Food judgment is not cool

In keeping with this week’s theme of talking about class and poverty issues, today I want to touch upon the issue of food. I have written on the issue of food in the past, and here is a great tumblr post by a gal who really gets the issues of class.
However despite writing on this in the past, I feel the need to revisit the issue because I am convinced it’s pretty easy to be clueless when wondering why don’t those darn poor folks eat better? Why are they not more adventurous in their eating? Don’t they know fruits and veggies are cheap? And so on, as I tap the ole gray matter to think of some of the seemingly innocent comments I have heard from folks on the matter of food and folks who are financially vulnerable.

Let me tell you something, I was damn near 25 before I decided to get adventurous in my eating, why? Money, plain and simple; sure I could have sprung for some red leaf lettuce beforehand, but what if I hated it? Then I would have been shit out of luck as far as my money and frankly for the earlier part of my adulthood, my dollars were sparse and I could not afford to be wasteful. The reality is for many folks at the lower end of the financial spectrum, dollars are tight and often it’s easier to eat what you know rather than stepping out and being adventurous. Even the ability to be adventurous with something as seemingly small as food is not available to all! Sure the sushi lunch box special is comparable in price to a meal at McDonald’s but if you find it is not to your liking when your budget has no wiggle room, survival dictates taking a step on the wild side is a bad idea.

Next up good ole fruits and veggies and the poor, I especially love the internet flappers who wax poetically about the joys of eating veggies, how good they are for you and all that good stuff. Again another area where frankly I never got very adventurous until I was in a solid financial place with access to decent kitchen equipment and could afford to decide whether or not kohlrabi made for a good slaw or not. For my son’s early years our veggie consumption was limited to corn, potatoes, canned string beans, and one or two other items. When my son was born I relied on food stamps (the real deal in the awkward as hell book where everyone knew you were poor) for the first year of his life and after that I often worked 2-3 jobs to provide for us, so I lacked time to play around in the kitchen as well as the funds to splurge.

Also for many folks at the lower end of the income spectrum the reality is a buying a ton of fruits and veggies is simply not cost effective when it comes to filling folks up. Look, I live in Maine, I have participated in CSA’s, I know all my local farmers but even buying straight from the source isn’t cheap! Even at the farmer’s market tomatoes often run $3 a lb! Yeah, yeah, many CSA’s will offer a working share; you provide them with free labor they give you goodies, sounds great? Except if you are working your hourly wage gig to keep a roof over your head, the free farm gig is not really feasible. One man’s cheap is another man’s expensive as hell and frankly out of reach

I could go on and on but let me say often how we view food is a direct correlation to where we are class wise or where we have been class wise. The fact is it’s real easy to suggest what other people should do but unless you have walked a mile in their shoes, perhaps its best to sit back and keep your thoughts to yourself.

I will be honest and say one of the first experiences I had around realizing food is tied to class and I have shared this before was when I was in graduate school in New Hampshire. I was out at a Japanese place with my colleagues and everyone but me ordered sushi, the only thing I even remotely had any interest in was the tempura. I am sure my classmates didn’t mean any harm but everyone ribbed me for having such blah taste and proclaimed loudly how could I not eat sushi? I went home that day feeling so ashamed because until that point in my life I had never been in a place or position where eating sushi was an option. Then I got pissed the fuck off that I was being judged because I didn’t eat sushi, never mind I started my adult life as a high school dropout, married at 18, a mother at 19, separated at 20. The only thing that these assholes could see was that I didn’t want to eat raw fish? Long story short, I willed myself to eat sushi and to this day I still wonder if I really like it since I will be honest, I would be way happier with some fried catfish, a side of spaghetti and some coleslaw.

Revisiting the issue of food and class…a visit to Trader Joe’s

Living in Maine is an experience, Maine is a rural state but at the same time it’s a place with class. It’s a place where the pace of life is definitely slow but at the same time due to its natural beauty and relative closeness to places like Boston and New York City, there are tons of transplants here. While this is a rural state it’s rural with a cosmopolitan feel especially in our largest city, Portland. We have a growing well respected foodie scene, shit even the New York Times says we have some of the best bagels here. (This place is fucking amazing).

That said, Maine is slow to catch on as far as the big national trends and places…hell, we don’t even have billboards in this state. When I first landed here almost 8 years ago, you could count the number of Starbucks on one hand and it would not have been full. The first year I was in serious coffee withdrawals since the closest Starbucks meant heading to the next county over. Thankfully after a year here, Starbucks opened in my town…the upside of living in a tourist destination, the tourists like decent coffee. (Sorry New Englanders, where I come from Dunkin Donuts is what you drink at 3 am when you are drunk as a skunk and need to start the sobering up process).

Other national places that were slow to arrive here include Whole Foods, hell that took several years to arrive. Those of us from away were jonesing like crack addicts waiting for the next fix and let me tell you it was a big deal when Whole Foods landed in our fair state. But nothing and I say nothing could have prepared me for TJ madness…that’s Trader Joe’s in case you don’t know.

