February 11, 2005

God Made us Special, take 2

Thanks for all the comments on my cranky Whole Foods/organic homily. I hadn't realized there would be such strong opinions on the whole thing.

There's another comments-thread on the subject of Whole Foods and my post over at Matt Welch's place - some people really don't like it when you criticize their supermarket; and then again, some people really do like it when you slag other peoples' favorite supermarket. Identity Grocery Shopping. That's not two buck chuck: that's genocide! I might have known.

Well, I guess like most of my posts, we should look at it as an unfortunate by-product of being drunk on the internet.

In Matt's comments, Thomas Nephew wasn't too impressed:

Dr. Frank's whole thing was basically a little culture war without any substantive point -- i.e., a series of cheap shots.

Now I admire and respect Thomas Nephew, and he runs one of the best and smartest blogs out there. But if he is looking for anything other than cheap shots, he's really coming to the wrong guy - cheap ones are the only kind of shots I'm familiar with, as you'll find out if I ever buy you a drink some time. And those who know me well know there's probably not a "substantive" bone in my body.

But he's right about the culture war. It doesn't actually have that much to do with Whole Foods, or Trader Joe's, or the Berkeley Bowl, or organic food, or whatever. Maybe I should have made that clear. It's more about the Bay Area Snob Situation that I've harped on before.

I love living here. The weather's great. I like the tolerance for eccentricity (though I often wish people would just get on with being all tolerant and everything without having to make such a big deal about how great it is that they're so tolerant, and how you don't find such top-notch tolerance just anywhere, and how you haven't really experienced true, cream-of-the-crop tolerance till you've seen it in action amongst the best people in the Greatest Place on Earth.) I probably couldn't survive anywhere else. But there is a drawback, and that is that everyone is so self-impressed. The narcissism in the air is so thick and plentiful that it's sometimes hard to breathe normally. Which is annoying. Because you know, and this is a point that I've learned just doesn't compute when expressed to the average Identity Bay Arean, we actually aren't all that much better than anybody else. Sorry, but that's how I feel.

On English trains they have First and Second Class cars. The First Class cars are pretty much identical to the Second Class ones, except that they cost a lot more, and are, accordingly, less crowded. In fact, you hardly see anyone in one of them ever. But what you get for paying extra is the satisfaction of dissociating yourself from the riff raff. I think the Special Food Culture is kind of like that, though it's more a matter of social and psychological, rather than mere physical, proximity. In a way, though, it comes down to the same type of thing.

And I understand the impulse. I'm a native San Franciscan after all. Bay Area Exceptionalism was cultivated in me from at least the zygote stage, and drummed into my head constantly throughout my erstwhile and continuing childhood. I guess I get my San Francisco kicks out of being into obscure rock bands and so forth, which I suppose can be just as annoying. Everybody does it. So, as everyone ends up saying in the end about the Organic People, even me: more power to you. God made you special.

Of course, the Whole Foods Experience isn't just a San Francisco thing. But I suspect it is more extreme here. You take a dubious marketing gimmick ("organic") and turn it into a Lifestyle. Then you turn that into a kind of cult. Whatever else that is, it's extremely Bay Area.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 11, 2005 03:19 AM | TrackBack

Dude, if there isn't a substantive bone in your body, don't you think it's time for calcium supplements ;)

Posted by: Lisa Williams at February 11, 2005 05:46 AM

quote: "Of course, the Whole Foods Experience isn't just a San Francisco thing. But I suspect it is more extreme here. You take a dubious marketing gimmick ("organic") and turn it into a Lifestyle. Then you turn that into a kind of cult. Whatever else that is, it's extremely Bay Area."

Thus my reference to the low-carb phenom in the last post. I guess it's not limited to the Bay area after all, eh?

Posted by: Zaphod at February 11, 2005 10:33 AM

All that exclusionary tolerance paired with nauseating narcissism is to be found all across the country if you hang with the right people. Out here (most of the rest of the country) you can decide whether you want to immerse yourself in it or not, unless maybe you are going to college.

Posted by: DNB at February 11, 2005 03:09 PM

"You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile."

Or, as I always like to say:

When your mommy said you were special, she lied.

Posted by: DNB at February 11, 2005 03:14 PM

"I think the Special Food Culture is kind of like that, though it's more a matter of social and psychological, rather than mere physical, proximity."

If you taste Chatuau Mouton-Rothschild and Charles Shaw blinfolded one of them makes you wanna do Balki Bartokomous's Myposian Dance of Joy and the other tastes like flabby watery backwash.

While "organic" is, in fact,the "dubious" marketing ploy that you say it is, in that is has no real meaning; it does serve as a signal to consumers that what they are purchasing is made with on a different part of the cost-quality spectrum (which I've just invented) than a typical generic product. As such I think it does a pretty good job. I just don't think it makes any sense to try to evaluate the validity of other people's preferences. Let's just all maximize our own utility and leave it at that. Of course that's just my oppinion.

