Trend of the Week: Vegetable Angst
We’ve all heard about “first world problems,” “white whines,” dilemmas of affluence and so on. The First World is awash in blogs, Tumblrs, and free-floating disapproval for any of its members who might voice complaints about problems that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. But are these gibes really fair? Many so-called “first-world problems” are legitimate pet peeves that might annoy anyone, from Brooklyn to Bangladesh, Napa to Nairobi. No one enjoys late trains, poor cell phone reception or defective Tic-Tacs. And whatever your position on the socioeconomic scale, it’s human nature to comment on it. The mockery of “luxury problems,” while well-meaning, seems a bit condescending toward the underprivileged, as well as unnecessarily dismissive of affluent problem-havers. They’re not trying to taunt the marginalized and dispossesed. It’s not like they’re bitching about having too much food in their kitchen, or something.
Unless they actually are. If so, let’s nail those honkies to a cross.
And indeed, Julia Moskin’s “Raw Panic” informs us that “what should be a beautiful and inspiring sight — your kitchen, overflowing with seasonal produce — is sometimes an intimidating tableau of anxiety.” Tell that to the Haitians, amirite? “Tableau of anxiety” sounds unduly Freudian. Unless you just walked into your kitchen, realized it was actually your old high school where you were being forced to retake Calculus, noticed you weren’t wearing pants, all your teeth fell out, and the Calculus teacher was actually your mother-in-law, you are overreacting to a little potential wiltage.
“The knobbly piles and dirt-caked bunches are overwhelming.” That’s… what she said? Also, if that’s really a problem that you have, you might want to upgrade your kitchen storage system from piles and bunches to some sort of shelf. Maybe acquire a refrigerator at some point down the road. Are these people also going around naked because “the sweat-soaked ball of clothes in the laundry hamper is depressing”? Or failing to shower, because the tub’s patina of mildew and bewildering coruscations of rust are a “oneiric charnel-house of despair”? Get help!
Actually, they are getting help. “’People often feel overwhelmed in the kitchen, and when all this produce suddenly arrives, they panic,’ said Ronna Welsh, a chef in Brooklyn who teaches workshops on, among other topics, produce management.” Unit 1, Lesson 1: Wash any visible cakes of dirt off produce before proceeding. I wonder what the “other topics” are. Spatula Information Technology? Seminar in Applied Putting Butter on Top of Things? Coupons as a Second Language? The Dialectics of Taking Out the Trash? Chocolate Chips Vs. Raisins: Global Ethics of Cookie Production?
“Vegetable anxiety can strike anyone at this time of year: C.S.A. subscribers, compulsive farm-stand stoppers and even vegetarians.” Even vegetarians! A group long known as “the Don Drapers of luxury problems” for their sang-froid in the face of domestic affliction. My mamma always told me there are three kinds of people in this world: C.S.A. subscribers, compulsive farm-stand shoppers, and vegetarians. You can identify each group by its main characteristic, a tendency to panic when looking at large quantities of vegetables. (My mamma didn’t understand the purpose of categorization, but this way you don’t have to bother telling them apart.)
“’All this produce arrives with a deadline,’ said Benjamin Elwood, a lawyer in St. Paul. ‘It’s like when a DVD comes from Netflix. You feel like you have to watch the movie ASAP in order to get your money’s worth, but the pressure makes you not want to watch it.’” Yes. Having to consume edible nutrients to survive is like subscribing to Netflix. It’s like, who needs it? This craze for consuming caloric energy to fuel your body’s metabolic processes is just another symptom of our hyper-wired, info-addicted consumer mentality. I think you’ll find that if you just ignore all the über-trendy “food” piling up in your fridge and spend a few weeks unplugging from the breakfast-lunch-dinner treadmill, your cells will feel a lot less pressure to keep catabolizing organic matter to synthesize substances needed to maintain their structure and preserve biological homeostasis. (Possible story idea for Bill Keller: “Is Not Dying Making Us Stupid?”)
“Some cooks who think nothing of grilling a whole chicken or decorating a three-layer cake are daunted, even defeated, by regularly getting a vegetable dish on the table.” A whole chicken! That could be as much as 5, even 5.5 pounds! Assuming these cooks can also make a bowl of cereal and boil an egg, vegetables are the only missing link in their repertoire. They should have gotten into produce management earlier. If you start small, and incorporate manageable amounts of vegetables into your culinary training, pretty soon you’ll be transforming them into substances humans can eat. For instance, maybe once you’re proficient enough to ice a one-layer cake, learn to cut a tomato in half. When you’re up to two layers and can grill a whole quail or Cornish game hen, work on placing a sliced tomato in a bowl with some chopped lettuce and mushrooms to create a simple “salad”. Before you know it you’ll be “cooking” vegetables through such methods as boiling, microwaving, and heating up in a pan with some olive oil, just like with real food!
But as it stands, even élite chefs are faltering. “In a 2009 survey of hundreds of thousands of Americans, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Americans ate no more vegetables than they did in 2000, despite all the public education about the benefits of a plant-based diet.” People. Did we learn nothing from that time when the government publicly educated everyone to eat lots of bread and margarine, and everyone did, and now everyone’s radiantly healthy and gorgeous? All kidding aside, Americans won’t even use eco-friendly lightbulbs without having a meltdown; what makes you think they’re going to “embrace a plant-based diet” just because the government told them to?
