Sourcing the Iconic Eats, Berkeley-style

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday May 25, 2011 - 11:54:00 AM

Number One on the list of words that need to take a vacation is “iconic”. Never a day goes by that someone or something, anything from a golden retriever to a brand of toothpaste, isn’t described as “iconic” in some venue.

These days, iconic seems to be considered a good thing, but it can also have negative connotations. Think of the prohibition, common to all three desert religions, against worshipping false gods—too many things become objects of worship, icons, when they shouldn’t.

In the Bay Area, especially in Berkeley, food and dogs could both be called “iconic”, and not in a good way. People around here spend hours, days, weeks, years discussing what they do or don’t eat and how to find it. (They also get much too wrapped up in the comfort and personality of their dogs.) 

Once, back in the distant days when I had some hope of getting organized, I hired a clever high school student to arrange our all-too-numerous books in some logical order. He even labeled the sections, using a scheme of his own devising that has now gone bye-the-bye—my favorite was a combination of cookbooks and treatises on diet and health under the umbrella label of “Food: Pro and Con”. (No surprise, he grew up to become a critic.) Berkeleyans since we’ve been here have spent a lot of time on the question of “Food: Pro and Con.” 

Recently I’ve been monitoring the heated discussion in my South Berkeley/ North Oakland neighborhood about whether Safeway should be allowed to build a megastore cum strip mall on the lot which now houses a normal neighborhood supermarket at the junction of College and Claremont on the Berkeley-Oakland border. 

The current store is 22,500 sq. ft., and Safeway wants to almost triple the footprint to 62,000 sq. ft. Neighbors, both residential and commercial, are up in arms. Safeway is fighting back, with its latest effort a deceptive glossy promotional postcard mailed to all residents in a huge area around the store, complete with a sideways architect’s rendition of the proposed building that makes it seem much smaller than it will actually be. Recipients are directed to a website where they can record their approval of Safeway’s plans—but there’s no way to record disapproval, of course. 

Objections from neighbors aren’t just to the architectural design (enormous and ugly), but also to the concept. The proposed re-do will include a flock of retail storefronts obviously targeted to compete with the successful owner-operated retailers across College Avenue, most likely to be operated either by Safeway Inc. or by chains. It’s likely that some small stores will be swamped, which will, among other things, reduce Oakland’s sales tax revenues for the area in the long run. 

The heated discussion will next surface sometime in mid-June when the project’s draft EIR comes to the Oakland Planning Commission (the decision-making equivalent of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustment Board.) Opponents are marshalling their forces now, well aware that Safeway has big bucks and heavy-duty political clout to push its corporate scenario. AJE Partners, the PR engine headed by ex-Assemblymember Dion Aroner, is leading the charge, which practically guarantees the support of many apparatchiks in the urban East Bay Democratic organization. They’ve already successfully engineered a similar Safeway expansion plan for North Shattuck, and are working on the Solano version. 

The whole brouhaha is similar to one which has erupted in Blogsville Berkeley over the iconic Monterey Market’s recent push under new owners to reposition itself as North Berkeley’s one-stop gourmet mecca. This controversy was first reported in this space on May 4 by Gar Smith, and was subsequently picked up by Berkeleyside.com on May 16, where it has received a jaw-dropping 141 comments as of press time from locals passionate about food. And it’s gotten comments both tendentious and trivial on blogs, notably a mini-essay on samefacts.com entitled “A Good Deal vs. a Good Life” (which manages to bring in dogs as well) and a snarky reprint of the Berkeleyside article headed Vance Isn’t Sure if This Article is Sarcastic or Not on what seems to be a libertarian economics blog, which has garnered 84 comments, many questioning the fundamental principles of anti-trust law. 

There’s also been a spate of articles, first in the Albany Patch, then in the Chronicle, and finally on Berkeleyside, recording what is now obvious, that the small local Andronicos chain is enduring a capital crisis in this bad economy. Food foraging in all its manifestations is big, big news around here, it appears, but how to choose? 

In this deluge of opinionating, a few basics stand out. 

1) Some grocery stores are staffed by decently-paid unionized employees. (Safeway, Andronicos, Costco). Others have an anti-union record (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Berkeley Bowl). In small family-owned stores unions are not particularly relevant. Employees in union stores seem to be generally cheerful and competent. 

2) Big stores get their food from far away. Case in point: Trader Joe’s, where many if not most items come from China. A package of “haricots verts” (little string beans to non-Francophones) at TJ’s was labeled “Guatemala”. 

3) Smaller stores get some produce locally, other foods from distant places. E. G.: check the origin labels at Berkeley Bowl. 

4) Farmers’ markets (there’s one somewhere in the urban East Bay every day) are the place for local produce without pesticides, but if you “need” strawberries in January you’re out of luck. And the prices reflect the cost of living for California farmers, especially for those who pay their workers a living wage, like Swanton, where they’re represented by the UFW. 

5) What you pay for food and what you’re looking for is a function of where you are in life. 

In Ann Arbor with two babies we lived across the street from the Farmers’ Market and ate just-picked sweet corn and fresh tomatoes for breakfast in the summer. 

When we had three adolescents to feed at home in Berkeley, price was paramount, and we shopped a lot at Lucky’s and sometimes at Costco. 

The Co-op was an option for foreign foods, though the heavy dose of accompanying angst could give you indigestion. 

When the kids moved on, Andronicos was appealing despite slightly higher prices because we needed smaller quantities. Shopping there was restful when we were working hard in the high-tech world. 

Increased leisure in mid-life allows us to indulge in semi-recreational farmers’ market shopping for trendy vegis that need serious work (fava beans, kale, broccoli rabe). 

And despite swearing that we’d never stoop to buying the pre-cooked fancy fast food which is Trader Joe’s stock in trade (my gourmet daughter likens it to an upscale 7-11) it’s mighty tempting on busy days. 

Politics has always been part of the picture too. In Ann Arbor in the sixties we picketed the A&P because (impossible to believe now) they refused to hire African-American checkers. In the seventies in Berkeley we boycotted Safeway (yes, the one at College and Claremont) over Farmworkers’ Union lettuce and grapes. At the moment we find it difficult to shop at the Berkeley Bowl because of their recent union-busting record. We prefer organic food, not so much because it’s good for us (we’re too old for that to matter) but because it’s better for the farmworkers. (Avoid strawberries grown with methyl bromide.) 

And yes, taste matters too, but a reasonably creative cook should be able to put together a decent meal at a sensible cost with a minimum amount of work using food from almost any source—but don’t tell the foodies that. For those who worship at the shrine of iconic eats, the hunter/gatherer instinct is a central tenet of the faith, and they’ll brook no suggestion to the contrary.