Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

APRIL 1997


Up from Potatoes
By "Guido Veloce"

I am fascinated by the way pop psychology reduces human diversity to two categories: I am type X, you are type Y; I'm OK, you're not. Of course, there are only two types of people. It is just that previous dividing lines are wrong. I'm convinced that the thing that really separates people is vegetables. Someone with credentials in psychology and marketing could develop this insight into a best-seller. For now, I want to suggest that despite superficial things that divide us (like race, gender, religion, ethnicity, money, culture, politics, and marriage) vegetable preferences are what matter. We are either Weirds or Simples.

Weirds care what is in season. They favor fresh over canned, frozen, or (abomination of abominations) instant. They like items that crunch and will try anything their parents refused to put on the table. Simples think potatoes are the primary food group, regard eating anything beyond iceberg lettuce as grazing, and mistrust vegetables beginning with the letter a. They prefer packages to peeling, and boil vegetables beyond recognition. Here is how this fundamental truth came to me.

Long ago I belonged to a vegetable cooperative. Most members fit the Yuppie stereotype (young, upwardly mobile urban professionals with Swedish automobiles). In truth, because we were academics, we were all flatwardly mobile. What broke the co-op apart was not the stupidity of what we were doing (delegating two members to arise at an ungodly hour, purchase crates of fruits and vegetables, and spend the rest of Saturday morning weighing and measuring them). No, we split irreconcilably into Weirds and Simples.

When a Weird and a Simple shopped together, compromise prevailed. But it was hell when two Weirds or two Simples went out shopping together. The latter came back with enough potatoes to have prevented the Great Famine, and, in a daring mood, pushed the envelope with cabbage. Weirds came back with bok choy, passion fruit, and arugula. Each side dismissed the other. Weirds disdained Simples as provincial. Simples accused Weirds of confusing humans with the beasts of the field. In the end, sanity and supermarkets prevailed, which brings me to recent events.

Our part of Baltimore is in the midst of a new vegetable war. The first shot came a few years ago, when a major supermarket chain opened a store featuring organic produce, along with items seldom seen outside of ethnic groceries. Weird/Simple conflict inevitably followed. As a Weird shopping there, I frequently heard, "Are you really going to eat that?" usually from a clerk. In stocking the store, the chain searched the corners of the earth; in hiring, it looked to a nearby, meat-and-potatoes neighborhood. For people there, "rutabaga" sounds like a foreign country, probably communist. My preferred checker was a snippy young woman who zipped strange produce through without hesitation. She refused to admit ignorance or, for that matter, to talk to anyone not her own age. Her solution to uncertainty was to ring all odd items as "parsley." She's now on her way to a career in management.

We Weirds had hardly savored the pleasures of readily available coriander, lemon grass, and Thai eggplants when another supermarket chain came to town. It has an even more militant posture toward wholesomeness. Upon entering, customers must pass through a produce section with its array of leeks, Swiss chard (red and white), long Japanese radishes, okra, and eggplant-- things Mom wouldn't have touched, let alone serve. Assurances abound that it is all fresh, natural, and good for you. In fact, very little food there is self-explanatory. Signs identify where produce grew and let the purchaser know whether or not it is organic. One customer-requested item that failed the store's standards of purity wears a warning label suitable to a toxic waste dump. Poultry and meat are clearly regarded as lesser orders of food and require qualifiers: free-range, no hormones, and raised on natural foods. When veal appeared, it was with assurances that the animals had frolicked in lovely California fields and led drug-free, happy (albeit brief) lives.

We Weirds love the place. We spend hours scrutinizing veggies as if they were corporate balance sheets. A few closet Simples come, mainly to humor their mates and eat free samples. They stand out because they don't care about the geo-gastronomic politics of Peruvian vs. Mexican asparagus. In spite of interlopers, however, the atmosphere is so relentlessly wholesome that I actually heard an adolescent girl say something pleasant to her mother: "Look, Mom, our yogurt is on sale."

Recent victories for Weirds do not persuade me that the world is moving in our direction. After all, product marketing, like pop psychology, depends on differences remaining unresolved. It is just that the tide of battle between two fundamentally different kinds of people has shifted. I say that after consuming several cups of wood-smoked Brazilian coffee, an organic California kiwi, and a locally grown apple (no pesticides), with a break to look for lentils for tomorrow's soup. Of course, what I really enjoyed was the burger and fries I had afterward for lunch; but, hey, pop psychology isn't perfect, neither are we, and if we truly are what we eat, most Americans are probably a fast food.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins professor.