There’s something simple about Saturday mornings. The weekly formula that includes tea, NPR and a ride downtown to go to farmers’ market. The weekly morning excursion is a shopping experience cut down to the basic essentials: run through the mental list of what I need, track down the stand that sells it, take one walk around the stands just to people watch, and then get back on my bike and ride home. There’s no list required. Just a hassle-free and low stress outing that not only ensures that I eat well for the next few days, but also happens to be one of my favorite parts of the week. Unlike trekking the the grocery store, farmers’ market outings never feel like a chore.
But why? Is it just the fact that I’m assured organic, local produce, handed to me by the farmer that grew it? That certainly plays a role. But when I take time to think about it, it’s because I’m not overwhelmed. I know what I want, and I know where to get it. And if I don’t know what I want, I’m subject to an onslaught of flashy, shiny marketing to get me to buy a product. Broccoli is broccoli, apples are apples, and goat cheese is straight up, 100 percent goat cheese. No preservatives, no additives, no fancy packaging, just plain old regular food.
Fortune recently published a story giving an in-depth look at one of the hottest food stores of our time: Trader Joe’s. We all know how popular this California-based grocer has become, in fact its rise to fame is fascinating, but how many of us take time to think about why we like it? One of the reasons is the same reason that I’m personally drawn to farmers’ market: simplicity.
Your average grocery store carries 50,000 items, while Trader Joe’s only has 4,000. To the untrained eye, that looks like limited selection – something that our Western brains have been trained to avoid. In our consumer culture, we’ve long been taught that bigger is better. But our brains know better. “People are worried they’ll regret the choice they made,” Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor and author of The Paradox of Choice, is quoted in the article. “People don’t want to feel they made a mistake.” Turns out that people have actually been proven to enjoy purchases more when there are less options to choose from.
Which brings us back to the foodie movement: size does matter, and in a world of conscious gourmands, less is more. Shopping at big-box stores might sound appealing because no matter what we need, it’s probably there, but ultimately this initial appeal is an illusion. Numerous choices are a byproduct of a system run by cheap fossil fuels. Want 10 kinds of rice noodles imported from Southeast Asia? No problem! In the mood for ice cream? Make sure you’re ready to choose from the multitude of options, many of which have ingredients whose number practically exceeds the number of pints in the store freezer.
Food shopping in the form of farmers’ markets, CSAs and other smaller, localized operations may “limit” what we’re able to put on the dinner table – you won’t be cooking up winter squash in May – but we know what we’re getting is healthy and our brains are happy that we avoid launching into a never-ending path of dinner options, which in turn actually isn’t so limiting after all.
In fact, it’s liberating.
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground. Each week, Anna will be taking a look at something new and different that’s taking place in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to culinary avant garde.