Friday, May 15, 2009

Deb Burns: How We Were Truly Born to Shop

How We Were Truly Born to Shop —
Social, Savory, Sensory, Story-Filled Farmers' Markets

Secretly, I have a horror of shopping in the supermarket, and I know I’m not alone. The glaring fluorescence, the cosmetic produce, the flabby packaging, the miles of aisles filled with overprocessed, artificial stuff – these make you desperate to do your business as quickly as possible and escape.

More is definitely less, in Supermarket Universe, and something vital is missing. The products are cut off from their stories and their roots. We crave connection to the source. Our senses, meanwhile, aside from the visual, are starved. Too bad, because shopping is the direct descendant of hunting and gathering, which exercised all five of our senses (plus our memory and our keen powers of discrimination). Those essential tools are now idle as we peer at our food through its layers of plastic and foam.

And although today we have a stupefying array of shopping options, our choices of venue have shrunk. The same dozen megastore logos loom along every U.S. rural route and urban avenue, over and over, dominating our skylines and our psyches.

Is this how we consumers hoped our shopping experience would evolve? I don’t think so. Many of us want to rewind this tape back to a smaller-scale and more comprehensible stage of development.

Thus we love the rebirth of the medieval shopping model now occurring around the country. Prowl the Greenmarket in New York City’s Union Square or browse a small-town Saturday morning farmers’ market: It’s sensory heaven. You inhale ginger chutney and lilac blossoms; you sample dollops of honey and cubes of broiled pasture-raised beef and pats of buttery brie; you stroke a peach or a miniature goat; you chat with a cheesemaker; you pick up a business card here, a brochure there. Not that the visual sense is neglected, by any means, with lettuces like huge soft roses, mushrooms in rich earthy colors, fruits vivid and glossy. It's just that all of our senses awaken in this environment, and that fills us with contentment.

Small farmers, for their part, thrive on these markets, a step removed from the roadside stand. They say their work has new meaning and focus when they're regularly face to face with customers and can witness the "mmm — wow!" as someone samples their wares.

Indeed, this is how we were born to shop. Medieval farmers drove their sheep, geese, grain, lettuces, strawberries, sausages, and whatever else was ripe and ready into village squares once a week, usually bartering for other stuff as needed, even the tolls along roads and turnpikes. (And bartering is back! Imagine offering a basket of blueberries — or a lamb — to a tollbooth attendant.) At the weekly market one might trade a hogshead of beer for a young ox, hire a shepherd, select some grain, and hear the news. Life happened there in the village square (see Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, where the beautiful young farmer Bathsheba Everdene visits the grain market and begins a fateful romance).

As roads improved, farmers hauled their products farther and sold to middlemen, who gave them coins in exchange. And before long those merchants began shipping products across the seven seas and around the world. The subsistence economy evolved into a global commodity market. Connections frayed and dissolved, and children stopped knowing that eggs came from chickens.

In 1973 E. F. Schumacher foresaw our fate, writing in Small Is Beautiful: "In many cases, local fruit goes to waste because the consumer allegedly demands quality standards which relate solely to eye-appeal and can be met only by fruit imported from Australia or California, where the application of an immense science and a fantastic technology ensures that every apple is of the same size and without the slightest visible blemish. The examples could be multiplied without end. Poor countries [and small farmers] slip — and are pushed into — the adoption of production methods and consumption standards which destroy the possibilities of self-reliance and self-help." Schumacher's insights inspired the '70s back-to-the-land and health-food movements — where Storey's roots as a company lie as well.

Fortunately, traditional markets still exist elsewhere in the world. As a reporter years ago, I browsed the vast bazaars of Old Delhi, where an acre can be devoted solely to spices. I've shopped village markets high in the Bolivian Andes, where one woman in black braids and a hot-colored poncho sat cross-legged behind vivid stacks of peppers, beans, and tomatoes — next to another woman selling exactly the same thing.

Cindy McFarland, Storey art director, savors the village markets she and her husband visit in the south of France every October. Mouthwatering displays, superb people-watching, and lively social exchange make these a priority during their annual visit.

It took us Americans a while to find our way back to this shopping style that feeds our senses and our souls, but we're enjoying it fully now. Perhaps we’ve discovered how to reverse a path that increasingly looked like a dead end.

The wonderful news is that hundreds of farmers' markets are starting up this month — check for one near you. Take your own shopping bag, your curiosity, some time to linger and chat, and a keen appetite. Bon appรฉtit!

Deb Burns
Acquiring Editor for Animal, Farming, and Equestrian Topics

Photos by Melanie Jolicoeur, Jason Drew

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