FORUM – Culture Shock – PART ONE
27 Mar 2003
I returned to my homeland of Washington, DC recently, after living in the mountains for three years: not the Blue Ridge but the Rodopi in Greece. Many new trends had developed: the art of drinking coffee while walking was one. Lunch hours had been cut to minutes, people circled office blocks while consuming hot dogs, pizza or fancy wrap sandwiches. Stress levels seemed so magnified; people were rushing through life whether they needed to or not. Dining in decent restaurants resembled a fast-food experience, hardly enjoyable as people seemed obligated to scrape their plates in 12 minutes or less. I felt uncomfortable for adjusting to the Greek way of nibbling and chatting for two or three hours. Granted, I still had a stressful job, but somehow the rest of it was different. I had never been accused of being normal when I lived in DC, but now I was hopelessly out of the loop. Had sitting or socializing while eating been banned? I was relieved to find that my family and friends were dining illegally-slowly whenever they had the chance.
A new gourmet mega-market had finally opened in my old neighborhood, a welcome improvement as we had suffered for decades in a culinary dead zone just north of the financial district. Feeling the need for specialized psychoanalysis after shopping at the old ball-and-chain, where seemingly nice people became monsters upon crossing its threshold, and the sight of the wilting produce could bring one to tears, THE market was the salvation we’d been waiting for.
On my first visit, I entered with great anticipation, along with my chef-buddy visiting from New York. The produce section was a glorious sight with a sparkling rainbow of crisp vegetables piled to the ceiling. Signs designating ‘conventionally cultivated’ and ‘organic’ hung above the unconfirmed good stuff and bad stuff. Organic dandelion greens…incredible! We reserve a whole day to collect and prepare wild greens back at my new digs. I embarked on a manic shopping spree: leeks, dandelion, arugula, Swiss chard, radishes, petite this, petite that. Then it hit me, the price of organic carrots. My friend from New York doesn’t embarrass easily, but when I gasped at the carrots and dramatically barreled out that $600 per pound was a bit steep, his face developed the red glow of hydroponic tomatoes.
Once I had a small audience, I rattled off my views on the state of the unsustainably cultivated union … Now I know why people don’t have time to cook, they have to work overtime to pay for organically cultivated weeds. Granted, it’s a struggle to grow organic in a world smothered in toxins, but some prices seemed extreme and certainly beyond the average person’s daily budget, namely mine. I opened the debate on how big the gap is between what struggling organic farmers make and what THE market is raking in. My friend nervously glanced over his shoulder, either anticipating a confrontation with a security guard or scanning the escape routes.
Back in the hills of my new home base, my partner and I buy the most heavenly olive oil I’ve ever tasted from the guy who makes it, straight from the village factory spigot. We have to make an appointment, which means we let him know we’re coming and hope he’ll be there, stay for dinner, kiss the children and load up the trunk with luscious liquid gold that costs $3 a liter. I was thrilled to see the fine selection of olive oils at THE market. I also hoped that people were buying it because I know olive growers deserve all the meager local currency they earn. Besides, it’s good for you, most everyone aside from the dairy or peanut board says so.
My friend and I lingered beside the fountain of youth stocks for a moment to see what hot brands were being swooped up. People came by and carefully inspected bottles and prices. Some were suckered into a half-liter of French marketing mastery in a pretty bottle on sale for $18. Most people just gazed at the selection, looked confused and walked away. The house brand, described as simply Italian extra-virgin cold-pressed, was reasonably priced. Sold! Three cheers to THE Market for making E.V.C.P.O.O. accessible to the people. A lot of robust Greek olive oil is shipped off in bulk to Italy to be combined with their lighter varieties then bottled and branded as an Italian product. Good, then perhaps we’re doing our bit for the farmers of two nations at once.
I thought we’d try a nice roast salmon or halibut for dinner. My friend, a confessed carnivore, said that fish would be lovely as a first course. We glanced at the impressive offerings of Poseidon’s treasures. OK, at these prices, people like us don’t do first courses. Next to the gleaming seafood counter were stacks of little containers of octopus salads and such. Who’s buying these exotic delicacies? Are they transformed into fabulous specials at the eleventh hour by THE catering department? Since we both cooked for a living, we’re prone to speculate on such things.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.
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