Twenty years ago I published a small spiral-bound book called How To Fix A Leek…and other food from Maine’s Farmers’ Markets to help my local farmers boost their meager sales. I was hoping to do that by helping the people who, week after week, spent their market time asking the same questions again and again. If they got definitive answers once and for all about how long a product would be at the market and what you were supposed to do with it, I was hoping they could start shopping. Wanting everybody to understand what farmers' markets were supposed to mean, I also went around the state speaking on the crucial benefits of farmers and their markets: economy, ecology, safety and security—green every which way. I sold several thousand books but green was not then a buzz word so my passion was lonely.
That's why I've noticed the frenzy for farmers’ markets. Now that green is the going thing, from Santa Monica to Maine they’ve become all the rage-- fodder for glossy magazines, daily news beats and slick tourism appeals. This is especially true in dowdy old Maine, the shiny new darling of national foodie networks brimming with braggadocio about its lobster rolls and locavore restaurants. Well, except for maybe three or four of those latter eateries, all are brand new, the seeming symbiotic result of a doubling in the number of farmers and markets over the last four years. Just a sign that food has yet again become the counterculture’s answer to the madness of finance. (Remember “back to the land” of the 60s?)
New methods of instant communication have certainly fertilized this fever. The internet is buzzing with sites for homespun farms, photogenic events and zealous networks like ELFC (Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine), the Farmers’ Market Federation and GetReal GetMaine. They're basically saying what I said 20 years ago, but this time people are listening. Desperation does that.
We have a very repetitive pattern in our American samsara that looks something like an accordion. It starts with a squeeze when a human being with heart and soul makes something of value and others pursue it hotly. That heat increases the smell of money. Down swoop the capitalists who scoop up the product and peck away at it, cheapening it for mass production by leaching out the quality that cost money. They'd rather the money went into their pocket than the product. Eventually the egregious awfulness of what's being sold compels somebody to tinker with the original product in that old fashioned, heartfelt way. Dang the dollars, they want to make something really good. In this oscillation between boutique and big box, this swing from ingenious creation to disingenuous manufacture, small gets huge, then squeezed back into small, just like an accordion. I think of this boom, bust, boom as the unique impermanence heaved upon the world by the irrational exuberance of capitalism.
Coffee first made me aware of how this happens. All that hard hitting advertising about the discriminating Colombian eye of Juan Valdez and the heavenliness of Chockful o’ Nuts just couldn’t disguise the tasteless sawdust packed into supermarket coffee cans by bloodless corporations pretending it was real Joe. Then somebody somewhere tasted real coffee elsewhere and woke up. In frustration, they started roasting their own beans, differentiating them by place of origin and type of roast, and selling them in brown bags. They recommended replacing percolators with more expensive brewers that actually enhanced the taste. Coffee came back into fashion. Coffee had taste and meaning again. Coffee houses became the rage. (And now, here we go, Starbucks is diluting the concept with a never ending menu of sugary sop cheaper to profit from.)
After coffee came beer. Thirty years ago all you could buy was the double carbonated (more air more money) tasteless, brew shot into cans for mass producers like Miller and Budweiser, companies that spent millions not on making beer but on marketing to make you think their product was the real deal. Then guys got mad enough to not take the absence of quality any more and started playing around with hops themselves. Now beer is back to being what should be beer and it comes in very distinct brews bottled all over the place. My own favorite is the unique blueberry ale made in Maine.
We have now started drowning in mushy heirloom tomatoes because people who wanted a tomato to taste like a tomato revolted against those gassed red hardballs shipped in refrigerated trucks from Florida and cavalierly passed off as genuine fruit. People wanted a tomato to be what tomato is supposed to mean. And the same quest for quality has people scavenging farmers’ markets for dairy products without bovine growth hormone, corn without Roundup in its kernels, garlic not from China whose soil is poisoned and eggs that don’t scramble into salmonella. They want wholesome food that provides all that real food is meant to.
And here comes the dilution. The flight from taste free, nutrient free mass marketed groceries has fueled the frenzy for everything “organic”, which is unleashing the deliberate obfuscation of that concept. Big box mass marketers like Wal-Mart have bought enough lobbyists and Congressmen to get the original strict standards deviated, sometimes to the point that small Maine farmers who use the manure of their animals, have been legally accused of using “chemicals” in violation of their certification. Caring not about kohlrabi, only money, the mass marketers want to make it impossible us to understand what that word actually means. “Organic” has already become so tainted—is it food from your local soil grown without chemical additives or food flown into the supermarket from Ecuador when it’s out of season here?-- small farmers, the ones who rely on farmers’ markets, have to resort to describing themselves as “natural” or “old-fashioned” or “pesticide free.” Something definitive and comprehensible.
And that says it all. Frankly, it doesn't have to just be coffee or cantaloupe anymore. All the cosmetics at the counters are made by just two companies pushing the same stuff out of the same factory while spending billions of your dollars in brainwashing campaigns to make you think they're different and worth every penny.
This is the phenomenon driving our politics--that's what the anger is about. We are a culture that is not so interested in making things as we are in marketing things. We don't care about the steak itself, just the sizzle. That's why all Obama's handlers can talk about is "protecting the brand." So what if he didn't turn out to be a quality product that delivered satisfaction. Just as long as they can convince you to buy him as though he might. So people are looking for independents who are not mass manufactured marketing miracles.
Marketing thin air has co-opted everything nowadays, and this kind of emptiness has shown itself to be toxic. The voters are enraged and desperate for a two-party alternative, the consumers are turning to small farmers who actually make food with their sweat and hands. The accordion effect is the way the loss and recovery of meaning--of significance, manifests. Funny how hard we work to fill that emptiness back up.
~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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