How green are your groceries?

September 26, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

CASCO BAY, Maine -- Around this time of year, I get tomatoes at my favorite local place. A hopeless tomato snob, I only eat the vegetable/fruit about six weeks a year. I don't know what you call the things that pop up in salads all winter. I call them garnish.

Anyway, this local woman grows enough varieties from cherry to beefsteak to satisfy my annual lust. Furthermore, they're organic. She allows no pesticides. Indeed, the water she uses comes from a well so pure that it was once used to fill the kegs of sailing ships.

Of course, she isn't the neatest person. The tomatoes are in a bit of a tangle. But as a consumer, I am happy to report that she loves her work. At times during the August drought she even donated her shower to the crop.

And while her tomatoes aren't technically sweat-free products, it's good to know that she has Social Security and health insurance. For good measure, none of her products eats up fossil fuels on its way to market.

I do not say this to boast of my green -- in a red sort of way -- conscience. In fact, my season of consumer correctness won't outlast the first frost. But at least I know this woman personally. Very personally.

And lately it seems we are all being called upon to know the person who planted our pistachios and the genealogy of the folks who brought our piggy to market, not to mention the working conditions of those who free our tomatoes from their cages.

Have you noticed? There was a time when most Americans grew their own food and made everything they needed. In the early years of the 20th century, one out of every three of us lived on a farm. These days only about 1 percent of us do.

Most Americans laid down the hoe with a sigh of relief. Our 1950s foremothers regarded the can opener as their chief agricultural tool. Storybook children who used to visit grandparents on their farms now visit them at golf course condos.

Then environmentalists started asking, "How green is your refrigerator?" and they weren't talking about mold. A growing world of ethical shoppers and correct consumers felt compelled to know more about the shoes we walk in and the rugs we walk on.

We now have free-range chickens and yes, free-range fish. We have shade-grown coffee and fair-traded chocolate. We have a narrative line that goes from farm to cup, ranch to plate.

As a green-as-guilt consumer, I once had the idea for a parody of my kind. That was before I read the Web site advocating recyclable menstrual pads.

Now there are signs of change in the store where I shop -- The Holier Than Thou Market, long a pioneer in segregating the organic from the conventional. It seems that the nutritional information on nearly every product has expanded to include biographical information.

Forget Ben and Jerry. Let me introduce you to my breakfast cereal guru, Yogi Bhajan, "who began to study with the great Yogis, healers and Ayurvedic Masters of India" when he was still a child.

Have you met Annie, who makes my macaroni and cheese and "has a scholarship program aimed at students who share our advocacy for the earth"?

Do you know as much about your cheesemaker -- not to mention her goats -- as I do? And would you like to read a note from my all-time favorite spaghetti-sauce maker of Italian ancestry, in which he says, "We believe in long meals and lingering at the table"? It bears the maker's byline: "Love, Paola."

I have a feeling that freedom from the farm has started to feel like disconnection. It's as if we're dining with strangers. We've gone from raising crops to worrying about them. We can get our hands off farming but we can't get our minds off it. So, we're now feeding our fantasy:

"Here, on a small Maine island, our happy little tomato farmer in her baseball cap and clogs, fueled by her shade-grown coffee, works the (eighth of an acre of) land. Within sight of an (omnivorous) family of raccoons, and within reach of a bumper crop of (four) eggplant, she picks only the finest, ripest tomatoes for your pleasure. Enjoy! Love, Ellen."

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears in The Sun Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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