I’ve totally come around to Holy Foods, not least after getting in and out the other day for $7.57 for a jar of salsa, a packet of flour tortillas and a pound of butter. But I still have to mock: You can try that recipe on the 365 Cheddar label. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to make pimento cheese. . . .
I’ve acknowledged before that I should be appalled that all it took to convert me from a Holy Foods hater to a Whole Foods aficionada was having one seductive store move closer to me. So it figures that I am going to pay for my loose standards by being shamed now that the CEO has revealed himself to be a flaming wingnut, one who even denies the undeniable human role in global warming. I could easily give up shopping there, convenience and 365-brand peanut butter and butter notwithstanding, but I might have a harder time boycotting the newly and hugely expanded wine shop next door. All the other stores in the neighborhood roll up the cork early; this one operates on a mall-in-America schedule. So I just would like to make a liverfelt plea to the loon’s handlers: Can’t you just sideline him and his wackawhole ideas so we can skip the boycott, effect the change? Or, even better, sit him down to real food and see if his brain heals? Anyone who claims to spurn processed food but uses almond “milk” is too addled to run a chain.
Our new game is getting in and out of Holy Foods while spending as little as possible and extracting maximum pleasure in the whole brilliant marketing experience. When I go in for milk and leave with just a half-gallon of local/antibiotic-free at a bargain $3.39, I feel as if I’ve won. But I also love the little things that mean a lot, like 365 brand milk chocolate that comes encased in a wrapper with a label warning it contains milk products. I Tweeted about that and got some pushback on the stupidity of consumers and the greed of lawyers and then was reminded of the Nutella marketing coup. Sued for deception in marketing chocolate-sugar processed crap, the producer settled and reaped no end of free publicity. Lesson from that stunt: People will believe any old bat guano. Put out a crazy claim, get sued, offer refunds, bask in endless buzz. Do not rinse. Do not lather. Just repeat.
–Only people raised prosperous enjoy drinking from Mason jars.
–What the world did not need: flavored bourbon. Does everything have to be raspberry-nachoed?
–Would like to think the heat’s making people stupid. But those confounded by checkout lanes at Holy Foods are probably just as addled in winter. [That place really needs a line tamer.]
–If food makes you either laugh with pleasure or weep with weepiness, you might want to adjust your dosage.
Idle thoughts: I’m guessing Holy Foods bagels are not really “hearth-baked.” Red Waddle would actually be a better name for a heritage breed (especially if we’re talking mandrills). Plus it turns out “a new way to eat a burger” is not with your toes; it involves trying to turn beans into a Reuben sandwich and confusing the headline writer, not to mention the reader. And please alert the Page One editors: A hero may be just a sandwich, but it isn’t made with a bun.
One of the founders and I go so far back I can remember when Dover sole first came flying into New York thanks to him, but I still have to say I was not surprised to see the oddest upscale food emporium in my neighborhood go belly-up suddenly. All of us who hate Barzini had high hopes for it, and I will never forget spotting the nervous owner of our neighborhood downscale market cruising through on reconnaissance on opening day. But the reality was that the prices and the mustard-museum esthetic kept it from becoming a destination, which is ironic if you go back far enough to the coinage of “mustard museum.” I admire OotF for not whining about the rent going up or blaming brutal competition from either Holy Foods or the coming Westside Market. The place took its lumps of coal and shut down. And jeebus, did it shut down fast. I stopped in on Tuesday for a croissant on my way to the hip gym (and I mean that adjective sardonically) and the shelves looked tidier but by no means under siege. On Friday a hyper-local blog announced everything was 50 percent off, and by the time we walked over around 5 the whole cavernous space looked as if locusts had been through. As my consort said, it was most fascinating to see the left-behinds: Not just obvious Karo and Crisco and Cajun roux in a jar but a huge chunk of the fresh Mexican deli shelf (corn and flour tortillas, Wholly Queso etc. [Can you say Las Palomas?]) The last cheese sitting was halloumi, in a processed form. I was happy to grab Liquid Smoke — what fools West Side mortals be in not realizing what a great, useful, natural ingredient it is. The fish counter had a big sign reading something like “thanks for all the fishes” while a couple of slabs of shrink-wrapped something once-finned were tucked into the case with the unsold broccoli rabe and cucumbers. And that was what was most unsettling. In a big store stripped nearly bare, the fresh food was still languishing . . .
