August 25, 2005

Utilitarian Dry Goods

Scattered throughout New York are some very particular sites immune to the luxury organic process outlined in the previous post. The food is cheap, the quality high. And in what should horrify most leftists these sites are markets. More specifically farmer's markets. The fact that no one seems to notice the contradictions is a potent reminder both of the pitiful state of contemporary leftist thought and of the blessed ability of humans to ignore those contradictions that interfere with their lifestyle.

One of the strongest intellectual ties among today's thinkers on both the left and right is a fetishization of the market. Both gift it with the mythical ability to generate that famous nonentity "capitalism". The right of course thinks this is fabulous and the left a horrible thing. Both are terribly wrong though, markets do not lead to capitalism at all. Rather the opposite in fact, capital intensive firms have, from their earliest period (well documented by Ferdinand Braudel) attempted to subvert, manipulate and control markets. Sometimes they find the best way to do this is by creating markets. No, capital driven organizations don't emerge from markets, they can even emerge before any markets exist at all. Markets are just a particular tool they have found rather useful to their needs and desires.

Outdoor markets like the farmer's market are particularly immune from the excesses of corporate drives for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the nomadic nature of the markets themselves. They set up and break down in hours and can shift locations with ease. Their ties to the state, in the form of permits, fees and taxes, obviously exist but are quite loose compared to a fixed store or chartered corporation. And in the case of the farmers market the goods are by necessity designed to move rapidly, from earth to market to dinner. They are fast and nimble enough to avoid the drive of large corporations to make food either as cheap as possible (the crap in the supermarket) to make or as expensive as possible to buy (the somewhat tastier crap in the luxury grocery store).

By just showing up at the farmer's market, and possessing just a bit of food literacy, a New Yorker can eat high quality fresh food at reasonable prices. When it comes to dry goods, food items with long shelf lives, though its a far trickier proposition. There exists a whole class of utilitarian dry goods, triumphs of the industrial process, mass produced food of exceptionally high quality at a low price. Hellman's mayonnaise in America, Barry's Tea in Ireland, Carta Blanca beer in Mexico, Ritter Sport chocolate in Germany... But separating these gems from the mass of cruft in the supermarket is a true artform, and to do a proper taste test would take a luxury amount of money.

What New York needs is not more Whole Foods, more luxury health food stores. No, what it needs is a place for utilitarian dry goods, a modest shop with a small selection of high quality industrial food stuffs. The closest I've found is Brooklyn's Marlow & Sons, but not only do they often slip into the luxury category, but they also are almost certainly kept afloat by both their backroom restaurant and the owner's cash cow next store, Diner. A better model might be Is Wines, a small shop on East 5th Street that only stocks about 15 wines. All are inexpensive and all (that I've tried) are excellent. Quality and quantity are not by any means mutually exclusive, but they do often conflict. But by eliminating quantity in one dimension, the large variety that so many stores insist upon, perhaps its possible to maintain a high quantity in another dimension, sales volume. If provided they quality is right. Or at least one would hope.

Until reality provides a test though, I'd love to make a list of those elusive utilitarian dry goods. High quality, modest prices, mass production. Some of you must have favorites, so please let me know...

Posted by Abe at August 25, 2005 07:55 PM


Looking beyond the cornfield of strawmen: Marmite. Byproduct of the brewing process, rich in vitamins, sublime on toast. Insanely expensive as an import in the US, though.