Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Greenmarket 1977

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.


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

In the 60s 1st Ave between 11th St and 7th St was packed with fruit and vegetable stands. My mother would go shopping early morning when the trucks first delivered the food and take her pick of the choice food. I remember eating a nectarine for the first time that the seller had treated me with, it was delicious! Must have been the lower priced Farmer's Market selling food on Union Square Park that also destroyed the local fruit/vegetable sellers. But who knows, this is NYC, eventually everything changes.

Caleo said...

Great post Mr. Moss. Your excavation of the minutiae of old New York is a wonderful way to start the day.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that there is a huge difference between healthy food and the raw food, artisanal elite that seem to be cutting the middle man out of the city. It's not about health, it's about trend and the status-quo. It's about the East Coast becoming the West Coast. However, I have to say that what we're seeing today is an example of a democracy, it's not the opposite of one. If it were a republic, we wouldn't be dealing with these issues because we would have a free market that took care of itself. The artisanal crowd is a democratic crowd that can afford to swing the market in their favor and rape the minority of its opinions. Democracy only needs 51% of the vote to reign in its favor - it's one step from a dictatorship. NYC is no longer for the people. In fact, to quote Patti Smith, "it has such its doors to you".

Bowery Boogie said...

I hate how Greenmarkets have become the realm of the elite.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i LOVE the details in this story--the accents, the phrasings, the overall concerns of the people and the way they behave. so different from today. we are no longer a neurotic city, but a narcissistic one.

Marty Wombacher said...

"we are no longer a neurotic city, but a narcissistic one."

True, we've gone from Woody Allen to Smoothies made on a stationary bike and people longing to have breast feeding tables in the subway. This was a great post!

Marley said...

@ Bowery Boogie--these Greenmarkets take EBT (food stamps).

sRL. said...

tell me, what is the definition of artisanal? i was in nyc over 2 ys ago. did you have it? i never saw this word untill JVNY wrote of this. it has the word ART in it. is it specially grown vegetables? like cross breeds? but you also said a coffee place was artisanal? so its a food term, but im not sure im getting it.

Lsr said...

i just wrote a comment stating that i never heard of this word artisanal anywhere where except JVNY. i must be out of touch. meaning of "artisanal": google says its a "craftsman who make things functional OR decorative". now i am totally confused. can someone really explain this new perplexing term? what i am getting is that you dont like this artsie thing regardless if its vegetables, coffee or what ever. right? & what i get is that its exclusive & expensive.

Ed said...

Its actually more sinister than you are making it out to be. The price of food is going up worldwide. Both restaurant prices and grocery prices are going up. There are alot of reasons for this, but the big ones are simply overpopulation and fossil fuels becoming more costly to extract.

In the US this has been disguised by relying on cheap, but not very nutritional if actually unhealthy factory foods. What people considered to be food fifty years ago has been relabled "organic" or "artisinal" and has become expensive. But this stuff is normal food. The food that is not expensive is that way because its pretty crappy food.

This really isn't anything more than the age old story that the rich can eat, the poor not so much.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Thanks for the link to the egg store video. I was just talking to someone about the place yesterday, and as I spoke, I almost wondered if I had imagined it. A different world.

Jeremiah Moss said...

weird. you were just talking about that same egg store, before you saw the link? kind of spooky.

LsR said...

response to ED. (may 17th): so artisanal really is just nice fresh plain food? but is very expensive as you say. & the alternate is processed poison food. correct? & the people who promote this artisanal dont know the history of food. they think this is a new concept. personally i dont believe in Heath food" i chose "key food" on lex& e.96th st. over "whole foods" which was only one block away on corner of park. why? the products & vegetables were almost the same. prices much less, no loud music, tricky marketing, lines of people. the frozen blue berries were 1/2 the price in key food! i dont care if they are "organic"- as i cook them anyway. i also think most mainstream people dont know how to eat. except for a few indulgences-like my fruit preserves (nothing added- 80 yrs ago all jams were chemical & sugar free. i see the irony. ok its made in france)- i dont think i spend that much more $ than a lower income person. how many people eat beans, brown rice, sweet potatoes & brocolli? or oats w/fruit & yogart? either bulk oats (cheap) or plain quaker oats (cheap but faster, no they wont kill me). do you know that ive seen a 1 lb brown rice packaged& sold for like $12!! i pay like less than $2. for 1 lb! all depends how you shop where you go etc. i know that people work long hours cant do a lot of cooking. but there are ways around all this. the older women in chinatown are always in the fresh markets, & buying fresh fish. (i admit their packaged goods are poison) & look @the generation down form them, fat. yes i admit food is expensive. chemicals were illegal untill 1948. now the trans fats & the gluten derivatives are killers on top of that causing blood cancers immune problems.