Some Things a Supermarket Can Never Give You

I am addicted.  Truly addicted to my morning regimen. No, it’s not a catch up to the day’s news on my iPad with a cup of coffee from Starbucks. Nor is it my favourite bowl of cereal or brand of carton orange juice.  It isn’t even a luxurious shower or a lie in. What I’m talking about is much more sacred than that.

You see, I currently live in a small tourist town on the ever-sunny, gorgeous, volcano-lined lake Atitlan in the Western Highlands of a country that has been nicknamed ‘the land of eternal spring’ – Guatemala. Here, my mornings consist simply of a twenty-minute shopping trip. But it’s not anything that I had been used to when living in Europe or Australia.

My first stop is Dona Anastasia, who lives in a cute, but tiny, brightly coloured wooden house with her grandmother who speaks no Spanish, but graces you with an adorable toothless smile at every contact. Anastasia has a one year old, whose serious features belie the girly pig-tails that adorn her head. She watches me with a mix of curiosity and apathy that only a child can manage, as her mum squeezes fresh, succulent oranges from her cousin’s trees right in front of me and we chat about life, work and the men in our lives.

Next is Maria in her newly-opened fresh produce store stocked through her family’s and other farmers’ local land. She recently had a baby and her little sister of eleven years old helps out daily, while Maria’s new-born is safely tucked away in a cloth papoose that keeps her close to her mother’s heartbeat. I buy a few deep red, odd shaped tomatoes, fresh white onions with the dirt still on and half a dozen eggs for the frittata I am planning to make. There is little talk, as she does not speak too much Spanish either (let alone English), but we point, gesture and giggle all the same.

Then I move on to my favourite tienda – a general snack and household goods store where, behind the scenes, the wife of Sergio makes the best traditional cooked beans in town. But you wouldn’t know it without getting to know them.

Finally, I make a quick stop at a small window next to a church where all day long women and girls clad in traditional clothing are hand-making palm-sized corn tortillas. My white face is always a source of amusement as they don’t see many gringos (foreigners) stopping by.

The other day, as I was walking away from Maria’s, I realised that she had under-charged me around 20 cents. And although that is peanuts to me, I know that it is a lot to her. Immediately going back to pay the rest was not a matter of obligation or guilt, but an issue of trust, respect, justice and responsibility that I felt towards her simply because we ‘know’ each other.

So why am I sharing this story with you? I was sitting down to my frittata, beans, tortillas and freshly squeezed juice, I felt grateful for the fact that I could see exactly where my produce came from, how fresh it was and who made it. More than that, that on a short twenty-minute walk, I was indulging in the experience of what makes us human – contact and relationships with other human beings. This just isn’t something you could ever get in a supermarket, where people are reduced to consumers, buying faceless products with price as the only buying signal – most of us buy cheap and pile high.

The supermarket is simply alienating. It is alienating from producers themselves and it even alienates us from knowing what great produce looks, smells and tastes like as we are forced to pick from a line up of uniform sized, coloured and shaped goods. More importantly, it blinds us to the true cost of food, because the food in the supermarket is produced simply for efficiency – to bring the lowest possible prices – and not with the environment, the farmer’s livelihoods or the health and taste of the food itself in mind.

The local food, community supported agriculture and farmer’s markets movements in the US and Europe are growing exponentially because more and more people are yarning for that personal connection to their food and the people who produce it. Farmers are the source of a wealth of knowledge about the things their grow and even a short exchange with them can induce a brief euphoric moment of feeling connected to land and food and the elation of having learnt something new.

For me, living an Extra Virgin lifestyle is not just about great recipes and fresh produce. It is also about getting back to some basics and respecting food and the farmers who work hard to put it on our tables. So the next time you plan a dinner party or do your weekly grocery shop, pop down to your local farmer’s market and connect with the hand that feeds you.

 

Here are some resources to get you started:

USDA List of Farmer’s Markets in the US by State

USDA Community Supported Agriculture Farm Search

Slow Food USA