I think a lot about the intersection of food and the socially constructed ideas we have about it. That’s not directly the purpose of my post here, just setting some context. And full disclosure, as the great wordsmith Weird Al Yankovich declared, “I’m nerdy in the extreme and whiter than sour cream.” With ancestry hailing from Norway, England, and Germany, it doesn’t get much paler than me.
As we’ve recovered, or are recovering, as the case may be, from the pandemic, my SO and I shifted much of our grocery shopping to what we can get on foot, or by tandem bike ride, around our immediate neighborhood. It’s better for our health, giving us good reason to get outside for fresh air, movement, and sunshine just about every day. It’s easier on our wallets, saving much on delivery fees to get groceries from locations further afield, double plus good since I left my job at the end of 2020 and have still not returned to the structured workforce. And as a foodie, it’s a bit of a paradise knowing I can find just about any ingredient I might need to try out a new recipe, from multiple Asian, South Asian, and Latin markets, to a Fijian market and, if it survived the pandemic, a little African/Caribbean market. Heck, our little corner Asian market even has a whole aisle of African products and an Ethiopian spice shop opened up recently nearby. There’s a Safeway and a Lucky’s, though I find myself going there pretty much never, except perhaps when I’m looking for white people food, like the rice cakes my inner grandma wanted to serve as a vehicle for brainless breakfasts, or the white peppercorns I needed recently to make hollandaise sauce and could only find overpriced in a grinder at Safeway. Cue the sad trumpets: we found them at one of our Asian markets yesterday.
Low on produce, we discussed our plan for the day about what we wanted to get and where to go for it. I lamented, playfully, that I really wanted more kale in my life and we never really see much of it around here, I’d love some good, quality whole grain crackers and those seem to be scarce, as well, and remember also how we couldn’t find a nice, crusty loaf when I was making croutons from scratch for my Caesar salad? “We live in a white people food desert!” I exclaimed with just a tiny bit of sadness and mostly amusement.
There are two 88 Markets nearby where we get the majority of our produce, opting for the tiny corner version that’s less than a half a mile around the corner when we just need to grab and go or are not up to the longer walk, and head for the much larger, strip mall version a mile or so away for the greater selection, and decided on the latter yesterday. First stop, the large bins outside the entrance with sale produce, some deeply discounted because it’s ready now and won’t stay that way much longer. These markets have good produce at a reasonable price and the variety is a great way to break away from the monotony of “white people produce,” I’m using big air quotes now. We have so much opportunity to try things we might not otherwise, like opo squash, Korean melon, jackfruit, pomelos, bitter melon, and all manner of Asian eggplants and bak choy, and add that much more nutritional diversity to our diets, so we’re always picking up something new, especially when we can get it on a deep discount.. Yesterday, that bin netted us some eggplants, persimmons, apples, oranges, broccoli, and a nice, fresh green papaya. I thought back to the first time I tried green papaya salad, on a boat tour of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam more than twenty years ago. It’s funny how food can stay with you like that. “I’ve never made green papaya salad,” I said, “I want to make green papaya salad!” And conveniently, we were in the right place to pick up a few missing ingredients, and mostly have plenty of selection. I was surprised that we only found one kind of dried shrimp in that whole place, though fish sauce was aplenty, and our existing supply at home was either very low or gone altogether. We found an adorable purple daikon so cute I want to put googly eyes on it and share pictures. I grabbed some coconut cream and coconut milk for the coquito I’ll be making this holiday season in lieu of my beloved egg nog, my gut just can’t take all the milk anymore, and yes, we also stocked up on the basic white people produce like celery, carrots (the Asian markets have the best carrots), and onions, yes, the traditional mirepoix base of much European cooking, though to be fair, it was deep in the heart of Central Asia that I really started keeping a good, steady supply of onions, carrots, and cabbage in my life, because it was cheap and available all year and hearty. There’s really nothing like whipping up a batch of refrigerator slaw to have on hand and pair with just about anything. We stopped at the Guadalajara Market on the way home, because we suspected they’d have better deals on some of the items we were looking for, and we were right, picking up Serranos, tomatoes, green beans, and picked up a couple of nice avocados for just about a buck a piece.
This culinary abundance, and the fact that my neighborhood regularly smells like Ghirardelli thanks to the factory a block away as the crow flies, are the things I love about my neighborhood the most. We’ve lived here for nearly six years, and I’ve struggled of late with some disenchantment—it’s a more affordable bedroom community to other parts of the Bay Area. The economy is heavily based in manufacturing and has many of the same challenges as larger urban areas like San Francisco and Oakland, crime, petty vandalism, litter, crumbling infrastructure, and a fairly heavy police presence that is somehow more discomforting than reassuring. A few months ago, I kicked a pile of rotting fried chicken on my way home and kind of broke up with my community that day. It is the magical smell of chocolate in the air that I breathe in with joy every time like it’s the first time and the rich abundance of culinary delights, in markets and eateries, and the people who make them thrive, that reconnects me to this community and will be the greatest things I will miss when the day comes to leave. In the meantime, a Mi Rancho Supermarket opened recently, a little farther than we usually wander, though not out of reach, and I’m excited to go check out the new food source in the neighborhood. And if one classifies white people food as processed junk, you’d not be entirely wrong, though I believe it’s much more complicated than that. We’ve also got a Grocery Outlet within reach, which carries much of the darker side of America’s unhealthy, industrialized diet, though one really can walk out of there with good, healthy foods if you are a vigilant label reader and, as my dad used to say, exercise your won’t power instead of your will power. The produce selection, frankly, isn’t great and is overpriced and good cheese is really hit or miss there. I’ve found some good quality beef broth there, which I love to have on hand for specific recipes and for sipping, snack bars that are made from real ingredients without added sugar, and the occasional paleo sausage at a good price, but mostly we walk out with a lot of frozen pizza, coffee, ice cream and other desserts, and beer and wine. White people food.