I really thought I could make it to Santa Monica and back to campus in time for my next class. It didn’t seem ridiculous to me in that moment to have lunch somewhere an hour away. A week before, I’d seen a real live Whole Foods on my way home from my internship at a press agency in North Hollywood. How I ended up in Santa Monica, I can’t remember, but I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on the Kermit-green, all caps signage with the sprouting “O”while creeping towards the freeway in street traffic. Before that, Whole Foods was something I’d heard about, knew exisited, but lived in my mind as this mythical holy place of everything organic and healthy. I wanted so badly to actually go inside and purchase something and one day during a two-hour break between classes, decided to do just that.
America is a weird place to eat. I envy the rest of the world, whose food cultures has been firmly established for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Traditions around food take the work out of eating. It’s something that you don’t have to devote unnecessary amounts of mental energy towards when everyone around you eats the same thing and those things are usually made up of actual vegetables and spices and fruit and stuff that wasn’t needlessly tampered with before it ended up in you pantry or refrigerator. There’s none of the counting calories, deciphering unpronounceable ingredients, worrying about trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup or deciding one day that one food group is the cause of all health problems only to realize years later that that’s actually not true at all. Eating like an American is stressful.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, my food choices were determined by commercials. I didn’t know anything else. My mom was a single mother who couldn’t, even if she wanted, cook a wholesome nutritious meal every night. On the occasions she did cook, a traditional southern feast of stewed collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread and some variation of deep-fried protein was usually on the menu. Other times she would batch cook a huge pot of chilli that we ate with way too many fragmented saltines and Red Rooster hot sauce, or fried rice doused in soy sauce which could last about a week. My younger sister and I lived on Jimmy Dean Sausage Biscuit sandwiches for breakfast, Hot Pockets after school, and Ramen noodles, hot dogs, Hamburger Helper, Kid Cuisines, Pop Tarts, Toaster Strudels, and all and any of the sad processed concoctions that many if not most Americans consume on a daily basis. Eating at McDonald’s was bliss. I was the happiest kid alive whenever I’d get to indulge in not one, but two cheeseburgers at a time or chicken nuggets with mustard sauce.
I never questioned the quality of the food I ate. My only requirement was that my tongue would be pleased and required little if any preparation on my end. I lived for convenient, cheap and easy. Until I got to college. My freshman year I took a humanities class that was taught by this petite white woman with a silver pixie cut, probably in her 60’s, whose straightforward, take-no-mess demeanor scared me a little. She didn’t dress like my other professors in that nearly every class she wore loose-fitting, straight-leg jeans, and a flannel button-up over an exposed tee-shirt and New Balance sneakers. I would later find out she was a vegetarian who raised her own chickens somewhere in the High Desert when one day, she brought up the topic of factory farming.
Animal welfare wasn’t on my radar at that time; in 2001, I was a self-absorbed 18-year old more concerned about acquiring as much Baby Phat as possible than the suffering of pigs and cows. I recalled how whenever you drive north of San Bernardino, you would inevitably ride through an area where the pungent stink of manure slaps you in the face before you caught a glimpse of those massive black and white creatures, so calm and serene-looking, dotted along a wide expanse of brown and green. They seemed so happy, nothing like what I saw in the documentary she had us watch one day called Meet Your Meat.
I was truly shocked. I had no idea animals actually lived like this. What about all of those cows I always saw off the 215 Freeway, gently roaming free and unbothered? Was it true that the meat I was eating was chock full of unnatural growth hormones and antibiotics that were killing me slowly? I still continued to eat garbage food after that day because when you have a couple hundred dollars a month in commons money to use as you please, deciding between a salad and beef nachos with everything doesn’t require much thought. Nonetheless, a new awareness had taken up residence in a small corner of my consciousness that remained dormant for the next few years while I put on the “freshman fifteen” by way of too many bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, personal pan pizzas, and Taco Bell Express.
