I’m an aesthetic snob. I can’t maneuver a giant grocery cart around the Safeway produce section trying to choose between red leaf or romaine lettuce from Salinas Valley. Regular people—by which I mean people who have to accomplish the quotidian tasks of life—need to learn to enjoy all that quotidian bullshit, or drown ourselves in opiates. We need grocery shopping, lawn mowing, and house cleaning to be fun. That last ain’t never gonna happen, which is why we need to smoke weed and abuse prescription painkillers, regardless of the joy with which we might be able to imbue the former.
To me, fun shopping is individualistic shopping: produce grown in an oversized backyard in the suburbs, picked that morning by a hobby farmer retiree. I’ll also take it from a scenic little plot of land down the Willamette Valley, farmed by hippies with toe rings and names like Sparrow and November, or even from world-weary old rednecks with creased skin, bad politics, and integrity. Any which way, that’s all way more fun than refrigerated semi-trucks and thousands of acres of bare dirt blowing out to the Pacific from drought-stressed California mega-farms.
This sentimentalism of mine is increasingly seen as a very bad thing. Some link it to a regressive tendency of modern American males, a sexist, possibly even bigoted, nostalgia for a time before the total commodification and consolidation of our everyday lives, but also a time when broads did the cooking and the shopping, and blacks did the cleaning. See these feminist critiques of Michael Pollan’s writing about cooking in the home. But while I’ll admit that there is a certain appeal in having someone else cook me a meal in the home, if you can’t cook, you can pretty much just stay the fuck outta the kitchen.
I like quaint. I don’t care if you think that’s just some selfish bullshit that ain’t gonna stop global warming. I don’t care if you think the hobby farmer and the small farmer can’t really feed the world. It does not matter to me that this country is so heavily invested in the industrialization of the human experience that any step back from the bleeding edge of efficiency is grounds for social media ostracism by Rational Skeptic Twitter and Scientific American’s Facebook page. I gotta be the change! I gotta bend the system to my will through my consumer choices! I have to cook delicious meals for my family every night, and not die of a drudgery-induced drug overdose.
What I’m getting at here is that there is a place outside of Portland’s carefully curated inner sanctum of faux authenticity that is better than all this. It’s a place decorated with spinning wheels and wooden produce boxes. At this little Shangri-La of grocery shopping, middle-aged moms and grandmas in beige shorts pulled up to their navels pace the aisles and futz over the quality/cost ratio of the produce. And that ratio is high. Grower’s Outlet has been selling produce on Glisan and 161st since 1989—well before the internet came on our lives and made us all want the same things, only in slightly different templates.
What is Grower’s Outlet? It’s a tree-shaded oasis in the working-class suburb of Outer East Portland—what your average Division Street condo dweller might call a hellscape. Oh, the produce is lovely and much is local. It’s mostly not certified organic, but that may be due as much to a libertarian streak or a resistance to marketing ploys as actual fact of industrial inputs. What, do they use a little glyphosate around the asparagus? I dunno, but I’m more afraid of bacon cancer than glyphosate cancer. Chemical fertilizers for the tomatoes? If you’d read your Omnivore’s Dilemma closely, you’d know that the Haber-Bosch process is keeping 40% of us alive.
What I am afraid of is a world of maximum efficiency. A world where the supremacy of market logic goes unchallenged. A world of perfectly fulfilled expectations and the standardization of desire. You know what I’m talking about—the commodities of urbanity: pork bellies and vegan righteousness, massage oil porn, and reclaimed wood surfaces.
But here at Growers Outlet there are all manner of peanuts—raw, roasted and salted, roasted and unsalted, roasted and shelled—in great baskets and crates spilling out like from the cardboard cornucopia my mom hung on the front door thanksgiving after thanksgiving, even after it started looking pretty tatty. Here they have Amish popcorn, even though no one inside the perimeter of this hideously manicured parody of authenticity even knows that’s a thing.
There are nods to the culture inside the perimeter: a small organics section, dried bhut jolokia (ghost peppers, for those not hip enough to know), and locavore signage. Locavore signage is actually the quaintest thing about it: local items are printed on all green construction paper. And there are a few things: asparagus, Hood strawberries, Anaheim chilies, watercress, quail’s eggs, Walla Walla spring onions, red scallions, garlic scapes. One can truly shop local here, and if you’re inclined to hyper-locavorism (in the working-class sense), they sell plants starts, amendments, and bulk hazelnut shells. But trendy foodie buzzwords are not what this is about.
What it’s about is what lower and lower-middle class families can do to get better food cheaper. It’s about taking control in a marketplace that is increasingly out of control. What should we pay for our food? We hear that it’s more, but we know that some people are quite gullible. We know that pricing is often less correlated with economic realities, and more closely related to “what the market will bear.” Well we won’t bear what the market will bear. Fuck that bear. If FDR were president today, the Portland Farmer’s Market would be facing suit by the Federal Trade Commission.
Most importantly, Growers Outlet (it does sound like a discount grow house supply) caters to the multicultural tapestry of working class Portland that thrives outside the perimeter. They have masa in huge quantities, and bags of dried chilies for the hispanic families. I don’t know if you all consider Eastern Europeans to be “white” or not, but they are a different kind of white for sure. If they benefit from white privilege, they probably have to give a deep discount on it, especially in a place like Portland, Oregon. Grower’s Outlet stocks the sorts of things they might like to buy: Persian cucumbers, Russian rye.
So if you like your money, and you like quaint, and gardening, and America’s promise to immigrants, shop at Growers Outlet. You might be disappointed, but that’s entirely your privilege.