The Key Food Across The Street

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The Key Food across the street is not a farmer’s market. The produce is wrapped in plastic; sometimes the lemons are moldy. The chickens are mostly Perdue, though I’m lucky they also carry Belle & Evans and D’Artagnan. The lines can be long, though self-checkout is helping. It’s hard to find a wagon inside; and once you go inside, it’s hard to get back outside when you realize there are no wagons to be had. But there are baskets, and that’s usually what I take.

I’m not going to lie: I love the Key Food across the street. I know that’s a guilty secret for a modern day food lover who reads Michael Pollan and has a desire for all peoples to support farmer’s markets, to reject the industrialization of food. But the Key Food is convenient; and, more than that, it’s a fascinating microcosm, a hodgepodge of personalities, a living experiment in class, gender and race. And they play GREAT music.

Seriously: it’s difficult not to sing along. Do you know Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum”? I didn’t know that that’s what that song was called, but I came home and typed the lyrics into Google and, once I discovered what it was, I downloaded it so I could blast it and sing along and pretend I’m still shopping at Key Food. Is it crazy that a major motivating factor in where I shop is the music they play?

I also take great pride in making extraordinary dinners from the ordinary ingredients I find at Key Food: canned beans, perfectly acceptable garlic and onions, tomato paste, canned tomatoes (so what if the San Marzano are really canned in New Jersey?), canned chilis in adobo. The olive oil selection is decent, the vinegar selection isn’t; the mustards are grainy or creamy, your choice. For cheese, I go elsewhere; for meat, I go elsewhere; for fish, oh Lord, I couldn’t even imagine TOUCHING one of those fillets they have wrapped in plastic in the back. And, of course, for the freshest produce, it’s the farmer’s market. And I do go to the farmer’s market and I enjoy it; but more often than not, it’s Key Food.

I go for the food, sure, but I also go for the people. The personalities! The Greek mustached owner, who stomps around and never looks happy; who jokes with his employees but also addresses them sternly. The woman who monitors the self-checkout who chased me out of the store one night, I didn’t know she was chasing me, and I was across the street and I heard a voice calling “sir! sir!” I finally turned around (I thought there must be another “sir”) and she said, “You forgot your deli meat.” She tried to pass me a package of deli meat. “I didn’t buy any deli meat,” I said as kindly as I could because it was a cold, drizzly night and she’d ran all the way. “Oh,” she laughed. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.”

Outside is a coin-operated motorcycle and helicopter that both play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Standing nearby is a guard; he too never looks happy, but neither would you if you had to hear “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” all day.

There’s a Coinstar machine inside and various vending machines; there’s a healthy amount of cooking equipment and cleaning equipment and a surprising amount of beer. Once I tried to buy a single bottle of beer out of a six-pack because it was for a recipe, and we weren’t drinking beer that night, but they wouldn’t let me.

Why am I telling you all this? I’m not trying to make the point that shopping at Key Food is superior to shopping at a farmer’s market or, for that matter, a high end grocery store with organic produce and non-synthetic cereals that are so healthy they come with their own self-inflating spas and nutritionists. I’m merely explaining away my own behavior; behavior, however, that is significant and important since the large majority of shoppers echo my behavior and they do so without self-consciousness; in fact, they do it with gratitude. Big grocery stores are a relief for most people; a relief and, strangely, a source of comfort. All the elements I describe–the music, the people, the gently rocking coin-operated motorcycle–have a power, an allure that may be significant in considering how to change the way Americans shop for food.

When I go to a farmer’s market, I am overwhelmed. On a nice day, I enjoy wandering around and admiring the multi-colored chard, the impossibly thick carrots, the stands bursting with flowers. But on a cold, windy day when I’m hungry? Or when I have only a few minutes to spare?

We can’t all be angels all the time. Even if we are angels, it’s difficult to find everything you need at a farmer’s market to make dinner. You can buy the broccoli rabe, but you still need the box of dried pasta to make it a meal, right? The red pepper flakes to add to add to the sizzling pan? The Parmesan to grate on top?

Perhaps the answer lies not in bringing the people to the farmers, but in bringing the farmers to the people? Maybe one day I’ll walk into the Key Food across the street and see a sign, a sign that I noticed at the fancier gourmet food store on Union Street above a basket of tomatoes: “LOCAL.”

Already, I see “Organic”; why shouldn’t “local” be next?

Either way, as long as they’re playing Linda Ronsdadt and The Beach Boys, as long as the Greek owner is pacing back and forth holding his walkie talkie, as long as my “deli meat” woman is there waiting for me at the self-checkout, I’ll be there. Call me crazy, call me uncultivated, call me a traitor to my cause but just don’t call me dispassionate: I love the Key Food across the street.

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