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Commentary :: Race
Shopping in Eden
09 Apr 2006
A New Yorker goes to the first Trader Joe's in the city and feels oddly safe.
In a city of strangers is shopping a way to buy community? I went to New York City's first Trader Joe’s on 14th street, curious about a store that when it recently opened, had 100 people lined outside. They waited and entered and left happy. When I got in and read the labels; whole grain bread, antioxidant berries, raw-nuts it was then I realized the cause of their joy. We were buying Eden.

Trader Joe’s promises its customers; its food is healthy, delivered direct by cutting the Middle Man and it’s taste-tested. The first promise is health but organic food is not simply about health, in fact that may be its most supple alibi. When we cook and spice it, preserve and package it we make food into a sign that gives physical nourishment and ideological certainty. When we eat organic we consume the code of purity, of a lost connection to nature that reaffirms our salvation from the dangerously poisoned world of artificial ingredients and artificial people.

Across the Union Square Park is Whole Foods Market, a larger store, more organic foods, more expensive and less fun. No Hawaiian shirts. No quirky pirate shtick. Yet those are not the reasons it fails to inspire the devotion that Trader Joe’s does. It’s because they don’t protect us from the Middle-Man.

The Middle-Man is the shadowy figure of American lore that halts the movement of goods causing it to rot because of bureaucracy, who unfairly takes from the stock in its vulnerable transit between the hard-working farmer and the honest buyer. The Middle-Man puts his hands on the food before it reaches our mouths, so the celebration of his absence derives from the fear of being touched by a stranger. Trader Joe’s keeps us safe.

Feeling safe allows our inner-child to romp through the stores, hence the playful cartoon-like atmosphere. The clerks wear Hawaiian shirts. The walls are lined with cute names. It is a sense of safety that is increased by the great distance, culturally if not physically that the food must cross. When I was there a clerk at the Grand Sampling Station plaintively offered samples of exotica. “A little Thailand in you cup,” she said, “Spice up your Friday night.”

Even though most foods have the Trader Joe label, it’s the cosmopolitan address that sells it. Trader Joe’s and other high-end stores offer us an inter-national experience; cheeses from France and Ireland and Switzerland, sauces from Thailand or Mexico. As delicacies from the world come in, their tasting panel translates the foreign into the familiar. The cosmopolitanism of the food gives customers the freedom to taste global-citizenship and the confidence they will be protected when they do.

I went home with bags of healthy food but at night I went to my fridge and kept opening it. I was hungry for something unholy, something synthetic, a Twinkie maybe and went to the corner store. After being at Trader Joe’s, where international food was sold by a white staff, I now was buying cheap snacks at the Arab owned bodega. In Manhattan, stores "immigrated" food to feed the international tastes of middle-class whites while here immigrants sold junk food to working class blacks. Three people stood in line, each one yelled through the plastic shield for beer or cigarettes. Each set coins in the turn-box and pushed, the man inside took it, put a bag and revolved it again. The customers grabbed their bags and stalked off.

The plastic shield is a material sign of fear and distrust of customers with no self-control. When night falls, stores in Bed-Stuy encase their employees in bullet proof booths, it’s like a reverse-zoo, where animals roam free and the handlers hide inside. Unlike the Eden of Trader Joe’s, where communion between man and nature reigned, here it was the ‘concrete jungle’ where race and class oppression, the legacy of Social Darwinism turned us into competitors. I got my snack and went home. A black guy saw me , pointed at my dreads and nodded, “Respect bredrin, Lion of Judah.” I nodded and hid my Twinkie, I didn’t want him to know how far from salvation I was willing to fall.

This work is in the public domain
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Re: Shopping in Eden
10 Apr 2006
Ohh yes, Trade Joes. Do you not know that trader Joes is a venture capital offshoot of Phillip Morris?
Re: Shopping in Eden
11 Apr 2006
New Yorkers are obsessed with food. Even more, they are obsessed with letting everyone know what they eat. But at least they had NY specific stores to brag about. Now we have to endure paens to Trader Joe's? What will happen when Wal Mart opens in SoHO?