The NYPost ran a way-too-short story on “posh” food stores in Manhattan flunking health inspections, by a reporter who didn’t seem too clear on what the adjective meant. But the funniest line was that Holy Foods in the dread TWC had to throw out ground beef because it was “contaminated with turkey meat.” I’d say the reverse would be a far riskier offense.
Also, too, I keep reading fawning “stop-the-internets” features on how drugstores are becoming supermarkets, but not one points out they’re really more 7-Elevens. I priced Illy espresso at the 5,000th new Duane Reade near us, and it was a full 50 percent more than the closest food store, directly across the street. When “Whole Paycheck” is cheaper, by $6, gullible reporters might want to pitch the press release, pick up a notebook and hit the miles of aisles.
The more my consort and I spend at Holy Foods in our neighborhood, the more I question where our souls are destined. I didn’t like watching how a well-dressed mom and daughter were treated when they came in wondering about the $2.19-a-pound Buffalo chicken wings (three words: like project trash). And I’m sure we’re paying in some other way for the too-good-to-be-real deals we get on peanut butter and antibiotic-free milk, especially once I read the WSJournal on how this is the one grocery chain in America whose profits are up as commodity prices soar (although that could make sense, given that its sales are not dependent on the fake blueberries in cereal that are clogging all other supermarkets). Still. The “air-chilled” chicken I brought home the other night when I didn’t need dinner and Bob and The Cat did was pretty fucking scary. And it was the most expensive choice in the birdcase. Not only did it smell a bit high when I slit open the plastic packaging with the days-away-from-sell-by label. The way it cooked up was heading toward “Eraserhead” territory: The breast came out mushy but still bloody at a technically underdone 165 degrees, even after resting before carving, and the leg bones splintered when I wiggled them. I know chickens sent to market these days are babies that have been force-fed, as Frank Reese the heritage turkey breeder notes. But this was almost as weird as the four hearts in the giblet bag. . .
I’m starting to worry about myself. First a Holy Foods moves in a few short blocks from my kitchen and I’m not just shopping there but pimping it (maybe locating next to the projects caused a reality check, because the value emphasis is huge). Now I’ve been to the Seconda Venuta and am here to say IWGB. The occasion was the Epicurious anniversary soiree — 15 years, which is 9,000 in internet time — and I’m not just saying this just because they pay me, but it was the perfect place and quite a party. The agnolotti were probably better than I’ve ever eaten in Italy, probably because of the sauce, heavy on the burro. We did get the requisite “do you have any allergies/issues” warning from the waitstaff, which, once again, made me wonder if this country has lost its mind. (Nation of whiners — eat, already.) The place itself was jammed when I got there and still busy at 10:30, when I didn’t have much time to look around. Two things in particular made my evening: Molto’s wonderful dad came over to say hi (oh, we go way back). And a courageous reporter came over to tell me she was responsible for the recent entertainment some sloppy food coverage provided. As I told her, I Tweet because I care. Also, too, because things like sitting on “banquets” eating “diced ginger mushrooms” drive me almost nuts enough to forgive cannelloni beans in the competition.
Every time I walk out of the new Holy Foods I keep thinking about that old definition of a conservative: A liberal who’s been mugged. All it took for me to abandon my disdain was having a store move closer to me in this food desert. Neighbors keep stopping me, and friends keep emailing me, to ask if they can shop there in good conscience, and I happily admit I’ve crossed over to the other side, not least because it’s such a great antidote to the invasion of the Subways and Dunkin’s in the neighborhood. But my consort and I got into a near-tiff over the honcho’s ill-advised attitude toward health insurance reform, and I won by saying I have no idea what the politics are of any other local merchant we support so enthusiastically. Not to mention: If the farmers from the Greenmarket are going to patronize it, so can we — if this is what a new-age mugging is like, I’ll have another organic, local, sustainable Kool-Aid, please.