This nutritional shortcoming also persists “despite the availability of a far greater variety of vegetables.” Well, that’s part of the problem. There are already too many kinds of vegetables in the produce section, sowing confusion and freaking out consumers. If people don’t want knobbly piles and dirt-caked clusters in the home, what makes you think they’re gong to like them any better at the store? “Mabel, take a gander at this thing. What is that, a kombucha?” “I reckon it’s one a them ‘quinoas’ I heer’d tell of.” No, if we want people to eat this stuff, we should limit the variety to the following kinds : tomatoes, lettuce, spinach (“hippie lettuce”), onions, cucumbers, garlic (“miniature onions”), zucchini (“ethnic cucumbers”), potatoes (not the weird kind), and beets (canned ones — just take them out of the cans to make them seem “fresh”).
“A market research firm, the NPD Group, says Americans eat an average of a little more than a cup of vegetables a day and a little more than a half-cup of fruit, or about a quarter of what the government recommends.” I hate to poke fun at the government, like a gross Libertarian, but they’re always so crestfallen when people don’t follow their recommendations. “Don’t you remember, we told you guys to go vegan. We used a really cool euphemism, though. You haven’t forgotten, have you? It was right before we turned Iraq into a pile of rubble, suffered a massive economic collapse, and almost voted to default on 14.3 trillion dollars’ worth of debt. Why don’t you ever listen to us?”
Ronna Welsh, the food educator, has the solution. “To help her students truly embrace vegetables, Ms. Welsh says that she has learned to address kitchen psychology along with cooking skills.” Kitchen psychology is even less of a real subject than “produce management.” If you call your parents and tell them you want to study kitchen psychology, they’ll be like “Honey, I thought we agreed you were going to major in Produce Management. Your father and I just want you to have the best education you can get. We’d hate for the money we’ve spent on preposterous Brooklyn self-actualization workshops to go to waste. Do you want to end up at McDonald’s, trying to reverse-psychologize people into ordering a side of fries?”
“Less-experienced cooks have a persistent sense of responsibility toward the expensive, carefully raised produce that they buy and the corresponding feeling of guilt when that produce isn’t used to its full potential.” Affluent New Yorkers: They’ll hire nannies to raise their kids, but feel “responsible” and “guilty” over a turnip. Forget everything I just said about food psychology, I need that class.
“’There are all these expectations to perform complicated tasks that they have no training in,’ she said. ‘They are set up for crushing failure.’” Then again, maybe these people should leave parenting to the nannies. I’m surprised they manage to reproduce without eating the Astroglide and impregnating each others’ nasal cavities.
“In the face of vegetable anxiety, what’s an aspiring omnivore to do?” I’ve heard of a lot of aspirational lifestyle choices, but “aspiring” to eat a squash that cost $1 a pound at the farmer’s market is the saddest one yet. Forget Super Size Me and Julie & Julia, the next blog-turned-bestseller-turned-movie will be about a guy who spends every day for an entire year trying to eat vegetables he already owns. Me and Michael Pollan ? Super-Antioxidize Me? Fenugreek 9/11? Eat, Cook, Complain?
“Already-cooked vegetables are the key to a refrigerator filled with usable, tamed ingredients…. Raw, they are just slouching toward rot.” Great attitude. I’d love to hear Julia Moskin’s take on humanity’s struggle to attain meaning in an indifferent universe.
Another harbinger off crushing failure is boiling and steaming, methods that Herbivoraceous author Michael Natkin condemns as boring. “To stay away from that watery rut, he keeps a list of verbs on his computer screen (sear, purée, sauté, grill) as a reminder.” Like, as his desktop background, or…. maybe it’s on a screensaver? a post-it stuck on his screen? written in 46-point type in a Word document that he keeps open at all times? Every method I can think of for keeping a list of food verbs constantly on your computer screen is odder and more laborious than just remembering how to cook.
But applying heat to the vegetables isn’t the only roadblock; first you have to cut them up. “It’s that need for technical support that prompted the installation of a full-time ‘vegetable butcher’ at Eataly when that glamorous food emporium opened in the Flatiron district in 2010: an employee whose sole job is to trim, peel and cut produce to order.” Sure, they’re calling it a “vegetable butcher” now, but isn’t that the same job Sarge was always making Beetle Bailey do as a punishment? This prestigiously titled K.P. guru is going to go power-mad and start insisting she’s selling you “aubergine steaks” and “courgette charcuterie.” She’s going to refer to tomato seeds as “offal” and insist you’d like them if you tried them in pâté. The New York foodie scene is really getting out of hand. But I hear that lady’s celeriac bacon is to die for.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have this viewpoint: “’Among people my age, vegetables were a punch line,’ said Harry Rosenblum, 35, an owner of the Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg.”
They’re plants. They grow in the ground. You eat them. “What a fucking joke!” I thought humans’ obsession with caloric energy was dorky, but photosynthesizing sunlight into the chemical compounds used to fuel all aerobic life on Earth? Why don’t you just drive yourself to the farmer’s market on a Segway?
“‘If you think about it, an onion is a sphere.’”
I tried to think about it, but I accidentally attained Zen enlightenment. My plant-induced troubles are over!
Likelihood that trend exists: 0/10
Importance of trend in grand scheme of things: 0/10
Adherence to trend piece formula: 4/10 (no statistics, no credibility)
Best aspect of author’s writing style: Ability to empathize with even the most degraded and contemptible specimens of humanity
Suggestions for improving author’s writing style: Meet some people who don’t live in Brooklyn