There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Stephanie Mencimer did a commendable job in her well-researched, thoughtful, and balanced article on Fresh Fields (“You Aren’t What You Eat,” 1/21). I agree with her on the salient point regarding the connection between status and the sexy appearance of Fresh Fields produce. It is true that one sees more attractive and fashionably dressed people shopping at Fresh Fields than at Giant or Safeway, but I don’t think Fresh Fields is an exclusive haven for white, neurotic yuppies. Fresh Fields equally appeals to immigrants and young mothers. I happen to be both an immigrant and the mother of a 2-year-old.
The sensuousness of a Fresh Fields apple, while at the most obvious level suggesting status or inviting conspicuous consumption, also has some Proustian effect on an immigrant from the Third World. As a child growing up in Vietnam, I often accompanied my mother or grandmother on their daily trips to the local outdoors market, where my senses were often assaulted by the stench of mud and buffalo meat languishing in the tropical sun, or images of horrific poverty: leprous beggars or war veterans with missing arms or legs scuttling on pieces of cardboard. Through the prism of memory, however, what I remember most about Vietnam are the extraordinary colors: the resplendent pinkness of freshwater shrimp jumping off flat panniers, the yellow plumpness of finger bananas, the green prickliness of soursop and the deep purple obscenity of orchids….Fresh Fields, with its artfully arranged produce and fruit stands, gives me a virtual trip into the past without the offensive smells or sights. In effect, Fresh Fields gives its liberal, educated customers the Third World, in saturated colors, full of sensuality but seemingly without risks. As Mencimer points out, whether or not you are aware of Fresh Fields’ marketing gimmicks, its version of food, or of life, appears more nuanced and yet “safer” than the Stepford atmosphere of an average suburban supermarket.
I am reminded of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which farmers from the Dust Bowl have visions of California as the bountiful land of golden fruits. Fresh Fields affirms this vision of the Promised Land and at the same time evokes for me the elusive beauty of my Vietnamese childhood. Perhaps what is typically “American,” and thus most irksome to Mencimer, is the fact that Fresh Fields celebrates beauty not for its own sake, but in the guise of responsibility.
As a naturalized citizen, I guess I don’t quite grasp the native American sense of guilt. I would come to Fresh Fields even if it didn’t pretend to be environmentally responsible. Fresh Fields’ effects on my memory and imagination represent sufficient justification to splurge.
But aside from reasons of aesthetics—which can be rather self-absorbed—Fresh Fields offers the best selections in children’s foods. Mencimer’s article does not explore how mothers are particularly vulnerable to Fresh Fields products that cater to their young. Fresh Field’s baby section has the most diverse selections of Earth’s Best jar foods, far more than what is generally available at Giant or Safeway. As a mother, I am convinced that the Earth’s Best label is better than Gerber or Heinz, not so much because of its organic ingredients but because it generally carries less salt, sugar, and filler than the other two labels, and generally tastes better. The “Tretzels” (low-salt pretzels shaped like stubby breadsticks) are usually in high demand among the 2- and 3-year-old set, and I usually stock up with three or four boxes at a time, for my own daughter and also for anticipated visits from my niece and nephews.
However, my favorite section is the prepared foods counter, which offers black sesame chicken tenders (a high-end version of Chicken McNuggets) that are always fresh, sweetly tangy, and delightfully crunchy. It also has the best roasted lemon-thyme chicken in town—moister, less salty, and more complex in flavor than the Giant version, and only a dollar extra ($6.99, compared with $5.99 at Giant).
Fresh Fields isn’t perfect. As Mencimer points out, it offers a lot of silly items and no household staples, you can shop for foods at Fresh Fields and still need to go elsewhere for toilet paper, detergents, and so on. Also, as my daughter grows older and appears generally resilient, I feel less inclined to pamper her with exotic food items.
However, I must admit that the Fresh Fields fantasy is compelling: An immigrant mother, wanting to sustain the myth of her own past and also wishing that her child grow up to be a tall, big, healthy American, makes her weekly visit to Fresh Fields. Perhaps it does go back to the status thing after all, or something that has been explored by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Americans, whether native-born or naturalized, are all in a state of romantic denial. We all yearn for a mythic past (the pre-industrialized era of food marketing), and yet we are seduced by the promise of the future: a cleaner, more responsible world, peopled with organic yet genetically perfect children.