Now that Holy Foods has invaded, the new game in my neighborhood is Market Death Watch. I was betting on the Mustard Museum to go under first but just got an email from a friend saying he is thrilled never to have to set foot into Barzini’s again, which does not bode well for that cavern of surliness. I don’t expect the Food Shitty to suffer because it’s so cheap; everyone loves Mani, and the two shops owned by the same couple should benefit from proximity (my consort’s studio manager says she is not gonna walk two extra blocks for $$ midafternoon coffee). Where HF will probably be most competitive may be with customer craziness. The other day I was in line with both a well-dressed couple whose huge cart held only ice and water (doesn’t 365 Brand come from the tap?) and a ponytailed asshole picking a procedural fight with the checkout wrangler. He actually yelled, “No, I’m right! I’ve been shopping at Whole Foods for 10 years and you’ve been working here for two weeks.” If the unmedicated are drifting north, Fairway may be in the game. . .
And speaking of mustard and faux French, Grey Poupon accidentally turned up in my kitchen (I am not going to point any fingers here) and it will never be seen there again. Why in the name of Maille is there sugar in mustard? No wonder everyone in this country is either obese or diabetic or both. What’s odd is that the consort who is not going to be blamed picked it up at Holy Foods, where a clerk in the wine shop told us they do not carry liquor because it’s not good for you (despite the latest study on benefits, the one indicating moderate drinking may cut the risk of Alzheimer’s). And processed crap is? Then again, I noticed the new logo for Heinz ketchup is a bright red tomato on the label paired with “grown, not made.” Yeah, the high-fructose corn syrup and regular corn syrup that are third and fourth on the ingredients list were freshly harvested right out in the Back 40. It’s as if they see “Food, Inc.” as a model, not a warning.
I really wanted to spurn the Holy Foods that just opened next to the greatest neighborhood Greenmarket in the system, but my consort dragged me in to check it out and we both slowly realized we have been subsisting in a food desert. We’ve lost our butcher and had no baker, and the only fish to be found except from Pura Vida on Friday is displayed amid brazen roaches. Just the night before I had had to spring for a crappy geriatric Murray’s chicken for my consort at the best bet for food shopping for more than a mile. Now I’m afraid I could get used to having better birds — not to mention Balthazar and Sullivan Street Bakery bread and padron peppers and Illy priced like Zabar’s — only two blocks away. This time of year almost everything we eat comes from 97th or Union Square, but in winter you can’t live on Greenmarket alone. I would worry about the little guys in the neighborhood getting killed, but they are already getting slammed by fast crap I would never patronize (can you say Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts?) The smart among them will upgrade to compete. (I will not soon forget the clerk at the corner condescendingly informing me when I said the baguette she had just sold me was hard as a baseball bat: “That’s what French bread is supposed to feel like.”) And the liquor-free wine shop at HF should also be a serious corrective; as times have gotten tougher, all the other stores have gotten greedier. Guess I should be saying a little prayer to Michael Pollan, who just advised against boycotting HF because its honcho is a health care cretin — better to focus on the support a huge, powerful chain provides farmers. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever chooses new locations had not scoped out the thriving scene on 97th on Fridays: rich people, regular people, food stamp shoppers, all drawn by producers selling (roughly in westward order) fruit, wine, organic herbs and heirloom tomatoes, milk, Jersey produce, baked stuff, cheese, honey, turkey, NYState produce, eggs, plants, beef, fruit and juice, more produce and incredible fish. If you’re going to stake a tent in a desert, be sure to do it alongside an oasis.
I’m sure Holy Foods will sic its flack on me for this, but I actually stopped in the store off the Bowery the other day mostly to warm up but partly because I saw a blackboard sign on the sidewalk touting virtuous arctic char on sale and figured I could pick some up for dinner. So I wended my way to the seafood counter, where an even bigger sign in front was attached to a display stacked with leaflets on the many wonders of arctic char. And I waited, while the clerk wrapped up some fatigued-looking salmon for another woman, even though the case held nothing that vaguely resembled the catch of the day. When I asked, the kid just said, “We don’t have any.” “But you have big signs advertising it.” “Maybe tomorrow.” Okay. It was no big deal except it really just epitomizes what the chain is all about. If the product matched the marketing, fish could fly.