The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, April 22, 2002  


Food, food, food.

New Yorkers spend a surprising amount of time thinking and talking about food. As a topic of conversation it ranks second only to real estate and rents, no matter the setting. Eat-in, take-out, go-get, delivery, coffee shops, restaurants, cafes, produce markets, gourmet groceries, kosher kitchens, hot dog stands, felafel huts, roach coaches, it never ends.

Helpfully, the New York Times recently brought to our attention the persistence in the city of what we had thought was a backwater relic: the food co-op. The Times traveled out to Brooklyn in the personage of one Richard A. Kaye to bring the Upper East Side up-to-date with the exotic goings-on of the city's largest outer borough.

"What strikes the newcomer to the Park Slope Food Co-op is the enticement of an unfragmented communal experience, the willingness of co-op members to put up with tension-producing referendums and regulations about 'compost squads' in order to have a say in the food they put on their tables," writes Kaye, who also is a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op, a duality that raises at least a raised eyebrow with respect to a potential conflict of interest.

Already we're worried. "Compost squads"? In Brooklyn?

"If the history of food consumption in the past 200 years has been a notable shift from communal eating rituals to individual or family eating habits, then the food co-op's membership is intent on reinstating food's communal allure, its sources in an engaged, thoughtful citizenship," says Kaye. We're not sure, but we're willing to bet that when Kaye speaks of "communal allure" he is not talking about church Spaghetti Suppers, VFW Pancake Breakfasts, or neighborhood Ice Cream Socials, but something more like a "meatless pot luck/bring your own place setting/no plastic please/we'll sit on the floor" kind of thing.

Now, we know the images coming into your mind after hearing the term "food co-op": hippies, long-hairs, Dead Heads, '60s refugees, and so forth. But rest assured, despite the title of the article, "Tie-Dyed Food," the Park Slope Food Co-op attracts a much broader clientele. It had better or the Times would not have devoted so much (any?) space to the subject.

Kaye tells us that the co-op's membership includes "a large number of political and community activists, members of 'alternative families,' [and] harried professorial types like myself." Thanks, harried Dick, for that latest comment. We were inclined to lump you into the "alternative family" set until you mentioned your "professorial" character.

New York at the turn of the century was characterized by insatiable greed, the need for immediate gratification, and the demand for constant amusement. Let it not be said that the Park Slope Food Co-op didn't ride the wave. Kaye reports: "The co-op's own introductory brochure hints at its appeal to the professionally ambitious in listing among such membership advantages as 'environmental activism,' 'lectures and seminars,' 'meeting new people,' and the possibilities for 'networking.'"

Now, our editor can quite readily be characterized as "professionally ambitious." Indeed, while living in New York he attained a respectable level of achievement. But a quick chat confirmed that our editor is not interested in environmental activism, nor is he interested in lectures and seminars given in grocery stores. And he is not known for networking. With respect to "meeting new people," he's quick to add, "I already know more people than I want to know."

These days, New York is all about perks, and the Park Slope Food Co-op -- for which one must pony up $125 to join -- is keeping up with the times. "The perks, members of the co-op will tell you, are endless: classes on topics like whole grain cookery and 'meeting your meat' ('What happens to animals before they end up on our dinner tables?'), Zen music concerts, being part of an often intensely engaged community, staying abreast of co-op-related issues like New York's truth-in-pricing laws, and substantial savings, owing to the relatively low overhead resulting from all that required voluntarism," according to Kaye. [Ed.: Emphasis added.]

This is a FUN group! But what does "required volunteerism" mean?

And, wow, man, like, it all comes with this, like, really awesome spiritual environment: "For those members whose involvement in the co-op is confined to shopping and their monthly volunteer shift, the atmosphere is chattily congenial. Whereas most food stores have grave warnings that 'Shoplifters will be prosecuted,' the signs at the co-op are positively demure [Ed.: We would have said "creepy."]: 'Remember, it is uncool to snack on items before purchasing them.' " (Whatever happened to "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"?)

Kaye introduces us to Elizabeth Royte -- "a writer"! -- who regularly cuts the cheese at the Park Slope Food Co-op. "I joined because it's cheap and the produce is beautiful. And I love the diversity of people I meet at the co-op. The experience working there makes me more tolerant of other people's views," Royte beams.

"My volunteer job is in food processing, where I work as a cheese cutter. Sometimes I find myself working with vegans, and though I find some of their views about food completely insupportable [Ed.: Time out. We're hearing a value judgment. Can we break into teams to discuss this and then meet for a consensus-building session to evaluate our feelings?], it's interesting to know what the arguments are."

What a disappointment. We were ready to hear Royte discuss her raised consciousness with respect to ethnic and racial discrimination, but as we should have expected, the cheese-cutter was talking about food.

"Her husband works at the food register," writes Kaye. " 'He's always asking people about what food they're buying, how they are going to prepare it, and people are delighted to tell you, in the most opinionated terms,' " says Royte.

O God, one of those! We would rather that the person who "works at the food register," i.e., the cashier, pretend not to notice -- let alone comment upon -- the items we are purchasing. And our editor, who spent a fair amount of his adolescence working "at the food register" is quick to add that it is inappropriate, misguided, and downright evil to assume that either the cashier or the customer has any interest in having a conversation with the other.

"He comes home bubbling over with new ideas," adds Royte.

If ever we heard an argument for adding a den, this is it.

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