Last week we discussed the "artisanalization" of the city in two posts, Ideas for a New City and Ideas for the Ideas Fest. One of the main points of discussion had to do with the meaning of "green" yesterday and today.
Rustin Wright, here and on his blog From Streetcars to Spaceships, reminded us that "green ideas" and local growing have long been part of New York City, and he listed many examples, including the Greenmarket's birth in the 1970s. Other commenters agreed, while noting that today's "green" and "local" is not the same as it was in the 1970s and '80s--nor in decades before, when even the poorest New Yorkers bought their groceries fresh from street carts.
Today, much of the artisanal movement is for the elite, for connoisseurs in the know. It is prohibitively expensive in its prices, exclusive in its language. It is the opposite of democratic. And there's the rub.
MCNY Collection: Harlem pushcarts, 1940
Coincidentally, I later came upon excerpts from John McPhee's 1977 Greenmarket essay in the magazine Edible Manhattan. It's a gorgeous piece, a "been there" slice of old New York. The shoppers are not hipsters or yuppies. They are short, dark Europeans who love rye bread, speak with Germanic accents, and take great pleasure in molesting the vegetables. (No doubt there were also plenty of hippies shopping.) The ethos of the time was that healthy food was for all New Yorkers. It had the idealism of today, but without the exclusivity and snobbishness.
Read the whole thing, but here are some beauties, as the Greenmarket farmers tell McPhee about the people of New York in 1977:
“We have to leave them touch the tomatoes, but when they do my guts go up and down. They paw them until if you stuck a pin in them they’d explode.”
“They handle the fruit as if they were getting out all their aggressions. They press on the melons until their thumbs push through. I don’t know why they have to handle the fruit like that. They’re brutal on the fruit.”
“They inspect each egg, wiggle it, make sure it’s not stuck in the carton. You’d think they were buying diamonds.”
“They’re bag crazy. They need a bag for everything, sometimes two.”
“They’re nervous. So nervous.”
The Greenmarket, 1977; photo: GrowNYC
“Today I had my third request from someone who wanted to come stay on the farm, who was looking for peace and quiet for a couple of days. He said he had found Jesus. It was unreal.”
“I had two Jews in yarmulkes fighting over a head of lettuce. One called the other a kike.”
“I’ve had people buy peppers from me and take them to another truck to check on the weight.”
“Yeah, and meanwhile they put thirteen ears of corn in a bag, hand it to you, and say it’s a dozen. I let them go. I only go after them when they have sixteen.”
“They think we’re hicks. ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘We’re hicks and you’re hookers. You’re muggers and you breathe dirty air.’”
“I hardly smoke in the city. Down home I can smoke a whole pack of cigarettes and still have energy all night. You couldn’t pay me to live here. I can’t breathe.”
Woman says, “What is this stuff on these peaches?”
“It’s called fuzz.”
“It was on your peaches last week, too.”
“We don’t take it off. When you buy peaches in the store, the fuzz has been rubbed off.”
“Well, I never.”
“You never saw peach fuzz before? You’re kidding.”
“I don’t like that fuzz. It makes me itchy. How much are the tomatoes?”
“Three pounds for a dollar.”
“Give me three pounds. Tomatoes don’t have fuzz.
Watch a fantastic movie of the local egg shop on E. 7th St.