In a recent New Yorker, a brief item by a favorite writer, Adam Gopnik, caught my eye. He was musing about the shops at Columbus Circle, an urban mall that boasts not only a handful of celebrity restaurants, but also a grand new Whole Foods market. While many New Yorkers may rue the appearance of yet another corporate chain, Whole Foods is not unlike the large, central supermarkets that major European department stores have long provided. Stockholmers regularly do their grocery shopping in the basement of Åhlens, Strasbourg residents stock up on goodies from the food hall at Galeries Lafayette, Spaniards in Barcelona and Madrid flock to El Corte Ingles. And who can visit London without at least gazing at the lavish food displays in Harrod’s? Gopnik noted a change that has taken place in American consumer habits: Where we once placed our faith in so-called durable goods—furniture and appliances—we are now purchasing evanescent goods, “things to cook and things to cook with.” This shift represents a change in national mood. The once sturdy future now looks shaky, so we have chosen to place more of our faith in the moment.
This may well be true. But is living for the moment necessarily bad for those of us who were brought up to save for a rainy day? The puritanical legacy in America runs deep. For too long we have been told that because as a nation we spend a far smaller percentage of our income on food than most other people, we’re better off. Yet such penny-pinching comes at a high price. We’ve settled for food that is cheap to produce but often of questionable quality. We haven’t been brought up to revel in vine-ripened strawberries, hand-raised meats, or lovingly stirred jams, and until quite recently American supermarkets have shown little regard for either aesthetics or taste. For all of its corporate savvy, New York’s new Whole Foods market at least recognizes the inherent pleasure of contemplating fish glistening on ice, of produce that rivals the scarf counter at Saks. Such displays make us take notice. We stop to savor the moment, to contemplate the vigor of vegetables, the sensuality of sausage. Even if we end up spending more money on food—only for it to disappear into our stomachs—this desire to capture the evanescent is a good thing, despite the larger insecurity it may represent.
Every day, food does a miraculous vanishing act, but, in fact, food is far more durable than the goods to which that epithet it usually applied (and not only in terms of the extra inches it can put on the body). Food’s sustaining power also lies in its ability to cement friendships, to enable reconciliation, to excite romance. Where would human society be without shared sustenance? Importantly, food can be a corrective to our collective ills, and if we are sharing the best food available, no matter how simple, then the pleasure of the moment is increased many fold.
I was thinking about such transitory pleasures at a recent dinner with friends. There were ten of us around the table; we’d all been asked to bring a bottle of wine that carried a story, preferably a bottle that had been languishing in our cellars, something squirreled away for sentimental reasons and then forgotten. My husband and I chose a bottle of Pesquera Reserva—not the actual bottle with story attached, but one that reminded us of an evening some years earlier. Newly arrived in Barcelona, we were eager to begin our gastronomic adventures despite the stupor of jetlag and the ten o’clock Spanish dinner hour. At a local marisqueria I was thrilled to see on the wine list a 1991 Vega Sicilia Unico, one of the great wines of the Ribera del Duero. I’d long dreamed of tasting this vintage but could never quite justify the cost. And here it was, at bargain-basement prices! I promptly ordered the wine, which was indeed fabulous. But our exhaustion got the better of us, and we were unable to finish the bottle. When the bill arrived, my husband puzzled over it for a long time. Finally he looked up, smiled, and promised that this little math mistake would be our secret. The bargain had turned out not to be such a bargain after all. In my fuzzy state (or through subliminal desire) I had skipped a zero in my currency conversion. We stared at the wine remaining in the bottle. At that price how could we waste it? But we were full, and happy, and at that moment we recognized that evanescence is all right. We’d had our brief moment of vinous pleasure and did not need to draw it out. Getting our money’s worth was never the point.
Will I shop at Whole Foods the next time I’m in New York? I haven’t decided yet, though I know I’ll go in to gaze. For now, I’m just glad that Americans are recognizing that the pleasures of the moment can lead to things that are sustained, both in the body and in the soul.