In my third year of college, Morgan Spurlock’s classic film, Super Size Me came out. I watched it, then forced my mom and sister to watch it and when they began to nod off from boredom, I’d jerk them awake, zealously imploring them to look at what’s going on. I immediately swore off beef, but for some reason chicken, regardless of where it came from was still permissible. I somehow thought that eating fried spicy chicken sandwiches from Jack in The Box on the regular was okay, even though it was just as unhealthy if not more so, than eating a quarter-pounder with cheese from McDonald’s. I would never step foot inside of those golden arches again, even though the smell was enough to stir feelings of warm childhood nostalgia and a hunger that wasn’t there five minutes ago.
I’d given up red meat and discovered Trader Joe’s during my third year of college, flossing my frozen chicken enchiladas in salsa verde at work, and turning my nose up at my roommate’s suggestion of Tuna Helper in favor of Amy’s Pesto Tortellini. By my senior year, I’d moved back home and leveled up, stocking my mother’s pantry with weird things like quinoa and almond butter, and started “cooking”, i.e. cobbling pre-seasoned or par-cooked items together in my attempts to eat like the healthy. After visiting Whole Foods for the first time in between classes, I regularly fantasized about shopping there, even though I could barely afford to keep a full tank of gas in my car.
By the time I became pregnant with my eldest child, I was full-blown crunchy. I’d moved to New York City by then and had discovered farmer’s markets, co-ops and CSA’s. I regularly spent a good amount of money on organic and local produce and other foodstuffs because I watched too many documentaries about the dangers of consuming genetically engineered anything and the ills of factory farming and it’s impact on our health and the environment. I read books by Sally Fallon and Weston Price and Micheal Pollan. Obviously, this mindset leaked into other areas of my life. I started to make my own clothes as a protest against fast fashion. I didn’t wear makeup or use chemically-laden skincare products. When my daughter was born, I wanted nothing to do with disposable diapers (unless of course they were unbleached, un-dyed, un-fragranced, un-everything). I made my own laundry detergent and toothpaste, and in fact, didn’t use toothpaste for several years. I banned my mother-in-law from using her beloved Mr. Clean in favor of Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds…for EVERYTHING.
It wasn’t lost on me that this lifestyle was expensive. It was, in fact, bougie. All of the natural grocery stores and good farmer’s markets were seated in gentrified parts of Brooklyn or were downtown-adjacent where all the trust-fund hipsters and well-to-do white collar professionals and creatives could afford to live. I belonged to neither category. I used my EBT card to buy $6-dollar loaves of sourdough bread and eggs from pastured chickens that cost three times the amount of the standard variety. I was a stay-at-home mom getting by on my husband’s income while living with his parents in a very non-bougie neighborhood, where a smattering of old-school Italians, Eastern Europeans, and newly arrived Chinese immigrants are the majority. I started to understand early on that this way of eating had a privileged tint to it. It took me an hour to get to the nearest Whole Foods.
After a while, I was beginning to become irritated by the fact that access to this kind of food came with a heavy price tag. At the same time, I felt like the privilege would somehow rub off on me by association. I felt like I belonged to an elite club when I picked up my CSA box every week and carried my farmer’s market hauls in understated canvas tote bags. I often felt superior to those who didn’t “get it”, who were still in the dark about the dangers of mass-marketed, processed food. Yet, there was this undercurrent of frustration that here in America, food can be elitist. Fresh, wholesome food isn’t for everybody in this country. For those of us who aren’t well off, we’re pretty much forced to eat what’s cheap and easy and almost always devoid of valuable nutrition. Sure, you can eat well on a budget but it takes much effort and planning which is a luxury for most people, especially those who are struggling financially.
I don’t entirely fit the profile of the type of person you see at Whole Foods or farmer’s markets, yet I’ve grown attached to them. I feel some kind of way whenever I go inside a Stop-n-Shop or C-Town. Does that make me bougie? Am I just a gullible victim of artfully curated advertising who is ultimately wasting money at the end of the day? Maybe. I still get upset with my mother-in-law when she gives my kids soda and will hide cookies teeming with artificial colors and flavors that she brings home from the dressed-up bodega pretending to be a grocery store. Nope, my kids will learn to like goat cheese on toast, and eat three-ingredient shortbread cookies and homemade pizza with heirloom tomato sauce. I guess my kids will be bougie too.