20 June, 2011

New York - food shopping

Travelling in America for the first time is like experiencing a walk-through guidebook that explains references from TV shows and movies. Not that I saw a Twinkie while I was there...I still don't know what that is. Or the joy of Pottery Barn. But I did have graham crackers sprinkled over a frozen yoghurt.

Seeing Whole Foods supermarkets put me in mind of Reality Bites: (Lelaina to Troy): 'Oh Troy, that'll never happen. They would never hire you at Whole Foods!'.

In general, I love visiting supermarkets overseas, and at least in this case everything was in English so I could actually read what all the products were. That didn't make the shopping experience any less surprising, however. The Whole Foods is an interesting beast - it promises sustainability and commitment to quality, local produce. Which is great, except that the place is enormous, with every department on a scale that seems entirely at odds with their professed philosophy.

America is full of contradictions like that. For a country battling massive obesity problems, they're incredibly open about what is in their foods, and quite calorie obsessed. Of course, there are two problems there: knowing what's in your food means nothing if you don't know what you should be avoiding, and calories are far from the most important thing to consider in ensuring you're eating healthily.

To give an inkling of the Whole Foods, here is merely their mushroom selection:Over a dozen types and, in the bottom left of the picture is their egg range - not just chicken, but quail and duck too.

Alongside a riotously colourful fresh produce section, complete with a map of local ingredients, they had pre-chopped vegies - both individual and mixed - available to buy by weight. Similarly, at the Granola Bar you could weigh out all your preferred muesli options to combine at home. The serve-and-weigh bars kept coming: salad, hot desserts, hot breakfast, They even had jars of egg white and pre-boiled eggs.

For the vegans, how about some Cluckphrey Chic-a-Roo chicken nuggets, that, of course, aren't chicken, although they manage to look and sound as scary as a McNugget!

The more-is-better theme so amply demonstrated by the mushrooms at Whole Foods continued in our food shopping. A place very high up on my to-go list was Eataly, Mario Batali's Italian food emporium. I knew it was big - Batali is a chef with an empire of 16 restaurants, bars and shops in at least three states - but I didn't know it was going to be massive. Think of the Mediterrenean Wholesalers, but bigger, flashier and full of tourists and Upper West Siders. Eataly has a coffee bar, confectionery section, meat counter, deli, pizza bar, fresh produce, a birreria, fresh pasta...even a manifesto.

Coming from a suburb where often the smallest and least showy cafes have the best reputation, it took some time to adjust to the city that came up with the Bigger is Better idea.
We also ate at Batali's flagship restaurant, Babbo. That was an experience filled with its own flamboyance. More on that to come...

We also sourced a meal from Chelsea Market. It's right next to the Highline, and a great way to spend a warm New York evening is to devour food from the former while people-watching on the latter. Our dinner came from Buon Italia, who served up Italian meals and cooked vegetables by weight. Note to travellers: remember that pounds and kilograms are not equivalent amounts! $14.99 a kilo is fine for slices of parmigiana, cooked mushrooms etc, but when it's actually $14.99 a pound that makes it $40 a kilo, which is getting into current banana-price territory :)

And one quick food-shopping find: Burdick Chocolate on East 20th St, just off 5th Avenue a few blocks down from Eataly, does these adorable individual chocolate penguins and mice. They come boxed singly, or in groups, and let's face it, are way too cute to eat!

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