Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Meanderings in Whole Foods by Luke

Ok, so with this being my first culinary writing gig blog entry thing, I’m going to try straying from Alex’s format a little. Namely, that I’ll try to be a little more informed about what I talk about which will require less retractions and corrections. Jay-kay, jay-kay. Now, with the Alex deprecation out of the way, onwards to the subject at hand. I get to talk about the so called hippie markets. What do they offer compared to the Asian markets and the supermarkets?

The markets that I’ll be talking about specifically are Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Henry’s and their like. Although I have to say that in my opinion Trader Joe’s is really a red-headed bastard step-child of Whole Foods, but in the most fantastically successful way possible. It’s really just a very varied, unique supermarket. I say this because there is no deli, seafood section, or bakery to speak of. The place has a lot of the things you can get from Albertsons or Ralph’s, but in much better quality and sometimes cheaper. They also have many frozen meals that you can’t find in the aforementioned supermarkets. It’s really its own category, and shouldn’t be in this entry anyhow, but its here, queer, and you can just fuck off for belittling it. Shame on you.

My template for this type of specialty market is Whole Foods, because it encompasses everything that supermarkets don’t have, or did and stopped because the lowest common denominator didn’t need it any more. This is the place where if you have any kind of special food need you’ll find it. Vegetarian’s will have the easiest time there because they have a huge produce section, with many veggies offered that you won’t find in supermarkets, as long as it’s the season for them. Or, if you’re an unhealthy vegetarian like some I know, you’ll also find that one non-meat item (cough cough! tofu! cough!) that constitutes your daily diet. And from what I’ve learned from the Whole Foods website, there are several types of vegetarians including Pescetarians (work your Latin skills) to Lacto, Ovo, Lacto-Ovo (Exotic!), Vegan, Raw, and to the one that I made up all by myself, the dreaded Raw Vegan! Sadly, after just writing this I found that not only is this not really made up, but there are more hard core people, these being the Vegan Raw Fruitarians. They only eat fruit, and then only if it hasn’t been cooked. And even then, only if it hasn’t been seen by any animals. God, vegetarians hate animals so much! But they’re so cute, and if you’ve seen The Simpsons episode on Adam and Eve, they gladly lay on their backs so that Man can eat of their tender underbellies. They like to be killed and eaten, People! Otherwise, God wouldn’t have made them weaker than us. Obviously.
But I digress, as will be evidenced several more times. Suffice to say that if you have a special dietary need, Whole Foods can provide for you.

Which leads to their big thing: Organics. Their produce section is mainly made up of Organic vegetables. But watch out, organic a lot of times means more expensive. So, unless you’re going for the unique vegetables or you are in fact someone who craves organic, get your vegetables at a supermarket, and the specialty ingredients at Whole Foods or their ilk. Of course, produce are not the only items that are organic. Most of the generic Whole Foods brand products will have both and organic and non-organic version. The same goes for their frozen foods I assume. On that note, I would just like to name drop the one thing that I always get there: their instant Alfredo Mac and Cheese. Delicious stuff, almost Annie’s quality, and it goes for only 89 cents! Wild! Ok, enough of that. Recap: It’s the place to go if you want organic food, but be prepared to pay more for that luxury. Otherwise, just eat your pesticides and hormones like the rest of us, ya big wuss.

Enough of the vegetables, time to get to the meat (Oh I went there) of this entry. They purport to offer a meat, poultry and seafood section that stupid Rachel Ray and Godly Alton Brown always reference in their shows: one in which the butchers and mongers actually know their shit. Now, because the prices are higher – and let me just take this time to say ALMOST EVERYTHING IN WHOLE FOODS IS GOING TO BE MORE EXPENSIVE (except for tasty Whole Foods brand Alfredo Mac and Cheese, still only 89 cents!) – I haven’t shopped for meat here, so I don’t know for sure. However, on Alton Brown’s show some of his episodes that involve learning about meat take place partly in Whole Foods Market meat sections, so at least some locations have knowledgeable butchers, and I’ll hazard a guess that they all at least know twenty times as much as any supermarket butcher. This meat is for those who can afford it or those looking to buy meat for a special occasion. And you crazy organicists (made up words are fun) will be happy because they guarantee all of their meats, poultries, and fishes to be antibiotics, hormones, and such-free. If you’re unsure about what is and isn’t in the meat or poultry, just ask the butcher. This would also be the way to get cuts of meat that you need for specific dishes. Sometimes a dish calls for a specific part of the pig or cow and the names rarely help in that area. So ask away and make those people earn their paychecks. The fish is going to be in the same category. I’ve read that they offer quite a bit of wild salmon in particular, which some people believe to be much healthier than farm-raised, because of mercury levels or some such (in reality PCBs, which were found to be 10 times more prevalent in farm-raised salmon [it’s called the internet Alex, you can look shit up and everything! {Jay-kay}]). Just as a warning then, if you’re buying salmon at any time, look to make sure its wild. Unless you like PCBs. But Captain Planet sure as hell doesn’t, and neither do the Planeteers. PCBs make Suchi cry. Do you like making monkeys cry? Then eat your wild salmon. And if you see any fat on the salmon, cut it off because PCBs are stored in fat and you can easily reduce the levels you eat this way.

