Market Places

I am sharing these photos from a couple of trips I made to Taiwan with Wen-Ling. They are of a market place in the town of Sijhih, just east of Taipei. This market might be my favorite place in Taiwan.

Every morning vendors set up in an alley about a half mile from my mother-in-law’s home. They sell every type of food imaginable, from baked goods to fresh vegetables to freshly caught fish.

“Fresh-caught” isn’t a marketing phrase. The photo showing the fish with their tails tied to their gill-flaps is about more than just presentation. It is also to prevent these live fish from flopping off the table. The shrimp you buy are still moving, too.

Vegetables are all local. There is one garden/farm just around the corner from the market, next to a laundromat, in the middle of the city. It occupies maybe a half acre, but probably less. Lying in a ravine, all sorts of vegetables are grown there, along with tropical fruits like mango, papaya and some trees I don’t recognize. Other nearby farms also provide produce.

Along with the produce, vendors sell shoes and clothing, toiletries, and knick-knacks. The vending is all done between the hours of about 6 am and noon. By one o’clock it has reverted to a residential area. The vendors are basically setting up in the entrance ways to homes. Most homes in the city occupy three to four floors. The ground floor typically has a garage-like front with a living-room behind it. Bedrooms are usually on the third and fourth floors. The kitchen will also be found on the first or second floor.

I love the intimacy of this market place, the way neighbors easily meet and mix. I don’t understand the local alliances, the politics, and the personal tensions that exist. I bought some pastries one morning and brought them back to my mother-in-law. She wanted to know who I had purchased them from. It turns out I bought them from a woman my mother-in-law doesn’t do business with. None-the-less, we did all share the food. Perhaps it would have tasted better if it had been prepared by my mother-in-law’s friend.

I share these photos to highlight the differences between the typical American corporate market place and the traditional Chinese market. The Chinese market sells local food. If we consider the notion of degrees of separation, the typical customer at a Chinese market is separated from the producer of the food by two or maybe three degrees. In other words, the vendor may be the farmer who grows the chickens or the vegetables. Or, she may be a middleman between the customer and the fisherman.

How many degrees of separation are there between the American customer and the farmer who produces our food? We have the people who work at the grocery store. There are truck drivers connecting the grocery with one or more wholesale buyers operating cold-storage warehouses. Then there are the farmers. It may be four or five degrees of separation.

In Taiwan much of the food is probably produced within a forty mile radius of where it is purchased. In the U.S. the radius is probably a thousand miles, maybe more. In fact, some of our food may even come from Taiwan!

It is true that in America we can enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the year. Our food is relatively inexpensive. No one is deprived. But there are environmental costs associated with such a diet. And there are economic vulnerabilities. For instance, both Taiwan and America depend heavily on foreign oil. But, if our oil supplies were cut for an extended period how likely would starvation be in American vs. Taiwan? My guess is that Taiwan would fare much better.

In any case, my real motivation is to point out that there is an aesthetic component to the Chinese culture of food that is sorely lacking in America. And, it’s not specific to China and Taiwan. India has it, as does almost any developing nation. Our food culture here in America is an industrial culture, heavy on engineering, but largely lacking in beauty. I would gladly give up my local Fry’s supermarket if I could trade it in for an alleyway of vendors near my home.


Breyers Ice Cream Scam

I just went to the local Fry’s store because my wife asked me nicely if I would go buy some ice cream. It wasn’t on my mind, but I thought, “Why not?”

I assume you are aware that most ice cream brands have for some time been offering ice cream in 1.75 quart-sized containers. Instead of raising their prices, they lower the quantity they sell. Same thing, but it burns me all the same. I want to buy ice cream in a half-gallon size, just like when I was a kid.

Well, I went to the Fry’s and made a beeline for the ice-cream isle. The Breyers was on sale! In fact, most of the Breyers was gone. I found a container of neapolitan, looking so lonely on this nearly bare shelf. But, when I picked it up something seemed amiss. The container seemed smaller. Not smaller than a half gallon. Smaller than 1.75 quarts!

They did it again, the fuckers! They shrank the container to 1.5 quarts! Give me a half-gallon, for gosh sakes, and put an appropriate price on it. I would rather they be up front about the price inflation, than to take the more deceptive path of slightly shrinking the container and hoping I won’t notice.

I was so angry, I bought the cheaper house brand because at least it had 1.75 quarts. Take notice Breyers!

It’s like potato chips. They sell these snack sized chips out of machines. Used to be they had 2.5 ounces, then 2 ounces. Then they dropped it to 1.5 ounces. It really gets me angry when they don’t shrink the size of the package, they just put less in the package. All the while, the price has been going up. 25 cents…50 cents…75 cents…85 cents! Now, they have 1 ounce packs of potato chips for 85 cents where I work! That’s when I started packing more fruit with my lunches. I also began to buy snacks ahead of time. The last thing I want to do is put a buck in a machine, get back a few cents, and get a bag of chips — no, make that a bag with a chip. “Chips” is plural, and by definition needs to come in a bag bigger than an ounce.

My wife and I have been becoming more and more interested in the concept of local food, and eating locally. I know that complaining about junk food is pretty far from eating locally. But, it got me thinking. We have a vegetable garden and fruit trees. I began to bake bread because of the rising costs. Maybe I will start making my own ice cream. Take notice food industry! I will find someone who is raising milk locally. Maybe even goat’s milk. And I’ll make my own ice cream, rather than put up with your deceptive packaging, your inflated prices, the shitty conditions under which most of the cows are raised, the growth hormones you feed to your cows and refuse to put on your labels.

It’s not like I eat ice cream that often, either.

Is anyone raising goats or cows near the Tempe area? I would like to buy some milk and try my hand at making my own ice cream. Seriously, if you know someone from which I can buy some locally produced milk, I want to give this a try.