From Fetish Parties to Farmer’s Markets: On Graduating Into A Recession
by Caroline Contillo
Like many others who graduated from college after the financial crash of 2008, I had a hard time finding consistent work after I finished my degree. I was fortunate enough to have scholarships and stipends that met my financial needs while I was studying cultural anthropology at Hunter College, but when my internship at the Department of Environmental Conservation failed to turn into a job due to a statewide hiring freeze, my life became a little too chaotic to stick with the home-cooked vegan diet I had taken on while in school.
I was left to cobble together part-time work and supplementary gigs while eating whatever was available. In the years that followed, I was a personal assistant, a screening coordinator for a film production company, and an office coordinator for a non-profit. I filled in the gaps with one-off tasks I found on Craigslist: I worked the coat check at fetish parties, escorted women home from their plastic surgery appointments on the Upper East Side, babysat, dogsat, and cleaned out apartments belonging to hoarders. I did pretty much anything that could help me make rent while I tried to figure out what my next step was going to be.
Similarly, a well-planned vegetable-based diet that revolved around my class schedule was replaced by craft service findings, pizza, and any street food I could jam into my mouth between gigs.
I ended up at a farmers market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, through word of mouth. I had a roommate who worked for a vegetable farm upstate that sold at the Union Square and Williamsburg markets multiple times a week. She often came home with more greens and squash than she could use, so her haul became part of my meal-plan, which fluctuated week to week with my hunter-gatherer budget.
My new gig was selling pre-bunched cut flowers from a farm in New Jersey on Saturdays at the Williamsburg Greenmarket. The farmer’s son drove up Saturday morning and unloaded buckets of flowers, a tent, and a cash box for me and a man who was on unemployment and collecting extra cash for the child his wife was about to have. After helping us set up, the farmer’s son left us to conduct business. We sold seasonal flowers, including tulips, sunflowers, and Sweet Williams. The bouquets sold for a set price which we were left to determine and which often dropped as the day went on.
Since there was no inventory taken, we were able to save some bouquets for other folks who worked in the market. As long as we had around $1,000 to give to the farm owner’s son when he came to pick up the empty buckets, tables, and tent, we were good to go. We were paid between $80 — $100 for a 7 hour shift, and we ourselves could bring a bouquet home. If we sold out quickly, we could pack up earlier.
Even when we weren’t outright trading flowers for food, which we did do, market employees tended to give each other discounts. For lunch we grabbed a half-price baguette from the bakery stand, a misshapen cheese end from the dairy folks, and a free tomato, or an inexpensive tamale from a woman who walked around the park with a cooler. Towards closing time, sometimes we were allowed to pick through whatever greens, eggs, or apples were left, so I usually left not only with the cash I had made selling flowers, but enough groceries to last the week. The food was certainly healthier than what I would have purchased at the grocery store for an equivalent price, and I felt connected to the people who had produced it.
I stayed at the market about three years, until the farmer’s son quit and decided not to sell in Williamsburg anymore. At one point during my multi-year stint as a flower-slinger, I also worked at a nearby restaurant, during which time I became familiar with the extent of ‘foodie culture’ in artisanal-everything Brooklyn.
Whereas the greenmarket had been focused on process and relationships, the fetishization of food in restaurant culture was much more interested in the Instagram-ready product. This is in no way a dig at people who enjoy eating out at restaurants, or chefs who work with locally-sourced ingredients and vintage cooking methods. But the feeling you get from drinking out of a mason jar at a restaurant is not the same as using a mason jar to can the pickled string beans you took the time to make — though purveyors of expensive mason jar accessories are relying on your desire for that feeling, not your practice of making preserves.
At around the same time, I went to see author Rebecca Solnit speak about civil society at Columbia University. I had enjoyed her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and was interested in what she had to say about the relationship of moving through public space to the idea of civic engagement. One of the most interesting and important aspects of Occupy Wall Street, she said, was its encampment in a park. People were out from behind their laptops and devices, talking face to face and exchanging ideas in the serendipitous fashion that can only happen in person.
