In a column in Saturday's WSJ, I defend Michael Pollan's expensive taste in peaches but question the locavore ideal. Here's the lead:
Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and a leading advocate of buying locally grown food, recently upset many of his fans by daring to put numbers on his oft-repeated prescription to "pay more, eat less." Eight dollars for a dozen eggs? $3.90 for a pound of peaches?
Those figures were way too specific and way, way too high to go unnoticed. The humanistic foe of industrialized eating suddenly sounded like a privileged elitist, and the local-food cause seemed insensitive to cash-strapped shoppers.
But Mr. Pollan was only being honest. Patronizing local farmers who produce in small batches tends to cost more. You may find some peak-season bargains at the farmers' market, but there's no such thing as a free locavore lunch. Getting fruits and vegetables only from local farms necessarily limits variety—few crops are available everywhere all the time—and it doesn't come cheap. Economies of scale apply even to produce.
The column and the response to it got me thinking about changes in what makes produce seem glamorous to consumers. (See also Kit Pollard's earlier post on Pollan and food glamour.) The locavore movement draws much of its appeal not only from the tastiness of ripe, local fruits but from their contemporary exoticism. They come with a special aura of authenticity and care. They're more glamorous than the mass-produced stuff you find in supermarket produce aisles.
Yet not so long ago, glamorous fruits were those that came from faraway climes: the California oranges pictured above at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago or, more recently, now-ubiquitous pomegranates and avocados. Simon Winder evokes the latter in his book on James Bond, The Man Who Saved Britain:
For me the heart of the book [Casino Royale], though, must be the scene when Bond tucks into an avocado pear. An avocado! These were exotic in 1939 but they could at least be bought. Avocados only really became available again in Britain in the late 1950s and had a desirability status akin to that felt (rather more democratically) for bananas by East Germans. The sense of the exotic which Fleming had to work for really hard in later books is won here with a mere oily tropical fruit on the windswept Channel coast. Oddly, during one of the many horrible, diarrhoeic currency crises that ravaged the international value of the pound (this one in the late sixties), avocados were specifically mentioned (along with strawberries and vintage wine) as imports to be restricted under the draconian ‘Operation Brutus,’ mercifully never implemented.
Shortly after reading Winder's book, I had a conversation with someone who recalled how as recently as the 1970s (or it might have even been the 1980s) avocados were a special treat in Britain and could be the highlight of a dinner-party menu.
It's currently the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a harvest festival whose observance includes waving the lulav and etrog. The lulav is a bundle of palm, willow, and myrtle branches, while the etrog is a citron. I can only imagine how exotic and, yes, glamorous such citrus fruit would have seemed to someone living in a 19th-century Russian shtetl. Jewish liturgy is a language of figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, of a Mediterranean climate and, thus, in a icy land of beets, it would intensifu feelings of exile and longing for a paradisical land of milk and honey. The architectural historian Alice T. Friedman, author of the excellent new book American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, captures a secular product of that tropical glamour in a 2000 article about Morris Lapidus's Miami hotel architecture.
Miami, unlike Los Angeles, was a place to which Jews came in order to reclaim old identities eroded by American assimilation or the upheaval of war; it was a place to revisit their roots. For this reason, European immigrants and Holocaust survivors especially found the place magical—something unknown in their experience, a chance survival of small-town, Eastern European Jewish culture along an unlikely stretch of sunny, beautiful, palm-lined beach. Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke for many when he described Miami Beach as “a paradise”:
When I first came to this country in 1935, I found that the winters in New York were terribly cold, like the winters in Poland. The winter of 1948 was particularly cold. People used to say it’s warm in Miami Beach in the winter, but I couldn’t believe it. I just could not believe that this is possible, that there is a place where it is warm in winter. I also heard about Miami Beach all kinds of stories that the place is vulgar, that the people are funny there. They said all kinds of things about Miami Beach, but if people are vulgar or crazy, I like to know about it.
He goes on to describe precisely that magical other-worldliness that residents and visitors alike found so compelling:
After we arrived at the train station in Miami, we took a taxi over the causeway to Miami Beach. As we rode over the causeway, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was almost unimaginable that in Miami Beach it was 80 degrees while in New York it was 20. Everything—the buildings, the water, the pavement—had an indescribable glow to it. The palm trees especially made a great impression on me. . . . Let me tell you, to me when I came here the first time, I had a feeling that I had come to Paradise. First of all the palm trees. Where would I ever see a palm tree in my life? And the hotels were very beautiful. They still are.
[San Bernardino Oranges photo from Brooklyn Museum via Wiki Commons. Daniel Gabriel Rossetti painting of Persephone with the Pomegranate in public domain, from this site, with a hat tip to Cosmo Wenman for the reference. The model is Jane Burden Morris, the wife of William Morris, who is mentioned in the conclusion of my column. Man checking etrog for flaws by Flickr user RonAlmog under Creative Commons license.]