So I’ve circuitously compared what makes Whole Foods and by extension specialty markets better by showing what they offer that supermarkets also offer. But wait Ron! They’re getting more! If you go within the next year or so (or any time thereafter) you’ll get things that supermarkets just don’t offer. The biggest addition is the cheese section. Whole Foods has an extensive cheese section. Here you can ask the cheese monger (I know there’s some hardcore French name for these people but for the love of God I can’t find the title. Damn you internet! You’ve failed me) what cheeses would go well with what dish or as an appetizer, and whether you’re prepared to handle the weird flavors that some cheeses possess. Just this section’s existence puts it above any supermarket, but there is also the monger, which makes it wonderful. And of course there’s organic cheese as well, I believe.

Whole Foods has a great deli and prepared foods section with tasty goodness that is almost universally better than any supermarket. Plus, some of the staff will stand around and chat with you for several minutes while a queue of harried Hillcrestians in a hurry waits impatiently while you don’t even order anything. Good times, that. From personal experience their potato salads and wood fired pizzas are excellent and by faulty logic I will say that most everything else is also tastetastic. You’ll also just find prepared items that you can’t find in the supermarkets. Cous Cous (Wacky Fact!!!: It’s a pasta and not a grain!), soy tofu chunks and much, much more.

I almost forgot the bakery. And looking over this after having already posted means I actually did forget but we'll look past that. So they make great artisanal breads, although the supermarkets are doing this as well. They're different in that they use as little yeast as possibe which is supposed to be healthier. They do use the whole starter dough thing which is cool because they use some dough from the day before to start the new batch. This leads to the dough being rediculously old in some cases, like some sourdough batches in SF which have been around for a hundred years or so. They make pastries as well and you can get them to make you a cake just like a supermarket but I have no idea whether they're good or not. I do know that the little fruit tarts you can buy are good though. So buy those. And before I sound any less knowledgeable let's move on.

For the last culinarily relevant section I’ll just say that they have a good wine section, and someone to help you find the wine you need to serve with which food. It would probably be the place to get good cooking wine as well. I’m not terribly familiar with wine and its nuances, mainly because I have better things to do (tell me my nose’s palette isn’t subtle enough, fuckers), so I can’t write too much about it. This will be the place to find unique wines, like those from the bourgeoning Australian (or so I’ve heard), local (California), and European vineyards.

Just as a side note, they also have a bunch of health stuff like organic toothpaste, homeopathic products, naturopathic products, Holistic products and herbal and dietary supplements for those looking for such things. I would only recommend going here if you know what you need having been referred by a homeopath or whoever you consider an expert because my dad says the whole foods people who work these sections don’t know shit, and my dad can beat your dad up so I’m right. Seriously though, go here if you know exactly what you want, because this stuff can lead to allergic reactions or at the very least wasting your money.

So that about wraps everything up. Supermarkets are for cheap staples that you need for everyday consumption. Get cereal, regular vegetables, hamburger meat, and milk (unless you want all those organic) from these places. If you need specific ingredients for something special or you are cooking for someone (or yourself) with specific dietary needs, then Whole Foods and any other kind of specialty market is the place to go. They’ll have a lot of the things that regular supermarkets have but at much higher quality, as well as a bevy of things that supermarkets haven’t even heard of. Just be aware of the cost difference and know you’re going to be spending quite a bit more for this quality jump and availability.

Thanks for reading through the meandering babble. Maybe I’ll learn to be succinct in the next entry. Yeah right.



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