At Whole Foods, a whole new world

The counterculture goes mainstream -- and upscale -- here

August 28, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Don't blame the owners of Baltimore's new Whole Foods Market if you enter feeling no chi.

Lord knows, they tried. While arranging shelves, dairy cases, butcher and bakery counters, freezers, refrigerators and checkout lanes, the builders of the neighborhood's only supermarket consulted a feng shui practitioner to create just the right balance of positive energy. In deference to her advice, there's a bright-red floor-to-ceiling column standing at the main entrance, a magnet for whatever fugitive chi energy might be adrift around Fleet and South Exeter streets.

No, Dorothy, you're not in the Giant anymore.

In the Giant or Safeway, to say nothing of the Metro Food Market, you cannot, for example, get a massage while seated in the cafe. You cannot get cippoline onions marinated in balsamic vinegar nor buy a chicken that could hardly have lived a more wholesome life if it had been raised Mormon.

Whole Foods has a store across town in Mount Washington formerly known as Fresh Fields. For those unaccustomed to the Whole Foods idea, however, some adjustment may be necessary as the new store opens this week in the so-called Harbor East area.

Do not, for example, ask to see the store manager, a term reeking of your grandpappy's hierarchy. The person in charge here is a team leader, working in harmony with team members, who in less groovy corporations are called employees.

Do not search the meat case for veal, as the cruelty traditionally associated with its production precludes the store from selling it. Ditto any cosmetics made with the help of animal testing.

Do not ask for Hostess Twinkies, Zingers, Ho Ho's or Sno Balls. Do not wander the pristine aisles in search of Tastykake Creme Krimpies, Famous Amos cookies, Froot Loops or Cap'n Crunch. Forget those bags of bite-size Milky Ways.

Ask rather about Rice Dream and Soy Delicious, frozen desserts for the lactose-challenged, sold alongside regular full-fatted ice cream. Consider the certified organic sandwich cookies and Barbara's Bakery whole-wheat fig bars.

This is another food world, or at least a combination of several worlds. It can be confusing if you're not accustomed to this particular blend of counterculture puritanism and bourgeois epicureanism. Imagine Martha Stewart running a food co-op.

Find Martha Stewart Living offered at the checkout counter, alongside Shambhala Sun (September cover story: "On the Practice of Looking Deeply") and Yoga Journal ("Being vs. Doing"). Forget about spending a few minutes with the checkout tabloids catching up on "Brad & Jen's Stormy Marriage/The fights, the drugs -- & the wild lovemaking."

This is Whole Foods, after all, where you can spend $9.49 on a 5.5-ounce can of Dave's Premium Smoked Salmon, then go to the checkout and pick up a magazine called Living Without.

While the company's own brand, 365, offers bargains -- consider the macaroni and cheese at 79 cents for a 7.25-ounce box -- many of the prices can induce sticker shock, especially at the produce department and the fresh-fish counter. Along with traces of an old hippie ethic there's also red snapper at $17.99 a pound. Along with the bulk granola there's English clotted cream with strawberries, $5.59 for 5 ounces.

It can be confusing. Note, for instance, that while the name is Whole Foods, much of the food is missing something. It may be wheat-free, gluten-free, salt-free lactose-reduced and cage-free. By corporate policy it's free of preservatives and dyes. In many cases the food was raised organically, innocent of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

The food is often fat-free and fat-reduced. There's even a low-fat tofu, which is not to be confused with the usual big, brawny tofu that you have when you're throwing caution to the winds because for once in your life you're alive.

The best of two worlds, one could argue. There's concern for the Earth and the farmers who ply its abundance without undue indulgence guilt. Whole Foods emerges as another thing rooted in 1960s counterculture that wound up on the counter, if not traded over the counter.

Whole Foods appears on the Nasdaq under WFMI, but might rather be known for its motto: "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet." The corporate ethic affirms organic farming, environmental protection, waste recycling and, presumably, listening to National Public Radio.

Born in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods Market has grown largely through mergers and acquisitions, absorbing natural-foods markets doing business under such names as Fresh Fields, Bread & Circus, Bread of Life and Nature's Heartland.

Many of these enterprises were born in the 1970s, when Alice Waters was fomenting an American food revolution at her new Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse. Waters helped to transform American eating habits by giving hippie notions about natural foods an astonishing twist: pleasure.

What an idea. Food could be healthful and also enjoyable, said Waters, who advocated for fresh ingredients grown locally and, when possible, organically.

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