Every time I return home to America from where I live in Kenya, I make a pilgrimage to a Whole Foods. I think this instinct is common among expatriates, particularly those of us who live not in France or Italy but in places where food markets are a chaotic experience. It’s not a conscious decision — “visit Whole Foods” never figures on my home to-do list — but an almost animal yearning, like the corporeal calling of an elephant to trek hundreds of miles over rocky terrain to a particular field to die. My yearning to go to Whole Foods is a longing to experience beauty.
To me, upscale food markets are now the most beautiful places in America. Hear me out. To experience them this way you have to go without a wallet. The possibility of making an actual purchase pollutes the experience (and injects you with a dose of self-hatred when you realize you can’t afford a single heirloom tomato anyway).
Without cash, though, a chi-chi food market like Whole Foods becomes a temple to pure loveliness. In the first place, the loveliness is sensual. This effect is intentional. A Whole Foods store designer told The New Yorker, the 30 varieties of apples carefully displayed in a waterfall by the entrance were meant to create a “beautiful, stimulating … visual experience”; another former store manager revealed he understood himself as selling food less than the abstract virtues of “vitality and sensuality.”
At this time of year, the first joy a Whole Foods has to offer is the pile of gourds outside, bright as the learn-your-colors woodblocks we love as children. The entrance to a Whole Foods always exhales a distinctive, warm scent of flowers and fruit from the sale displays positioned in the foyers, like the mouths of lovers in French literature. Step inside and a gentle breeze caresses you from the air-lock door. The fruit-and-vegetable section resembles a wildflower meadow at sunset, all brilliant colors and warm, incandescent light. Move back and the colors fade to a desert landscape of sandy-tinted cheeses, less vibrant to the eye but much richer to the nose, the citrus tang of parmesan rinds in a basket mixing with the pungent, almost erotic scent of Taleggio.
For a flâneur, the soap section is the best. You can sniff the wares openly — for a while. (I always leave the store after 20 minutes or so, before my lurking attracts too much notice.)
Equal to the images and odors in Whole Foods, though, are the words. Indeed, there may be no other place on Earth today that equally reveals the transformative power of beautiful language. There is no such thing as a potato in that store. There are only “olive-oil crushed new potatoes.” There is no apple juice, only “Organic Honeycrisp Apple Juice made from apples grown on family-owned orchards in Washington State.” Of course, beauty comes at a price. In ordinary life, a Schweppes goes for perhaps $1.40. “Small-batch tonic hand-crafted in the South” goes for $20.
Some people see this ecstatic product-labeling (in which Whole Foods is just one of many exemplars) cynically. Our sense of things’ value isn’t “real”; it is completely psychological and easily manipulated by marketers, such critics lament. In his 2007 magnum opus “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the food writer Michael Pollan confesses with embarrassment “that I really enjoy shopping at Whole Foods.” The source of his embarrassment is the sense of being duped by his pleasure. “Every food item in the store seems to have a little story attached to it,” he observed. Among the places the cow that produced a sirloin steak “got to visit were ‘high-mountain meadows,’ ‘thick aspen groves,’ and ‘miles of sage-brush-filled flats.’ Now, a steak like that has got to taste better than one without a story. You can bet it will cost more, too.” Fortune suggested the language on Whole Foods labels “lets us feel good” about what we buy without actually having to embrace the kind of “ascetic lifestyle” that would actually make an impact on the environment and the world around us.
I see it differently. Whole Foods labels are the last bastion of poetry in public life. We love Whole Foods because it ennobles everyday experience, finally affirming our secret sense that even ordinary life is full of wonder and drama; that looking at an apple can be an ecstatic experience. (And we love Whole Foods: Its stock price has climbed more than tenfold since the 2008 recession. In 1992 there were a mere ten Whole Foods stores and now there are more than 1,000, including a new one in Detroit and a forthcoming branch in Newark, of which New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said it was the mark the city “had arrived.”)
What if we are valuing things correctly, and our love of Whole Foods’s naming conventions represent the huge value we human beings put on beauty. We don’t only want what’s useful at the lowest price. We yearn for our lives to be elegant and lovely. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken, these days, promises its mashed potatoes are “whipped to perfection.”
It’s a shame, though, how much we’ve confined beautiful language nowadays to goods. If wonderful words can enhance the perceived value of a bottle of tonic thirteen-fold, how much could better language enhance our ordinary lives? What would happen if we wrote birthday notes with the kind of heady words and emotions we now reserve for heirloom salads. What if we taught our children that everything is as remarkably singular as that small-batch tonic hand-crafted in the South — that cup, that dandelion, that kid with the lisp and bum leg who sits by himself in chemistry class?
What if, instead of calling the pleasure we experience in Whole Foods a dirty one and hating it, we took it as a grand hint — learning to speak about our desires in love, even our political ends, with the language that currently only sings to us from the Tallegio display.
I write this from Tel Aviv, Israel, where I’m at work on a political story; the beginning of a new intifada and the faltering chances for a nuclear deal with Iran dominate the papers. And amid this, people on all sides of the debate lament the lack of a human element in the public political conversation, the dearth of descriptions of the texture of life in the West Bank, of the emotional experience of witnessing a terror attack in a Jerusalem synagogue.
It may sound silly, but Whole Foods language — a commitment to relaying the sensual experience and emotional intensity of daily life — could help even here. The essence of beauty is particularity. That’s why, in part, describing the specific fields a cow grazed brings the language in question closer to beauty. It fights abstraction and affirms the value of the individual: the individuality of a thing, a place, a person. I sit before the papers and try to imagine them written like the label on the Whole Foods potatoes: not an attack on a synagogue, but what the lights of the synagogue looked like and who worshiped there; not a curfew on a town in Gaza, but how the houses appear and who seeks to roam at night anyway, for what desperate reasons, despite the danger. Lovelier to read, but also more observant and humane.