The vegetable plate as status symbol

Twenty years ago last fall I made my first purchase at a farmer’s market. I was on my own, in my second week of graduate school, in a new state, a new region, with an empty stomach and an empty refrigerator. On a lark I rode my bicycle, not because I was young (though I was) and environmentally conscious (I wasn’t, particularly) but because I couldn’t afford to get my car fixed, to a market for which I’d seen a sign the previous weekend.

I found myself at a stand owned by a woman with a blonde braided ponytail, middle-aged (by which I mean about the age I am now), chattering cheerfully with customers she’d clearly known for years, idly rearranging the produce to keep it attractive and accessible. Comfortable, she seemed, and welcoming, but it wasn’t she that drew me. It was, rather, the array of peppers on the table: red, orange, yellow, and green; long and short; round and squat and pointed and oblong. I had never seen anything like them. Bell peppers I knew, and jalepeños, but this mad cornucopia of capsici baffled me. I might have asked which were hot or sweet and what their flavor, but I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t have kept track of it all anyway. So I pioneered the gleeful defense of the introverted gourmet, to which I’ve repaired almost continually in the decades since. I bought some of everything, with not a clue what I was going to do with them.

I couldn’t cook much at twenty-one, but I knew how to stir-fry. I stopped on the way home for a pork chop, washed my bounty in the sink, and began seeding and slicing. A shame, really, to disembowl such beauty, but poor hungry students can afford to admire their dinner only but so long. Oil in the wok, some rice on the back burner, and into the pan they went. The sizzle! The aroma! The burning in my eyes from the vein-smoke of what I learned only much later was a habañero! Oh, and a glorious meal it was, too, even if it took a fortnight before the nerves in the soft of my cheeks healed. Gorgeous even in death, those peppers, a feast both exotic and rooting.

And then the next week I went back to the supermarket. Why? Because I had no money. Frozen peas from the Green Giant I could afford; six kinds of peppers from a local farm, not so easily. Oh, I went to the farmers’ market now and then, and more frequently as time went by, but I held debates with myself about whether I could afford such luxuries as a fresh cantaloupe or an extra bunch of swiss chard. Not until I got a full-time job, eight years later, did I feel I could throw financial caution to the wind, buy whatever looked good and cook it up on a random Wednesday evening.

I never lacked for meat, even for decent quick-cooking cuts, and now, honestly, I could do without it most days. Vegetarian dinner makes me perfectly happy. But go without vegetables? A few nights of scrounging for carrot sticks and frozen peas leaves me feeling poor and deprived. Kale isn’t health food to me; kale is my status food.

Last week I suggested that the way to get kids to eat vegetables was to normalize them, to make eating fruits and vegetables so ordinary and everyday an experience that they don’t think to question it. But maybe a better strategy is to make fruits and vegetables into status foods—foods they want for social or cultural reasons but can’t always get. Given that fresh produce is more expensive than sugar and red meat, fruits and vegetables could be seen as status foods, and yet they’re not. It isn’t just that humans crave nutrient-dense foods for biological or evolutionary reasons; status foods vary widely from culture to culture, and from person to person—as my experience shows.

There are other reasons, I’m sure, why I see a plate full of vegetables as a bounty, not a sacrifice. My early memories of full plates all have to do with holidays. Ordinary dinners when I was a kid consisted of meat, starch, and a vegetable, the traditional American plate. If there were more than three things on the plate, it was probably a holiday, or at least a big family dinner, and if it wasn’t, I noted it. Variety itself makes a meal special. But seeing two kinds of starch doesn’t excite me as much as, say, greens and sweet potatoes, so there’s something else going on.

When I was young my parents grew a tiny garden behind our house. I don’t recall what it produced beyond peas, beets, and parsley, but I do remember eating beet greens and home-pickled beets and that the whole business was a kind of magic. The garden only lasted a few years and was only a token effort anyway; we mostly ate canned and frozen vegetables—but that only made the garden more tantalizing.

Then there was the restaurant in the town where I grew up. (We had only the one. And two stoplights.) When we ate there, which wasn’t often, I always ordered a salad from the salad bar, where I could get whatever I wanted. A nine year-old in 1980 did not have a lot of opportunities to pick out his own food, or even to spend his own money, and here were bins I could choose from, as much or as little as I liked, and nobody was going to tell me I had to eat this or couldn’t eat that. A well-stocked salad bar is still, to me, the embodiment of the American ideal of consumer choice.

I also have, by contrast, a vivid memory of deprivation. A brief and mild deprivation, but still: When I went to college, the vegetables available in the dining hall ranged from wan to horrifying. Every time I went home I told my mother I didn’t care what she made for dinner as long as it included fresh vegetables. Lightly steamed broccoli tasted better to me at that point than chocolate cake. (A friend resorted to eating twice-daily salads of iceberg and green pepper, remarking, rather dourly for an eighteen year-old, that it was the only way he could “stay regular.”)

I liked vegetables even as a toddler; I’ve always liked them, with a few exceptions, and so I may not be a good model for people who don’t. But my most vivid, formative memories of fresh vegetables are of gorgeous, tremendous, bounteous variety and of not always being able to have it. I think that has some broader applicability, even if it doesn’t translate directly to public policy: Rational self-interest seems to be a less effective motivator than watching other people buy beautiful stuff that you can’t afford. Maybe affordability isn’t the issue after all; maybe the real question is how to make the vegetable plate into a status symbol instead of the cheap option for dinner.