Look, I’m not one of those, shall we say, motivated or excitable type who would go whole hog (yes, pun intended) vegetarianism, health foods, veganism, or god screw me…fruitarianism. I worked in a natural food store for several years, selling vitamins and supplements and all that, but despite this, never really got on the organic bandwagon by any long stretch.

Generally, when I’m in a grocery store, my preference is for ‘natural’ ingredients with as little processing as possible. As a grossly simple example, for least processing, you can look at a head of lettuce. It’s grown, its cut, its transported. Look, then, at corn flakes. You start with corn (presumably) and then its dried, flaked, heated, and crisped and extruded into ‘flakes’, put into a bag, placed in a box, and sealed shut with glue.

I agree that even the simple lettuce will have ‘issues’; was it sprayed with pesticides? Was it frozen in transit? Did it come from Chile instead of a field in Monterey? Were the farm workers paid a decent wage? I’m not saying that these aren’t valid questions or concerns–don’t get me wrong, but at the beginning of the day, do I really have the time to consider all these questions when making my purchase? And don’t even get me started on PETA and their concerns about cruelty-free killing environments etc! Not that I don’t have sympathy for their cause, but for me it kinda boils down to some really simple criteria:

~ money ($$)

I have to feed myself and my wife and occasionally dinner guests, and even though its generally just the two of us, I still have a budget. Organic doesn’t fit into that very often, whether Pablo is being paid $8 or $12/hour for picking my produce in the fields is far from my mind. Pesticides? Well, yeah…a bit, but I’m not sure that spending $5 for organic strawberries versus $1.89 for commercial is in the cards(even though I know that strawberries are among the most sprayed of all fruits out there).

Over the last few years as I’ve shopped at as diverse of places as Berkeley Bowl, Whole Paycheck, Safeway, Grocery Outlet, Trader Joe’s, and my local ethnic supermarkets, I’ve found out a few little facts, most are based on my direct experience:
1) meats are cheaper and the quality is relatively equal at my local Hispanic of ethnic markets
2) frozen fish in boxes (mussels, etc) is usually crap quality compared to fresh. Most frozen fish pieces available at TJ’s are decent in quality and are a good price. Mussels, as I’ve said, are rather flavorless. Fillets are fine–and cheaper.
3) produce selection at Berkeley Bowl is best and the prices reasonable.
4) eggs, butter, and dairy milk are cheaper at Hispanic markets like Mi Tierra; also if looking for the basics of produce at Mi Tierra, potatoes, onions are cheaper, as well, but not enough to warrant a trip there for them alone.
5) TJ is great for cheap wine–though its hit or miss on their ‘two buck chuck’ varieties.

~quality
This is relative. My experience is that organic and commercial produce, in terms of quality, is difficult to distinguish. To some extent, Berkeley produce when it comes to commercial, seems to be pretty good. I recently found myself buying garlic in the organic section because, to me, the quality of the cloves (size, weight) was preferable. I recognize that organic or pesticide-free is healthier for our bodies…but I have a budget, and simply hope that buying fresh rather than overly processed boxes of food-things will do us better in the long run.

So, at best, I admit to being a proselytizer for fresh, homemade, DIY cooking. That’s as far as I can take it. I was at Koreana Plaza this morning at 8am gathering ingredients for a Sunday dinner of Korean bibimbap and was looking for fresh soybeans when I saw a jar of the actual dish I was seeking out there on the shelf. Cheaper on its own than just the soybeans themselves. Huh. I was briefly tempted, but then…my satisfaction comes from making these things on my own, from scratch, putting together the requisite ingredients, knowing that I know what is inside the dish, rather than all those food terms like ‘partially hydrogenated’ or ‘mononucleic acid’ seen on the jar’s ingredients label.

My food is as honest as I can make it, within the parameters set out above. As a final note, I bought myself some more sesame oil today, and happened upon this article about a new book recently put out all about the worlds of processed foods, including such staples as…sesame oil, and how its made, processed, etc. Nasty!

Go here to read about Pandora’s LunchBox. It may change my mind about a lot of what I’ve just written above, though I don’t think it will allow me the wherewithal to go and press out my own sesame seed oil.

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