Dinner at Whole Foods

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I met my grandparents for dinner last night at the Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center. My grandparents are here in the city for the next week, and choosing a place to eat can be a bit tricky. Once I took my grandmother to The City Bakery for lunch, and when she saw the price tag–$13 a pound for the salad bar–she nearly fainted. But my grandmother does like salad bars, as does my grandfather–it affords them choices and control–and so a good option for them both is Whole Foods.

They’d been to this Whole Foods before. Last time they visited New York, they stayed in my Chelsea apartment (I used to live in Chelsea) and took the bus up there on a regular basis. So that’s why Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center was the perfect place to meet them, last night, for dinner.

Apparently, other people had the same idea. The place was an absolute madhouse. The line was so long to check out that Whole Foods employs a man to hold a sign that says “End of Line Here”:

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My grandmother insisted on saving a table while grandpa and I went to get our food. I knew this would throw our dinner off-kilter—if grandpa and I got our food first, then when we sat at the table we’d have to wait forever for grandma to get hers before we could eat–but I didn’t press my point.

Unlike City Bakery, the Whole Foods salad bar is indeed reasonably priced: $7.99 for a pound of food.

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$8 for a pound of food, compared to, say, $5 for a value meal with soda and fries might not appeal to the average American, but when you consider the food you’re getting it’s quite a bargain. Here’s the plate I made for myself:

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On the lower left you’ll see some kind of grains and next to that some kind of grains and oh chickpeas and at the top left orzo and then a seafood salad. So, ok, it’s not the sexiest plate of food ever devised–in fact, it smacks of hippies and health and holistic medicine, but consider the alternative. Would you rather be stuffing barrelfuls of greasy french fries into your face and washing it down with soda? You would? SO WOULD I!!

I mean, seriously. This dinner at Whole Foods was a bit punishing. There was no joy in it, no pleasure. The salads were so slightly dressed, they tasted like a doctor prescribed them. And even the stuff that should’ve tasted great–seafood salad, for example–didn’t taste that great.

But it’s good for you, right? And not too expensive? And lots of variety?

Thank goodness this Whole Foods is located where it is. After grandma came back and finished her plate, I dragged my grandparents two flights up to recover some of my hedonistic dignity at the Bouchon Bakery where I insisted we all share a chocolate chip cookie.

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It was like my soul rushed back into my chest: I wanted to dance a happy jig.

Which is all to say that, I like healthy food as much as the next guy–I do, really–but my criteria for healthy food is different than the criteria Whole Foods uses on its salad bar. My criteria is that if you’re going to serve something healthy, the flavors have to be so big and elaborate, you don’t realize it’s healthy. See for example, my friend Heidi’s Otsu recipe (or all of her recipes, actually) or the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe for Wheatberry salad.

Those recipes are bad-ass–they hit you over the head with their sweetness, saltiness and spice–but the salads on the Whole Foods salad bar just pat you on the head lightly, then they check your head for lice. They’re the school nurse of salads–boring, embittered, still a virgin–and they make me mad.

But in a crunch, I suppose it’s nice to know that Whole Foods does have decent food to eat for dinner. It’s a nice alternative to food that’ll kill you, so for that I will give it credit. Maybe that should be their new slogan: “Our salads may not taste great, but they won’t kill you!”

Will America go for it? I have a feeling, for most Americans–including myself–a bowl of death might be slightly more appealing than a bowl of poorly dressed grains. Sorry, Whole Foods.

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