Now Trader Joe’s is a place I had only been in once before on some trip many years ago, hell the Spousal Unit is a California boy and he had been to them but clearly in the time since we lived in close proximity to one, their legend had grown. I have had buddies in Maine tell me how they drive monthly two states over to go to Trader Joe’s. I admit I am lazy; the idea of traveling like that to spend my money leaves me scratching my head. To each his own though, in my early years in Maine I trekked monthly to Boston just to get my hair done, so who am I to talk shit?

In recent years there had been all kinds of talk about bringing Trader Joe’s to Maine and it finally happened. They officially opened a few weeks ago; a colleague from grad school actually got up to stand in line at 6 am to shop there on opening day. Um….nothing short of a sick child or a flight will get me up that early. I admit the energy over Trader Joe’s was contagious, the way folks talked about their beloved Two Buck Chuck, the treats, oh my…shit I was expecting a magical experience.

Well today the Spousal Unit and I decided to have an early date while the kidlet was in school and hit up some of the new Maine chain places. First stop Cracker Barrel…that was ummmm interesting. Breakfast didn’t quite rock my world though the hash brown casserole was intriguing, though I admit I will go back, they serve catfish and I do love me some catfish. Enough about the Cracker Barrel though, on to TJ’s.

So we arrive in the parking lot of the Portland Trader Joe’s and it was real clear that just the act of parking the car was going to take some time, thankfully after a couple times circling around a space opened up. First thing I notice people are flying in the doors as if they ate a McRib and their bowels were about to open up, but I think they were just excited to go in. I admit for a moment it felt exciting. I grabbed my cart and away we went, I won’t bore you with the details but I did drop $100 on items that I am not sure I would have normally have bought, after all will I really eat those dark chocolate mints?

What I was struck by though was how much TJ’s reminded me of Aldi, the no frills grocery store where folks who tend to be short on cash shop. It’s my understanding that the two stores have some type of connection though it’s not entirely clearly but what I was struck by is that just like Aldi caters to low income folks allowing them to splurge on cheap faux peanut butter cookies, canned ravioli and pizza rolls. Trader Joe’s caters to the well heeled who like to eat hummus and pita and kick back with a cheap wine but not too cheap. Once the wine can be opened with a cap its officially low class.

I have talked here before how much our food choices are tied to where we sit on the class ladder. I will openly admit that once a year I like to kick back with a glass of grape kool-aid and a fried bologna sammich on Wonder Bread, it’s the comfort food of my youth. Truth is in the past decade or so since I officially moved up the class ladder leaving my working class roots behind by virtue of my education, I have worked hard to change my palate. If left to my own devices I will eat the shit out of fried whatever, smothered in gravy with a side of bread product with a limp green vegetable on the side.

The thing is I know now that such foods are bad for me so guess what? I rarely eat them, they are now officially treats. I literally have willed myself into liking sushi, there are times I ask myself is this really good? Yet as I have shared here before it was in graduate school where I learned to eat it since not eating it made me stand out even more, besides I like spice, with enough wasabi my mouth is on fire so it glides down the old shoot.

Yet it’s funny where food is as much about comfort as nutrition certain food choices are seen as less than and the eater seen as less enlightened yet if you are high enough on the class ladder your junk food is seen as better. Take Cheetos versus the Pirate Booty that the well heeled feed their progeny. Truth is I will takle a damn Cheetos or Cheez Doodle any day over Pirates Booty, yet now that I no longer am a card carrying member of the working class, I feed my kid Pirate Booty. I admit I fear being judged over this stuff, though occasionally we share some of Mommy’s off limits Cheetos.

I must admit I often like looking in people’s carts at grocery stores and today’s maiden voyage into Trader Joe’s was no exception. I found myself thinking that most of the patrons myself included had quite a bit of processed food items in their carts yet unlike many there I have no problem buying the occasional junk food from a regular grocery store. In most stores when I see someone with processed food items I figure they either have no time or talent for cooking, but what I was struck by today was that most of these same people with carts piled high (and I saw a few folks I know personally) would never be caught in say Wally World buying some off brand frozen burritos yet in the right and oh proper setting, buying such things are a sign of how hip you are.

Take the famous Two Buck Chuck wine; while I am not a wine snob, I am not big on California wines so after reading the label I took a pass though the Spousal Unit grabbed a bottle for himself. Yet I found myself wondering how many of these same folks grabbing up bottles of Two Buck Chuck would be caught dead with some Julio and Earnest Gallo? Not many I bet.

So like most things in America it all comes down to class, even our taste in junk food is segregated, while I didn’t see any good ole fashioned bologna at Trader Joe’s I did see plenty of deli meat that would definitely be higher up on the class ladder.

As for me, while it was great to check it out and I admit tonight’s Mandarin Orange Chicken was tasty as hell, not sure TJ’s will be a weekly stop though it might be nice for the occasional treat. I will continue to eat much like I live wedged between my working class by birth roots and dangling in the middle class, quite an interesting place to be.