I can’t believe I’m going public with this, and I may well regret it, but here goes: I visited the new Gowanus Whole Foods (214 3rd Street, 718-907-3622) the other night and I really liked it. God help me.
I need to emphasize: I’m not being paid to say this. I don’t even write for this blog usually; I’m just a regular old news reporter, and I don’t know anything about restaurants or chefs. I eat a lot of mac and cheese at home on my couch. Also, stale doughnuts and other stuff out of the terrifying staff refrigerator because hey, really, is no one going to eat these three-week-old baked goods? Snobs.
But despite my terrible taste, I do know something about groceries, and spending money on them, and then schlepping them home and putting them in my face. And that’s what led me to walk 20 minutes from my apartment the other night, past the much closer Union Market and Trader Joe’s, to the shiny new Whole Foods, a grocery store whose CEO I find odious and whose presence in the Gowanus area is a bad, bad sign. And I will be going back. Maybe. If I can get over my crushing guilt and ambivalence.
Here’s my food deal, very briefly, because nothing is more boring than other people’s diets: I was a strict vegetarian for ten years, and I still eat a lot of fake meat, as well as fish, but no red meat or chicken. I’m concerned about touchy-feely hippie crap like overfishing, and I try to eat seafood that’s responsibly sourced. (I’m also aware that there’s a vanishingly small chance that one of my favorite foods, calamari, might secretly be a pig’s anus, but I don’t really give a pig’s asshole if it is, because it’s delicious.) I lived in California for a long time, and as a direct result, I love kale. That place will mess you up.
My boyfriend was a line cook at one point, and still possesses a magical ability to turn out really great food in a very short amount of time, provided he has good ingredients and somebody willing to do the dishes. He eats red meat, but he’ll also happily make some fish or a nice vegan Field Roast, because dear God, those things are made of magic.
So that means we both like to eat, and we like fresh vegetables and good meat and also fancy-ass cheese and ingredients we recognize and can pronounce. (As I type this, I’m starting to see where all my money goes. This is the definition of a #whitepeopleproblem.) We live near downtown Brooklyn, and the closest grocery store by far is that Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s, I think we can all agree, is a bewildering mixture of amazing deals and just utterly disgraceful crap. The produce is awful, encased in plastic and frequently on the outer cusp of being edible. The bread is meh. It tastes like it’s seen the inside of a truck. The meat, I am told, is fine, if you are hungry. And the frozen food, while delicious, often has enough sodium in it to kill a stable of stout-hearted horses. I’m not trying to get sued here or anything, but the only time I got Exorcist-style food poisoning was, I’m pretty sure, from a TJ’s pizza and salad.
But man, it’s cheap. It’s so cheap. I once bought everything I needed to make a hearty stew from scratch for twelve dollars. Then I framed that receipt and brought it everywhere, showing it off like a saner woman shows off a grad school diploma or a newborn.
The other grocery stores in the neighborhood are the Met Food and Union Market. Met Food, well, I’ll let its Yelp reviews speak for themselves. But Union Market is amazing: It’s got great produce, great seafood, fresh pasta, a damn olive bar, and tiny cheese samples with toothpicks. They make me feel like a fancy lady at some art opening where I don’t understand a single thing that’s going on.
But the prices are alarming, and the fake meat selection is not that stellar. My gaping maw requires a steady supply of faux chicken patties. So the other night my man and I strolled across the super-fragrant Gowanus Canal and into the gleaming spaceship that is the new Whole Foods, and God dammit, it was like the promised land.
Great seafood, next to beautiful shiny vegetables next to a huge bounty of trendy-ass juices. Those aforementioned Field Roasts and Quorn fake chicken patties, which, although they are literally just fungus grown in a vat, are delicious. Also, they have cookies by the pound, possibly the most beautiful phrase in the English language besides “snow day” and “not guilty.” And it was much cheaper than Union Market, around $50 for the next four days of food. (Brokelyn did a much more rigorous comparison and found the same thing, although the blog points out that those prices may inch up once the Whole Foods honeymoon is over.)
But Whole Foods also has John Mackey, a CEO who once compared having unions at his store to having herpes. He’s complained that everybody seizes on that quote and won’t stop punishing him for it, but good. It’s a nasty thing to say and he deserves to have it follow him around forever. He’s also established a really shitty policy that financially punishes employees with higher BMIs , and he loves Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan and other people I don’t want to stand next to in the afterlife. And although the food is organic, it’s often not particularly environmentally sound from other perspectives; we don’t really need our lettuce flown in from Argentina.
There’s also the very real fact that a Whole Foods in the Gowanus is, basically, a harbinger of doom. I love that area; I love its mystery and peace and solitude, its vacant weedy lots and industrial warehouses and walking past the South Brooklyn Casket Company. I love the sense I get there, that so many things are happening below the surface that I can’t quite see or touch — not just the art galleries tucked away in old biscuit factories, but the seedy stuff too: its supposed history as a Mafia body-dumping ground, the various criminal activities I suspect are still going on to this day, even the muddy, foul green of the Gowanus itself, with its treasure trove of sunken shipwrecks and its redolent aroma of poo-dipped toxic waste, little boats bobbing on the surface while being covered in indescribable scum from below. It sounds insane, but when I cross the bridge over that toxic green in the late afternoon, with nobody around, I get the same feeling I did when I was a kid, exploring the woods in my home state of New Mexico, running from imaginary monsters. (The monsters in the Gowanus are probably a little more real. I’m not trying to find out.)
The Environmental Protection Agency will spend the next ten years and roughly $550 million to clean the Gowanus up, and that’s a good thing. Toxic waste and Blinky fish are nobody’s idea of a good time. Some very low-income communities still fish in that river, for lack of another affordable food source (guess where they’re not grocery shopping?).
But the cleanup will only accelerate what Whole Foods has begun: the extension of that area into another Park Slope, with wine shops and artisanal doughnuts and $2000 strollers taking over one of the last truly weird and mysterious pockets of the city.
But I don’t get to have it both ways: my fancy vegan “alternative meats,” as the genteel WF signs put it, and my little Weird Untouched New York fantasy. This is the beginning of the end, and I am part of the problem.
As we strolled out into the night air, groceries in hand, my boyfriend pointed out a boarded-up factory across the street, with some anti stop-and-frisk graffiti running along the outer edge. We stopped to admire it.
“That’ll be an organic baby store in five years,” I said finally.
“Maybe a dog sweater emporium,” he suggested.
Then we walked home and happily, uneasily ate our cookies by the pound. They were delicious.