Bridge represents a food culture of inspecting produce and comparing adjacent vendors for the best price: the entire cacophony of traditional market culture.  It is the product and instantiation of the middle and working-class residents of Chinatown.  But don’t think I am making an argument about authenticity here.  Whole Foods is in no way a less natural emanation of a different class stratum: the professional and managerial upper-middle people who flow into downtown in increasing numbers.  These people, and their needs for organic baby food, large amounts of wildly expensive prepared lunchtime panini and salads, exist in symbiosis with Whole Foods.  As downtown New York tilts towards this population, and its fauxhemian pretensions, there is a natural influx of corporate franchises with bland, do-gooder brand identities that serve the casual American elite from Seattle to Cambridge.

But the Bowery Whole Foods tells us something remarkable about its shoppers: how ignorant they are of where they are and how alienated they are from food.  Perusing it, the thing that impresses you most is the pervasive labeling, the enormous amounts of information appended to everything.  Everywhere are little identificatory notes, signs overhead, brochures on what to do with their sausages (eat them?), glossy photos of the smiling man who supposedly dredged up your mussels or baited the hook upon which your (always already headless and filleted) wild salmon met its end.  This is food shopping for people who have come to trust only that which is mediated by text, addenda, explanations, certifications.  It is a website come to life, or a piece of life for those who prefer websites: each piece of signage functions as the hyperlink that clicks through to a capsule review. 

I once served some sliced raw albacore tuna doused in soy to a friend.  I had bought the fish not far from Whole Foods from Alex, the fisherman who had caught it and brought it the next day to the Greenmarket.  I’m lucky to live in a city where this is a humdrum and everyday transaction.  My friend, a film producer, remarked, “This is great!  But how did it get sterile?” 

“Sterile?” I asked.

“Yeah.  How does it get safe to eat?”

Food?  Sterile?  This is the alienation on which Whole Foods depends.  In the age of hysterical warning about the dangers of food, it comes as a surprise to find that fish can be pulled out of the water and eaten, raw.  No anti-bacterial soap or release form required. 

There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers.  The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other.  Instead, it’s purely about the foods themselves: one’s interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest.  Industrial organic food production has many of the same faults as the conventional food industry; it doesn’t matter.  That organic food is roughly a third the price at socialist institutions like the Fourth Street Food Coop, or the superb Park Slope Food Coop, is also unimportant.  These neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness.  Yet a principle like seasonality is sacrificed to the lure of exotic, irradiated produce available year-round.  Such are the characteristics of the so-called “foodies.”  Even the term suggests a cute and infantile hobby.  And it does seem infantile to shop at Whole Foods while all around you sits the very food cultures about which Whole Foods’ publicity materials fantasize.

Near Orchard Street, four blocks from Bowery and Houston Street, sits Russ and Daughters, a small shop crammed with smoked salmon, cured salmon, salmon roe, herring, chubs, sturgeon eggs, bagels, fruits and candies, mustards, cream cheeses, etc.  It is a legacy of a time when the Lower East Side was the world’s single densest agglomeration of people, and Jewish and Eastern European foodstuffs were for sale from pushcarts up and down Orchard Street.  The store started on such a pushcart, but this is no neighborhood of Jewish immigrants anymore.  Instead, Russ and Daughters has survived by becoming the best source for smoked fish and caviar in New York City, no mean achievement.  In a way, it and shops like it have produced the very market they now serve: the teeming Lower East Side’s taste for bagels and lox ended up colonizing the nation. 

In a world in which we’ve been socialized to distrust the claims of brands, we paradoxically require ever greater documentations of authenticity, ever wordier mediations between ourselves and things.  We don’t trust ourselves to be able to divine with our own eyes what an edible object is, whether it’s genetically modified, whether it contains omega-3, whether it’s safe for our children.  But the Lower East Side of New York has lasted against this tendency, thanks to the richness of its cultural inheritance.  It’s also due, frankly, to intrepidness of the people who have lived here, their lack of a need for handholding, and their willingness to seek out the new and the strange.  There is something beautiful about the fact that the greatest smoked salmon purveyor in the country operates on the very corner from which the taste for the foodstuff emanated.  It is a rare and appropriate historical congruence, and to me it represents what is fascinating and powerful about the food culture of this quadrant of New York City.  Whole Foods is not.

The rest of Dispatches.