Being face to face changes our relationship to each other and to knowledge, in much the same way the temporary encampment of the farmers market changes our relationship to our food (and flowers). While wandering around the market during my lunch break, I might give a bouquet of flowers to a market worker who forgot about his wife’s birthday that evening, and he might choose to give me in return something I had never considered cooking with before, like a watermelon radish. Even without the privilege of flowers to barter with, I might be prodded by a farmer to try tatsoi when it’s in season. This is a much different relationship to food than ordering exactly what I know I already want on Freshdirect.
Solnit also talks about how the true price of a tomato grown in your own back yard is something like $86 per, hardly worth it if you are looking at value only in terms of efficiency, convenience and profitability. But growing your own food, and engaging with the greenmarket, necessitates a different set of values. If you look through a lens of slowness and allow yourself to be surprised, what seemed like a very expensive tomato could instead be a delicious possibility.
Of course, not everyone has the economic advantage of looking at it that way. For many, low price and rapid delivery have to be the objective to survive. I became interested in food justice activism as a result of working at the market and realizing that a lazy stroll through the market wasn’t accessible to everyone, even with the program that makes it possible for people to use SNAP (food stamp) benefits at the greenmarket. There seemed to be this tacit assumption that poorer people simply weren’t interested in local food. I realized that in order to have any meaningful impact on how people eat and subsequently how food is produced, food activists were going to be forced to reckon with an economic system that values efficiency, rapidity, and low cost for high profit.
Personal choice still matters: more people choosing, when they can, to shop locally and pay a little more when they can to do so, changes the way the market caters to customers and how food is produced. But the economic policies that create the conditions wherein feeding yourself and your family in a healthy way is a timely and expensive proposition were designed by humans, and were never inevitable.
After my stint with the flower farmstand ended, I tried to find another way to maintain this new relationship to attaining and enjoying food. I interviewed for an unpaid internship at a popular Brooklyn pizzeria that grew much of their own produce on their rooftop farm. When I asked if I would be able to take home any greens as compensation for the eight-hour shifts which were to be performed a mandatory four days per week, I was told that while I wouldn’t get any vegetables, I would be allowed one pizza per shift. I declined the offer.
It was an economy where ‘unpaid internship’ meant free labor for an already profitable restaurant. I’m not sure exactly what made the business think that taking on unpaid day laborers was at all ethical, but when the language of commerce and its emphasis on profitability permeates all aspects of our lives, it’s easy to see how someone might have drafted the Craigslist post. I waited tables instead, and my diet started to consist almost entirely of comfort food shift meals, another turn in my relationship to attaining and relating to food. This time, food hit an emotional nerve. I had nothing to do with sourcing it, or preparing it, but I shoveled it into my face after a hard shift like it was my last meal every time.
In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber dispels the myth that money was invented because the pre-existing barter system was too complicated. Money was able to close a deal. If the exchange of goods and services was never one to one, then an ongoing relationship was established. Using money, instead of trading an item that was irregular in value, was a way to end this relationship.
If I give you a bouquet of flowers and you give me a very large jar of raw honey worth thrice the amount, I’ll likely give you more flowers next week, and maybe even some extra apples I traded for from the orchard folks. But paying an exact amount of money for the product severs any such relationship. Of course, it would be untenable to conduct our lives with as many open-ended relationships as our current market necessitates — imagine applying this logic to Amazon! — but it was interesting to experience this web of interdependent relationships vividly in the microcosm of the farmers market.
In science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay on utopias, “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” the author argues that if a utopia can ever exist, it already does in bits and moments. As Western consumer culture moves towards an interest in the local and the heritage, maybe the greenmarket is just such a phenomenon. The soft margins of profit, blurry inventories and open-ended relationships wouldn’t be sustainable as a permanent institution, but the greenmarket’s temporary, recurrent basis is what makes this orientation towards slowness, softness, and immediate workable. And maybe the emphasis on process and relationship is what feels so different about entering into the greenmarket than shopping at a supermarket, or the restaurant-obsessed food hobbyist’s orientation towards product and presentation.
My intent here isn’t to shame anyone about their relationship to food and paying for food, I know for many of us there is already so much shame attached to eating. I’m interested instead in what the different possibilities are, some of them existing on a weekly basis in a park near you.
This story is part of our food month series.
Queens resident Caroline Contillo is a community manager by day and a meditation instructor on nights and weekends. You can find her stream of consciousness on Twitter at @spacecrone, and her occasional movie reviews at spacecrone.com.
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