(My daughter Nicole, left, her friend Sabeena, right, with the Food Network's Alton Brown)
Nobody has ever accused me of being a Foodie. My idea of variety in my diet is switching from Nacho Cheese Doritos to Cool Ranch. I know nothing about growing fresh vegetables, and the only time I’ve been told I had a green thumb was when I stuck it in the guacamole dip.
But God – or whatever all-powerful force angrily turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (mmm, salt) – decided to punish me for some sin in a previous life by bestowing onto me a daughter and creating the Food Network. Then (S)he stood back and roared with laughter.
My daughter Nicole is a 19-year-old baking and cooking machine. This summer, after learning everything that Giada De Laurentiis and Alton Brown could teach her through the TV screen, she realized her calling in life is to be a pastry chef. Since the Culinary Institute requires some work experience before admission, she skipped this year of school, got a job in a bakery, and now spends part of her day with her hands in dough and flour. She comes home with a smile on her face, which brought a smile to mine.
Until she discovered there was a Whole Foods a couple of minutes from where she works.
I am as much a fish out of water at Whole Foods as Sarah Palin is at a Mensa meeting, expect, unlike Palin, I’m aware that I don’t belong. Still, there I was entering its portals last week, facing a mind-bogglingly colorful selection of fresh fruits and vegetables: apples, corn, tomatoes …
“Yay, they have marjoram!”
“Uh huh. What the hell’s marjoram?”
“Don’t you get excited by all this food?”
“No, only when the food” (imitating Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers movies) “gets in my belly!”
Frankly, I didn’t know what many of the products were. Dragon fruit? Aloe vera leafs?
(Actual conversation later with my wife.) “Ann insists I must have seen an aloe vera plant before, but I’m sure I haven’t.”
“Your mom had an aloe vera plant in her den all those years.”
“Oh, that’s what that was?”
Not only were the products mysterious, but so were their uses.
“Why are you buying an Anaheim chile?”
“I want to make my own ketchup. The chile will give it a little kick.”
“Why do you need to make your own ketchup? I just bought a bottle of Heinz last week.”
(Sigh.) “Next time, I want Mommy to come shopping with me.”
“Hell, no. I’m not going to be the first person to max out his credit card buying fruits and vegetables.”
As we moved on to the aisles with the bottles, jars and boxes, I realized that Whole Foods only sold products with the finest ingredients, nothing cheap, and by nothing cheap, I mean “nothing inexpensive.” The cost of the bottle of tarragon vinegar Nicole looked at would have fed a family of four at McDonald’s. I was pleased when Nicole returned it to its shelf, realizing that Giada and Alton don’t stock their kitchen on a budget.
While my daughter shopped, I began to break down the Whole Foods customers into three categories:
Skinny Bitches: You know them, the ones who consider a salad with no dressing a big meal, the ones who could play hide-and-seek behind a broomstick, the ones that would make Twiggy shout, “Hey, eat a steak once in a while, willya?” They may be eating healthy food, but they sure look unhealthy.
Gym Rats: You know them, the ones still wearing their Spandex after an hour on the treadmill and now they’re giving themselves a treat – a few drops of vinaigrette on their salad. I give these women a wide berth, since they look like they could kick my ass without breaking a sweat.
Trophy Wives: (After all, this is Westchester, home to some of the richest CEOs) You know them, the ones whose blonde hair comes from a bottle and whose breasts come from a surgeon’s hands, the ones who come to the store in short-shorts and four-inch heels. I hate trophy wives, and not just because I’ll never have my own. (Yeah, yeah, I know, dear, you’re my trophy wife. As Frank said on Everybody Loves Raymond, “What contest in Hell did I win?”)
The one type of customer I did not see was a poor person. This is not surprising. Eating healthy is expensive, and you’ll never find a Whole Foods in a poor neighborhood. Statistics show a heavy correlation between obesity and poverty, and a trip to Whole Foods bore this out. I fear that we are dividing into two Americas, not just between the haves and have-nots, but between the healthy and the unhealthy, with a lot of the division being the same. I feared that I was, by shopping here, inadvertently contributing to it.
I also felt the unmistakable snob appeal. All of this became clearer to me as I reached the shelves with the one product I understood: beer. I’m a bit of a beer snob, usually reaching for the microbrew when I have the chance. But I also don’t turn down a Budweiser or a Miller when I’m out with friends, and I understand that some people buy a six-pack of Bud because they’d rather spend their money on something like, you know, rent.
I saw the beers displayed on the shelf, and I wondered about the decision process to stock Sam Adams and Heineken, but not Bud and Miller. Were they made with better ingredients? Were their workers treated more fairly? Or was it – and this is where I’m placing my bet – because they didn’t want to sell any product associated with the hoi polloi?
As I approached the checkout counters – oh, now I see some African-Americans and Latinos! – I felt almost as bad for my contribution to the economic segregation of America as I did for the draining of my checking account. (I said almost.)
So the next day, with all the healthy food stored in our kitchen, while my daughter was at work, sticking her hands in dough and flour, I snuck off to eat lunch at McDonald’s. It wasn’t good for my heart – or frankly, any of my other internal organs – but for a few minutes, it did cleanse my conscience.