Withering On The Vine Farmers’ Markets, Anxiety, and Radical Praxis

withering

I have trouble not feeling guilty for things that I want.

When I was younger this meant I went in hard for the “ethical consumption” thing. As I got older, I learned that while I can do things that would reduce harm on one vector or another, there are no ethical choices in capitalism; there’s not a lot I can do that wouldn’t mark me as complicit in this massive socioeconomic machine that kills the poor and ravages the planet.

But harm reduction still matters, and I try to hew to that.

I don’t like summer. I used to love it when I was a kid — for obvious reasons — but I hate it as an adult. I’m a frost giant and even temperatures in the 80s make me miserable. But I do love late July and August for one reason and one reason only: tomatoes.

I love tomatoes. A lot. Like, a lot. I love the taste, I love the texture, and I love their versatility. I used to hate them as a kid but then I had some caprese saladwith some variety of heirloom tomato — a friend made it, I didn’t want to be rude — and I did a 180.

I like heirlooms (even though I know they’re not as cool as they’re made out to be) but I’m down with conventionally grown varieties too. But I really like tomatoes in late July and August because that’s when they come into season.

I talked to a couple friends and got them excited enough to humor me on a trip to a farmers’ market. I wanted to hang out with some friends I hadn’t seen in awhile, but also, tomatoes. I wanted it to just be a casual thing, but I floated a date almost a month in advance and made a Facebook event, so I guess it wasn’t that casual for m

I got my ass out of bed at 9am on a Sunday and made my way to the Red Line for Glenwood Sunday Market. It’s in Rogers Park, a neighborhood undergoing gentrification but not at as feverish a pace as other communities on the North and West Sides of Chicago. The neighborhood is still very diverse along racial and class lines, it has deep ties to radical left-wing politics, and it boasts a burgeoning queer and trans community. The market runs along a block of cobblestone street next to a viaduct propping up the Red Line, past aging murals and newer gastropubs and the ghost of the old No Exit Cafe. Decades-old trees shade the entire street, making an 85° morning just about bearable. Every fifth shopper brought a dog; to be clear, seeing just one dog is enough to make my whole day.

It was, by most measures, a wonderful day.

And yet.

There was this itch in the back of my mind telling me that I was part of the problem by playing this particular game.

Because I know that farmers’ markets can be used as socioeconomic weapons. I know how they can reinforce class divisions and prop up whiteness. I know how they can be deployed as artillery fire in gentrification. But mostly, I was all too aware that the farmers’ market was another example of an artifact of human life from the Beforetime, like artisinal craftwork and physical media, that has been repackaged as trendy and sold to hipsters like me at a markup.

There are no ethical choices in capitalism and I’m always complicit. But there was something about going to that farmers’ market that made me very self-conscious of that fact, in a way that I suppose I tend to gloss over.

I also know that farmers’ markets aren’t categorically used as tools to reinforce a privileged social hegemony. Certainly not on a global scale, outside of the West, where what is for me a fun weekend outing is just going to get groceriesfor someone on the other side of the planet. And even here in the US, I know that farmers’ markets can be sites of resistance. Like with Phat Beets in North Oakland, California, whose central mission is connecting food justice with anti-racism. Or with the 61st St. Market on the South Side, founded specifically with the goal of building up underserved communities in mind. Farmers’ markets aren’t just pilot fish for gentrifiers. I know this.

But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was making the world worse by being there.

And I still feel guilty a couple weeks later, even though I also had such a wonderful time out. Truth be told, I needed that day. I had been cooped up inside for most of the past few months recovering from a serious illness and I wanted to catch a little bit of the summer before it went away. I really hadn’t hung out with this group of friends in way too long and it warmed my heart to see them again. (I overheard them talking about me when I was off ogling blueberries and noticed they were using my recently-adopted pronouns. I was surprised at how good that made me feel.) I spent an hour wandering down a cobblestone street talking with friends and getting some sun and smelling fresh produce and petting dogs. It was, truth be told, one of the best days I’ve had all year.

And I came home with so much good food at such a fair price. I bought a quart of Michigan peaches that were maybe the best I’ve ever had. I bought those blueberries and put them on my cereal for a week. I bought a French baguette. I bought a jar of heirloom tomato salsa; it cost $8, and I didn’t care, because it was sublime.

And I bought a pint of sun gold tomatoes.

It was such a simple thing, going to a street market in my community and buying some fresh produce that helped feed my household for most of a week. And I wish I could’ve just enjoyed that without feeling like I was contributing to gentrification or reinforcing white supremacy.

There are no ethical choices in capitalism, I know.

As I get older I feel more and more like the things that can give us joy and meaning in life are being co-opted and used against us. Maybe I just take it more personally when it comes to the really simple things like buying food and taking a nice walk with friends. And maybe I’m a bit anxious; worrying whether I’ll always have these simple (if fraught) things available as an option in my later years, or if climate change or the impending Trumpocalypse will do away with the last few inches we have left.

But for a week, I had tomatoes, and apologized to no one.

BWHair4James Bridget Gordon is a writer and artist living in Chicago. They write about art, sports, queer politics, and pop culture. They’re a regular contributor for Paste Magazine and have bylines at The Toast and Unusual Efforts, among others. They’re easily distracted by pizza and dogs. You can find them on Twitter at @thaumatropia or on the web.

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