FORUM – Culture Shock – PART TWO

31 Mar 2003

We stepped lightly towards the bustling meat counter. The lamb shanks just leaped out at us, haven’t made them in ages. Time-consuming to prepare, but we’d make the time. Just a decade ago, lamb shanks were about as popular as pig’s feet here, a flavorful dish appreciated only by those in the know, something most people imagined was consumed without silverware by Henry VIII or Fred Flintstone. Today, the price for six meaty bones was the equivalent of my daily salary. No truffles included. As we were planning a special event, THE market butcher enjoyed an easy sale. I made the mistake of letting my friend go to the wine section alone while I went in search of canellini beans to accompany our hopefully exquisite braised lamb shanks. We studied wines in school, so I thought he’d be savvy. Indeed, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a bargain for employed CEOs, but do people like us deserve an ounce or two? Indeed we do. We also stopped off at the fabulous cheese section and picked up a few small samples to tide us over while the shanks were braising.

Mission accomplished, we browsed a bit to see what else was on offer in this vast temple of health and well-being. One isle was lined with little vials of potions assuring the secrets to immortality; Asian remedies for every modern ailment, oils for massage, aromatherapy and what not. Can’t one just toss a few sprigs of spearmint in the bath, as the great Roman emperors had done, and call it a day? Two women were having a serious chat about this expansive ancient-turned-new-age medicine cabinet. A glance at their shopping basket didn’t coincide with their mission. Processed food. Not even so much as a bunch of fresh parsley sprouting from the pile of cardboard and shimmering wrapping paper. Organic labeling, mind you, but lab food nonetheless. Boxes from the sub-zero department containing all-healthy meals made with love in a big (pristine?) warehouse. Nutrient-packed sweet-potato and eggplant chips fried in clinically approved oil were tucked into eco-friendly bags with photos of a pure and beautiful landscape. Trenton didn’t look like that the last time I passed through.

Full stop. We have become so processed we don’t even notice it any more, it’s crept up on us gradually and now we can’t live without it. First we were told we wanted bright white flour and stripped rice, but cheese must be orange. Then we had to have bland but blemish-free apples and pears. I hoped these lost souls searching for holistic health in three easy steps were not punishing themselves with powdered energy drinks instead of a decent fresh fruit salad and a handful of almonds. A couple of years ago, muscle builders in a can were reserved for the niche market gym-lords. The irony of competitive sport, when the intention to become the picture of health is sometimes negated by the desire to be Hercules. Conjuring up the allure of synthetically-produced biceps beyond the rationale of Hippocrates or Popeye, marketing is intended to triumph over common sense and doctor’s orders.

Back in the sticks, Greece is not a nation of healthaholics, per se, even though the miracle Mediterranean Diet studies stemmed from here and their health stats and magical culinary combos are still on the ‘best of this planet’ list. Many Greeks still maintain a close connection to agriculture, are aware of their food sources and quality, can easily identify a real tomato and may even climb mountains to enjoy decent food. As for mega-agribusiness food safety scares, no one’s exempt. All the more reason to maintain good relations with the shepherd!

Generation X is much the same everywhere these days with international chain-expansion and cool ad campaigns, so Greek teens are happily surfing the processed food wave when their grandmothers aren’t looking. Gotta unload those GM corn tortillas somewhere in this world— they last forever don’t they? One can only hope that a remedy will be discovered before the powerful lab food marketing bug spreads across the globe.

As we approached THE market check-out counter, my heart started to beat out my chest, thinking of the price we’d have to pay for all this good living. The cashier gave me a funny glance…lots of stuff to weigh…she mumbled, looking at the piles of fresh produce tumbling onto the conveyer belt. I felt as though we were supposed to apologize for not buying neatly packaged, invisible-chef gourmet items with a handy label to scan. Should I explain that I already enjoy enough bad habits, still legal in this country unless I’m operating heavy machinery or ignore designated-area signs, and my love of good food does not permit laboratory cuisine to be on my vice list? A large single-malt scotch came to mind while trapped between the rumbling front line of conveyor belts rolling out more organic chips, pre-made hummus, tabouleh and containers of limp lettuce from THE salad bar, surely fresh at some point, now decomposing from exposure, handled and mangled by the masses. Clanging bottles of ginseng and green tea cocktails with very cool rain forest labeling, 500 times more expensive than a little tin of the straight stuff, indicated there’s no time for tea. Watson, that’s why the produce is so expensive, it’s simply for show.

My musings were interrupted. For once, I unintentionally made a scene with the canellini beans I had gathered from the bulk organic legumes section. I just put some in a bag and threw them in my basket—wrong! The cashier scolded me, I was supposed to have followed THE instructions and attached a code-label for this item from that section. The hydroponic tomato glow started to form on my cheeks. I apologized profusely, confessed that I was from out of town and uninformed of THE market etiquette, but politely estimated the price to be $600 per pound. I sure hope the organic farmers are getting a cut of this action.

Prepared for the worst, my buddy handed over a plastic card representing payment of our extravagant adventure and headed toward the elevator, arguing about his demented offer to bear the brunt alone. A young British couple joined us in the handy lift to the parking lot, whispering while surveying their mountain of purchases. I was tempted to ask what they thought of the prices here, but had stirred up enough crop dust for one day.

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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