Chuckling to myself over the latest installment of Saveur.com’s Recipe Comix, one scene in particular caught my eye. It’s the bit where the wonderfully random and witty Dorothy Gambrell is taken by surprise at the idea that people might not be judged by the contents of their shopping trolleys. And when I say this caught my eye, what I actually mean is that it pricked my conscience and prompted a guilty, silent confession. I am one of Those People.
When forced to linger impatiently in a supermarket queue, what else is there to do apart from inspect the spoils of someone else’s weekly shop? The other day, for example, I was standing behind a middle aged woman who was loading up on Euro Shopper beer, frozen frites (which in a country famous for their fries is quite unforgivable) and to top it all off, about a kilo of salami. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a judgmental person by nature, but I couldn’t help but beam proudly at my own selection of fresh blueberries, smoked salmon and organic eggs. But then I started to wonder. Has it gone too far? Have we begun to define ourselves more and more by what we put in our shopping baskets? Do we reveal more about ourselves than we think by our choices of fresh vs. frozen, organic vs. processed, and economy brands vs. premium?
Decades of very clever marketing by the sustainable food lobby would have us think that the answer is yes. This is clearly acknowledged in Gambrell’s comic strip when we are told that “real food is for organic superstores, certain ethnic markets and young urban bicycle enthusiasts”. In other words, if you are astute enough to choose these products, you are buying into a lifestyle, or at least a certain set of values. It is as if you are saying, I care enough about the environment, the local economy, my taste buds and my waistline to purchase bread for three times the price. So much so, in fact, that I have consciously begun to scorn those who buy regular bread. Oh dear.
Quite clearly, I am an avid believer in healthy and sustainable eating. But note to self: let’s try to tackle the root of the problem before we start judging other people’s food choices in future. I have no doubt that were the economic scales tipped more in favor of fresh, healthy produce, then that is what the majority of us would buy. But the fact is, buying fresh produce is prohibitively expensive, while processed food remains a bargain. In the current economic climate, it isn’t hard to see why people are making ‘bad’ choices. Until we start pressuring the right people to stop making irresponsible pricing decisions in supermarkets, we might want to remember that ‘sustainable’, ‘fresh’ and ‘organic’ produce is a privilege enjoyed by relatively few to the detriment of many.