Husbands often disappoint their wives by failing to notice a new hairdo. But judging from my own experience and that of my neighbors, wives can be just as blind as husbands. I recently grew a full beard that I wore to a fund-raising event, then shaved off before attending a neighborhood potluck. My next-door neighbor noticed as soon as I shaved, but my wife didn’t notice until I pointed it out to her a day and a half later.
She felt guilty about not noticing, especially since this had happened before. I told her that our neighbor mentioned that he had worn a mustache his whole working career, then shaved it as soon as he retired, and his wife didn’t notice. Another neighbor woman also confessed that she had failed to notice when her husband shaved his mustache.
Should you find yourself caught in an embarrassing failure to notice, you might try the line my wife used on me the first time this happened, “I always focus on your eyes.”
Yeah, right. Still—I have to admit her excuse sounded pretty good accompanied as it was by a charming smile.
During recent trips to Santa Fe and Boulder I picked up some fun clothing items, including the 191 Unlimited shirt shown on the model at left. I had some interesting conversations with saleswomen, and more than one of them bemoaned her husband’s lack of interest in ever wearing stylish clothing. Their husbands always wore work clothes or very casual comfort clothes. One saleswoman and I agreed that some men and women seem uninterested in fashion, while others play it safe by wearing what most people around them are wearing. We both felt that developing a personal fashion sense is a slow, incremental process that involves some trial and error.
Any person hates to look foolish, but Carol Dweck’s mindset research at Stanford has shown that people who believe that abilities such as intelligence, musical talent, and athletic skills are unchangeable are the people who are most likely to avoid trying to master areas of endeavor that prove difficult for them. She has shown that children who have been praised because learning some subjects or skills seemed easy for them (“you’re so smart, gifted, or talented”) often absorb a darker side of that message which implies that if you have to work hard to master a particular subject or skill, it means that you have a permanent lack of aptitude in that area. So when some area proves difficult for these fixed mindset students to master quickly, they may feel that having to work hard at it makes them look inept, and they may then choose to avoid that subject as much as possible. In her research Dweck found, for example, that pre-med students with this fixed-ability mindset often changed majors when they encountered the first math or biology course that they had to work hard to pass.
On the other hand, children who have been praised for their hard work in learning various subjects and skills tend to believe that abilities can be developed incrementally, and they are usually far more willing to work hard to try to master subjects and skills that challenge them. They view making mistakes and learning from them as integral parts of the long-term process of growth. Dweck’s controlled studies have repeatedly shown that this incremental-growth mindset is far more likely to give students the grit needed to work hard and make it past various obstacles they encounter as they pursue their interests and goals.
I can understand that some people may have little interest in fashion, and others may not wish to differ in appearance from their peers. But I suspect that for some people, professing a lack of interest in fashion may be a way to avoid giving others any opportunity to judge them as trying and failing to be fashionable. One or two such failures may have already convinced them that they have little aptitude for fashion, and they assume that this will always be the case. And after dressing for years in an inconspicuous, blend-in way, trying something different might make the wearer too self-conscious to appear confident and comfortable.
For those whose mindset assumes that developing an ability is an incremental process, taking a fashion risk becomes a single step toward incrementally developing a personal fashion image. If some people suggest that your efforts on a particular occasion are partially flawed, you can deal with that. You realize that taking risks can lead to imperfect results, and if you decide that this effort didn’t work out as successfully as you had hoped, you assume that this one effort implies little or nothing about your long-term ability to develop an interesting personal sense of fashion. You move forward and try new possibilities.
For the first few years of elementary school one of my granddaughters, who loves animals, wore a tail to school and preferred mismatched socks. I thought this was fun, and I was proud that my daughter, a visual artist, was comfortable letting her daughter go to school dressed in an eccentric way. A gallery owner friend let her daughter choose to head off to the first day of kindergarten in full-length gloves. I don’t know what the fashion sense of either of these young girls will be as adults, but hopefully it will retain some measure of their childhood audacity.
The beautiful bride at the window contemplating her new life is a standard trope in wedding gown ads. But this Italian ad includes an element you won't find in its American counterparts, at least not these days.
Kids may lament the end of summer vacation, but back-to-school season offers up a kind of excitement that's not available any other time of year. It's not just limited to the school-lovers, either. Back to school offers something for everybody—a fresh start, an opportunity to be something new. Each year is filled with so much potential, manifested in empty notebooks, unsharpened pencils, and shiny new first-day-of-school shoes.
Marketers know this, too, and aren't afraid to tap into those feelings. Mainstream retailers design elaborate campaigns around buying clothes that help kids fit into one niche or another. This year's JC Penney campaign, titled, "New look. New year. Who knew!" is the latest riff on this common theme, which capitalizes neatly on kids' desires to fit in and on their feelings of heightened anticipation around the start of school.
Of course, kids aren't the only people susceptible to early September stirrings. After spending twelve or more years heading back to school, with all the feelings that evokes, adults often find themselves longing for a new start just as the leaves start to change. Marketers know this, too, which is how we end up with commercials like this one, my new favorite from Target:
Kids get a new look. Grownups get a new hat. And we all get a new start.