Posted by: josh at February 11, 2005 04:32 PM

Yeah, Josh, but when you have a blog, you have to think of *something* to put on it every now and then...

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 11, 2005 04:36 PM


Posted by: josh at February 11, 2005 05:11 PM

well,i think its pretty standard for people to capitalize on anything once they find out it sells. especially if its people's own indulgence in themselves.

by the by,i know its more about the people but i have s.f news if it makes you feel any better. down the road from me(i'm almost positive it was there,though i could be confused)there was once a very small organicy natural food type store.

it is now a bigger 7-11.

Posted by: just me at February 11, 2005 06:06 PM

I don't know, I really thought the phrase "smells like ass" was substantive. That is, assuming "substantive" means "funny and true as hell" (don't have my thesaurus handy, sorry).

Posted by: Matt Riggle at February 11, 2005 06:09 PM

On a slightly bitter note, where I'm from (Williamsburg, Brooklyn), every time an "organic" store pops up in the 'hood it means your already astronomical rent is about to go up yet again. I guess the line of reasoning being "If you can afford expensive crappy food, you can afford an expensive crappy apartment". Nice.

Posted by: Mike H at February 11, 2005 06:33 PM

All this talk about organic vs. traditional food has forced me to return to the pipe. the pot pipe. i had quit for three weeks of hyperactivity and diminished appetite, but the stress of this entire debate has forced me to start smoking again. I only smoke organic pot, none sprayed with insect repellent or PCP.
The question remains, however, would dr. frank eat a crystal clear tomato? i saw one in the "RIGHT NOW" video by van halen and i got simultaneously hungry and repulsed. I don't know what I would do if I was served a crystal clear tomato, and in case it ever happens I would like to have a definitive answer to the question, "WHAT WOULD DR FRANK DO?"
please dont brush this question aside as childish banter, frank. i'm serious. i need to know what the person who coined the phrase "you're not fooling anyone/it's overdone (over/done?)/swiss family robinson!" would do in that situation. thanks.

Posted by: christ opher at February 11, 2005 11:27 PM

I appreciate your very nice words about me, all the more since I had an allergic overreaction to your post that I probably should have just kept to myself.

It seemed to me like you were just about exactly as dismissive as you suspected others to be, and were denigrating a lot of good on the basis of a little annoyance.

You make the 'special food culture' an example of class. But the way 'normal' food is raised and marketed is, too, just comfortably far away where it needn't overly concern us: farm workers and migrant workers raising and slaughtering our food at some superfarm or megaslaughterhouse for a pittance, supermarket cashiers selling it to us for another pittance. (sorry stupid lecture cut short here.)

If some precious fools are annoying about buying organic food or having more on their mind than dollars per pound, forgive them and the rest of us. Don't let their attitudes get in the way of thinking about what might be right about what they're doing.

That's a struggle in the Bay Area, I know, I used to live in Oakland, and I'd get annoyed at feeling like I was Attila the Hun for expressing doubts about tenet X, Y, or Z of accepted thought -- to the point where I sometimes adopted not-X, not-Y, or not-Z out of sheer cussedness. But now I think that wasn't a particularly good approach either.

Posted by: Thomas Nephew at February 12, 2005 03:38 AM

i have a nephew named thomas... trippy.

Posted by: christ opher at February 12, 2005 06:55 PM


I agree with you on assessing the symptoms of the Bay Area culture (outsiders might think Dr. F came up with that "The Best Place on Earth" tag in a fit of contrarian pique. He did not -- it's the title of a non-ironic series on the top-rated local t.v. news highlighting why the Bay Area is so great). I think a big part of the cause is that residents need some justification for putting up with the outrageous price of housing there. I mean, if being able to shop at the Berkeley Bowl or Monterey Market weren't so goddamn important, why the hell would anyone get a 40-year mortgage on a $800,000 2-bedroom house that's going to fall over during the next Big One? The view (sorry, if the house has a view it's gonna be $950,000)? The fabulous traffic on I-80 (not "the 80", that's what Angelinos call it)?

All the hot air blown into the various Bay Area subcultures is necessary to keep the real estate bubble from bursting. People sacrifice so much to live in the Bay Area that they need to persuade themselves constantly that they made the right choice -- it eventually becomes a mantra, or the sort of thing you see people mumbling to themselves in psychiatric institutions on t.v. shows while they rock tensely back and forth, back and forth, back and forth...

Back when you and I were growing up in the Bay Area, Frank, normal people could buy a house and live a normal life there, so people could have a more balanced sense of things. Nowadays, the Bay Area demands so much of its residents that it warps people's view.

Posted by: Nick at February 14, 2005 04:35 PM