Healthier than Thou? Austin's Whole Foods Turns 30
I got off on the wrong foot with health food fanatics, vegetarians and as Anthony Bourdain describes them, the "Hezbollah-like" Vegans... New years Day, 1975 I held the first of an off again on again New Years Day Party that has come to be known as "The Day After the Year Before". I'd been a resident of Austin long enough to know that there would be several people attending who did not eat meat and planned accordingly. From the first event, the menu has pretty much always consisted of me grilling BBQ chicken and pork chops and cooking a large pot of traditional black-eye peas. I also prepared some extra vegetables and a large salad to accommodate the possible non-meat eating visitors. Everyone attending was asked to bring a side dish and a bottle of Champagne.
The crowd was smaller that first year with about 25-30 people, an interesting assortment friends consisting of fellow construction workers, students, artists, musicians and...no kids. We were all young and living the good life offered by the very laid back Austin lifestyle. It was a beautiful afternoon with folks streaming in recovering from assorted maladies usually associated with New Years revelry and everyone had plenty to eat and enough champagne to ease the discomfort of any hang over from the night before. And then it started, two of the guests began what can only described as an attempt to "save" the rest of us from the doom and destruction of our meat eating ways. No one asked, they just started making comments like "We don't eat meat", "Do you have any idea what that flesh is doing to you?" etc. I have to tell you that I have always attracted an opinionated crowd and before long the discussion escalated into a heated argument. I did try calm the protein deprived Veg-Heads with another helping of mashed potatoes and a plate of brownies but they were on a roll and ended up storming out while shouting that were all going to die horrible deaths. I grew up in a rather extreme church in West Texas and had already heard enough of this so was happy to see them depart.
Fast forward to 1978-1979. I am driving along and on the radio I hear the first of way too many ads featuring a young man with an incredibly arrogant tone of voice "preaching" to me that a little store called Safer Way was the only place to purchase healthy, nutritious food and vitamins. The fact that there was also some horribly irritating snake charming music playing in the back ground only served to increase the annoying message! That was the first time I remember thinking the of the phrase "Healthier than Thou". Days passed and I kept hearing the same ad over and over and since I was something of a mischievous trouble maker back then, I began to devise a plan. I stopped by a Safeway market in South Austin and purchased a dozen packages of Twinkies. The next day I dropped by the store and because I had hair down past my shoulders, jeans and an Armadillo World Headquarters T-shirt, I fit right in. No one noticed my paper bag as I headed to the tiny baked goods aisle where I made a space on the shelf, deposited the packages of snacks and adorned the stack with a "groovy" handmade sign announcing 'NEW-Organic Twinkies'. Minding my business, I purchased a bag of Healthy Hunza Corn chips and some Dr. Bronner'speppermint soap and moseyed on along without attracting attention. Now what happened next depends on who is telling the story. I heard that several people (both employees and their pious customers) were semi-enraged that the store had been polluted with the king of industrial junk food! Many seemed to think it was very funny and still others could not agree on whether this actually happened at all? No matter, I could not help myself and told a few people who told a few others and well... it became an urban myth of sorts!
1980 rolls around and I moved into a large crumbling down mansion in the west end of downtown with my friend, the painter Jim Franklin and an assortment of artists, musicians, film makers and other interesting characters. By this time I had undergone a period of semi-self discovery and decided to begin living healthier (if for no other reason than balancing the sometimes wild nightlife I was enjoying). That same year, Whole Foods Market opened their first store on Lamar between 9th and 10th Streets only a block from my house. The new store was a result of a combining of the aforementioned SaferWay and another local store Clarksville Natural Grocery. I dropped by the week they opened and was standing in the vitamin aisle, when two friends of mine who were employed at the store approached me with extremely wicked grins. I said, "hello" and they replied, "OK, where did you put them?" "Put what?", I asked. They were both laughing but also very insistent. "The Twinkies, man! We know that is why you are here!" I was stunned and then started laughing because they knew about the past episode and were convinced that must be the only reason I was at the store. After a few minutes of bantering and seeing my basket full of produce, vitamins and same tasty baked goods they realized I was a changed man and let me finish my shopping. One of the most interesting parts of the new venture that I liked was a meat market which was unheard of at the time, at least for the so called "natural" stores.
Since that time I have been a fairly steady customer for many reasons and more so in recent years. My family was in the grocery business for nearly 65 years and the way our food is developed, grown, and distributed has changed radically over the years. If you want to learn the more about the industrialization of our food, please rent and watch the film Food Inc. where you will learn in a direct, rational and honest way how our food supply is so drastically different than when my family was in business years ago. An excellent book on the subject that is referenced in the film is Michael Pollan's, The Omnivores Dilemma, a fascinating and sobering tome on just about every aspect of our choices concerning the foods we eat. My wife and I have made a conscious effort to try and buy organic, hormone free products. Meat, Dairy and other foods that do not have to be industrialized to the point of being without flavor and often unhealthy.
Now...I don't want to start sounding like the folks who crashed the party all those years ago and instead I am just offering some info you might want to research on your own. But even without the health aspect, Whole Foods Market has an incredible array of great tasting food sold by people who are passionate about their job and that's what it's also about for me! Check out the meat market (still a thorn for some purists I suppose), the beautiful produce, a bakery that has some of the best French Sourdough around and I am comparing it to similar loaves we enjoyed in Paris, an incredible seafood counter and variety that goes in and on. I shop Whole Foods Market because it's just down the street from my office but also because I find great food at good prices and excellent service. An Austin Texas original, Whole Foods Market is just another of the great reasons we are living the good life in Austin Texas. If you live in an area that has a Whole Foods Market you probably have already enjoyed the experience, if not, then quit fooling around and get on over there. With 300 stores throughout 38 states, there is a good chance you are near one. To learn more about the 30th anniversary follow this link Whole Foods Market Birthday. Oh and if you are near the one by my office, would you pick me up something for me? Maybe a couple of slices of their fresh hot pizza and a bottle of ice cold Sweet Leaf Tea or maybe something from the sandwich section or one of those orange rolls , no wait, how about some Gelato...