Regular readers of this blog know that we express our opinions with a reasonably ruthless honesty. If we like something, we are more than happy to sing its praises. But if something unfashionably crosses our critical gaze, we’ll also tear into it with great relish.
I think we’re always fair, but we do have opinions, something at odds with the “say something nice or don’t say anything at all” crowd. We try to back up said opinions with facts — and articulate them in a way that you can relate to. And while we know that we come from a set of particular perspectives that perhaps most people in our city don’t share, we also do our best to go into situations with an open mind.
All of which is a
sort of meaningless preface to our review of Montgomery’s new grocery store. It feels necessary because we went there expecting to hate it. And we loved it.
Why would we expect to hate a grocery store? Well, for starters, it is in a part of town that we have dubbed “The Hellscape.” This is the part of town that you might call “the east side.” It is comprised entirely of sprawl, driven by environmental disregard for beautiful country farmland that once surrounded Montgomery, fueled by racism and a fear of city life. It is a land of McMansions and facially race-neutral explanations involving school districts and land values, a realm of soul-crushing big box stores and mono-cultural consumerism, big churches and people clinging to their gas-guzzling SUVs as if they were lifelines. You know the place, even if you’ve never been there. It’s evil.
And yet, as health-conscious vegetarians, quasi-foodies who shun the label, we couldn’t resist the allure of a new grocery store devoted to things we revere: locally grown grown produce, organic foods, fresh bread, succulent fake meats. We figured we’d go, take some pics, and then come home and rip the place for being over-priced and full of yoga-pants-wearing bourgeois soccer moms beaming self-satisfaction and stocking up on quacky new age medical cures.
But even if there are a handful of walking stereotypes in the new Earth Fare, the bottom line is that this store is amazing. The only negative thoughts (other than the ad hom cheap shots added for humor value) we really could muster was a sort of profound sadness that this grocery store is so far away from our house.
We just posted a lament about how downtown re-development has been hindered by a lack of a grocery store. And there’s an entire blog’s worth of posts to be written about the starvation and malnutrition being inflicted on the parts of Montgomery that qualify as “food deserts.” (see also here for a look at another major Alabama urban center dealing with this disgraceful phenomenon).
So perhaps we can be forgiven for celebrating the arrival of a health-themed grocery store in a state that has some of the least-healthy children in the nation.
But really, it’s not about how this amazing grocery store serves the greater needs of a state that seems allergic to being healthy. Nope. Our sense of consumer desire, our urges grounded in food-buying lust … that’s selfish. And we’re at least somewhat OK with that.
We follow the organic food industry with all of the righteous zeal of modern
crusaders consumers . We try to buy from corporations that behave in ways we approve of. And we track the boardroom political debates as best we can. Check out this blast from the Organic Consumers Association regarding the reprehensible Monsanto — and then check this (also persuasive) reply from Stonyfield Farms.
And Earth Fare has got what we need.
There’s an entire post to be written about the awful Fresh Market, which is out on the Boulevard. But whatever acid-tipped daggers we had for that overpriced joke of a grocery store were rendered wholly unnecessary by the opening of Earth Fare, which ought to drive Fresh Market out of business within a year.
In the words of one of the total strangers emerging smiling from Earth Fare last week, “Now, tell me again why we’d ever go to Fresh Market again?”
So … what makes it so great? (“Finally,” you grumble to yourself, “the review part of the review …”
It’s not the fruits and vegetables. Sure, there are good deals to be had there (niche items like Meyer lemons and the only organic oranges and lemons in town — besides the ones at
sinking ship Fresh Market), but in general you’re going to get a better overall value and selection at the Winn-Dixie or Publix. We might be shrugging it off more than most because we already get local and organic produce from our magnificent CSA share (spring shares may be available, get yourself to the Red Root Farm Facebook page).
The bulk food section is good. It’s better than Healthwise (though theirs is good too, this one has more stuff and also has bulk spices). It’s a little spendy, of course. We got organic tri-color quinoa ($5.99/lb) and organic pinto beans ($2.49/lb). The beans have a date with the New Mexico green chile we peeled and brought home in freezer bags this summer. (Note to Montgomery grocery purveyors: whoever starts stocking Hatch in the freezer case will win my eternal patronage.) There’s an unbelievable amount of bulk and pre-bagged coffee. It smelled amazing. It was expensive, but it smelled amazing. Next time. The coffee and bulk foods are next to a kind of specialty imported foods rack with the ultimate Stuff White People Like rows of specialty salts and delicious looking imported anchovies that we did not buy but wanted to melt into a pasta sauce.
There is a really big personal care products section with all the quasi-obscure soaps and lotions you might care to purchase. Some of this stuff is hard to get around here – I noted the selection for future trips, thinking it might end up saving me shipping on inevitable online orders. Also there are rows and rows and rows of vitamins and “herbal treatments.” Seemed like Healthwise had that part of the market all locked up, but I’d be surprised if the vitamin-and-cleanse crowd decided to shift its loyalties just because organic olives can now be purchased at the same time as flaxseed oil and protein powder.
The fake meat divisions were a big hit with us. We don’t need you getting all preachy with us about the need to get away from meat substitutes, or talking about dioxin, or just trying to convince us that there’s nothing wrong with inflicting suffering on sentient beings so you can consume their flesh with a light dusting of truffle powder. When you don’t eat meat, you (may) miss its texture. This doesn’t mean you want to eat Tofurkey (really, nobody should). But it does mean that sometimes you just want to buy packaged seitan rather than always making your own, that veggie dogs can be delicious, and that Publix doesn’t have to have the tempeh market cornered. Earth Fare had all that and also a bunch of weird stuff in the freezer case. We’re gonna keep making our own seitan, but it’s nice to know we can get packaged foods like the rest of the bourgoise.
There’s an olive bar, of course. The thing about olive bars is that you can’t tell until you’ve tasted the stuff. The one item we got was really good, but we’ve only tried that. More sampling required.
The cheese selection was lavish, what you’d expect, really, and is by far the most exotic and well-curated in town. We’re merely amateur turophiles, but we felt confident that their vast (and expensive) collection of cheese contained many gems.
The deli looked great. One of us was sort of overcome by all the vegetarian food in the deli, and wanted to try/buy it all. Fortunately, she was prevented from emptying our bank account into various kale-soy concoctions by the hordes of dimwitted idiots mobbing the understaffed counter. These are the people who have tons of time to study the menu and look in the case and still get to the counter with a “hmm, let’s see. I think I might like to have…” So we opted out. We couldn’t escape the desserts, of course we couldn’t, with our well-documented sweet tooths – the kindly man pushing apple pie samples ended up selling us single serve treats instead (good, not great). We also got bagels. Needed salt. And onions. For “everything” bagels they were curiously nihilistic. But still, they had bagels! Can’t get fresh baked bagels at Publix or Winn-Dixie. At least not in our neighborhood. Depressing.
Of course by the time we got to the register we’d already spent way too much money. An avocado here and a salad dressing there meant it was pretty easy to rationalize the seasonal sixer of Sierra Nevada at the register. Sigh. A trip to observe and sample ended up as a triple digit expense. Ouch.
Still, we’re glad the store is there. It exploded our expectations and we’ll likely be back. Yet, all of the above commentary about sprawl and the abandonment of Montgomery remains spot on. We’re glad Montgomery has a top notch store in Earth Fare. But when Trader Joe’s comes to town, can they please find some way to build it on the Boulevard?