I was thinking about government regulations and the pleasures of fresh food when I recently bought some crisp fall apples, the first of the season. I couldn’t resist biting into one right there at the farm stand—what bliss! The next morning, NPR delivered an alarmist report on the bacteria lurking in produce, especially at the stem and blossom ends of fruit. Cook’s Illustrated had carried out one of its famously thorough tests, this time to discover the best method to rid produce of germs. The testers discovered that spraying vegetables or fruit with a dilute vinegar solution and then rinsing with cold water destroys 98 percent of the bacteria. How many germs did I ingest in the apple I had failed even to wash?
I suppose that for an epidemiologist, an antiseptic world really does represent progress. Chicago in 1908 passed the first compulsory pasteurization law in the United States, and there’s no denying that with pasteurization, the incidence of illness from poorly handled milk greatly diminished. However, the heating process necessary to kill the bacteria also killed the taste of the milk. From our twenty-first-century perspective, the value of such sweeping public-health measures appears ambiguous.
Unfortunately, the better-sanitary-than-sorry rationale is now taking hold in the new Russia. On a recent visit to Moscow I discovered that the city’s lively farmers’ markets, once bright spots on the dull Soviet landscape with their homemade cheeses and pickles and colorful produce, are disappearing one by one as a new order of markets—supermarkets and “hypermarkets”—takes over. The farmers’ markets were, admittedly, not paragons of cleanliness. Flies buzzed around the counters where slabs of raw meat sat for hours without refrigeration. Batches of homemade cottage cheese were similarly exposed to the open air, no doubt picking up microbes by the minute. Freshly picked mushrooms, still thick with woodland debris, rose up in dirty, yet endlessly alluring, mounds. Add to this the rudimentary packing after purchase—even meat was simply wrapped in old newspaper for transport home—and the number of germs was surely astonishing. It was an epidemiologist’s nightmare, a litigator’s dream. And yet for all its blemishes, the food was real. Antonov apples from Riazan, honey from the Altai, feijoa from Georgia—all were connected to the earth and to the people who had produced them. Their flavors were intense.
I miss the sawdust-covered floors of the farmers’ markets, the banter with purveyors, and, of course, the unpretentious, imperfect, delicious food.
After seventy years of long lines and paltry offerings, the Russians undoubtedly deserve to have self-service supermarkets with extraordinary products. They are still not used to such convenience and bounty. Tellingly, the names of several prominent chains reflect the sense that they belong to some otherworldly realm: El Dorado, Sadko (a mythical merchant in Russian folk tales), Seventh Continent. The most recent entrant onto the scene is Globus Gourmet, introduced by the restaurant mogul Arkady Novikov. Here, the promotional literature boasts, the “journey” is as much about “creating a mood” as it is about buying food.
Even at the most high-end stores, produce is now packaged in plastic-wrapped trays—which gives the illusion of hygiene but in fact distances shoppers from the food (not to mention the environmental waste it incurs). Is this emulation of Western-style markets merely the latest stage of dialectical materialism, which demands that society abandon the local—the imperfect and chaotic—in favor of the global, that which appears to be perfect and contained? Must a society pass through this phase in order to prize the local and imperfect once again, as we in the West are only now beginning to do? What would Karl Marx have to say about fresh food versus sanitary conditions?
Though I appreciate the convenience of the new Russian stores and all that they represent, I miss the sawdust-covered floors of the farmers’ markets, the banter with purveyors, and, of course, the unpretentious, imperfect, delicious food. Most of all I miss the opportunity to live a little dangerously. If progress means having to wash our fruits and vegetables in vinegar before eating them, I’d rather take the risk.