Whole foods opened in Knoxville last week. Although I had every intention of braving the crowds that first day, there was little point. It was one of those busy weeks, where I was mostly out of the house, aside for breakfast and two other meals, which I already had covered.
Still, I was excited. Although I've never lived in a town with a Whole Foods, I've been a fan since the mid 80's, when Whole Foods began their expansion across my native state of Texas. There were many years I purchased items at Whole Foods to carry back to New York in my suitcase. I was thrilled when they opened a small store (much like the Knoxville store) in White Plains, and George and I would stop at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods for sustenance and snacks for the train ride home when we went to concerts at Lincoln Center.
And so, I knew I would be happy when I walked through Whole Foods on Monday. I was not disappointed. The produce I saw on that first visit would be enough of a reason for me to shop at there, as I have truly despaired of the quality of produce found in the stores in this town, especially the vegetables, and I eat a lot of vegetables, especially of the leafy green variety. Initial impressions are good, but only time will tell how the produce department holds up. Many times I have been momentarily thrilled only to be disappointed over the long haul. Of course, I have been spoiled by many years of buying produce from local farms; and grocery stores, unless they make an effort to source locally, cannot compete. Come May, I will be once again probably buying most of my produce from local farmers.
They had samples of melons the day I went, but they weren't particularly ripe. Aside from berries, I don't buy that much fruit, except for berries and perhaps green papayas and avocados. Otherwise, I think of fruit as a dessert. If you eat a lot of what I think of as standard fruits: grapes and apples and bananas, I would agree that one is better off elsewhere. But I think of grapes and bananas as sugar balls or sugar on a stick, and they are rare treats for me. And grocery stores aren't usually the best source for really fresh seasonal fruits anyway, although Whole Foods may be better than most. I suppose this is another side effect of buying from farmers: I want my fruit to taste and smell like it is fully ripe, like it is supposed to taste and smell. If fruit is a seasonal indulgence, I can live with that.
As to the "Whole Paycheck" reputation of the store, that has never really bothered me. I've never been one that will sacrifice quality to save money and am pretty immune to the cost of food if the quality lives up to expected standards. I agree that high cost does not guarantee quality, but I increasingly believe that we have gotten so used to cheap that we have forgotten about the quality of what we use to nourish our bodies, and this has taken a toll on our health. That doesn't mean I don't have a budget. I do and I stick to it, but nothing upsets me more than throwing out food, be it food that I bought too much of and didn't eat, or produce that looked good and spoiled more quickly than it should of. If I want chicken it will be organic and free range; if I want beef or fish, they will be of similar suitable quality; if I want parmesan, it will be aged parmigiano reggiano or I simply will adapt my menus to do without. That doesn't mean I buy only expensive items, but it means that I buy with care, only what I truly like, and only what I will truly use. I cook rather than depend on packaged foods. Studies show that cooking only actually takes a few minutes longer than preparing meals with packaged foods, and is healthier to boot. Cooking does however, require time in thought and planning, at least until one gets a few basics under one's belt. But basics are not complicated and can lead to an infinite array of options.
George and I would have made short work of one of those Spanish mackerels, but alas they were slightly too large for one, There is a very good fish market in Knoxville, and a good butcher as well, and I will continue to support them, but the fish market and the meat market both look good, and expanded options never hurt. And although I like to buy local organic free-range chickens, doing so requires some planning and there are times when I just want chicken now and appreciate the option of being able to buy it without driving clear across town. The local Earth Fare carries organic chicken, but the supply at the Bearden branch is slim, and driving across town to Farragut makes for very expensive chicken. If Whole Foods maintains their selection of meats and poultry I will be a customer.
And yes, even though I don't' buy a lot of packaged foods, I do buy some things and I did wander the aisles. There are some things here, and especially gluten-free choices, corralled in one place, that I would usually have to go to three or four stores to acquire, stores that are on opposite ends of town. Even if the prices are slightly higher, and I didn't check, buying them at Whole Foods is still cheaper than the vehicular cost (both in gas and maintenance) of driving around town, Yes I am a nerd that way. That is not even considering the things now available in Knoxville that I previously had to acquire through the internet. So perhaps, from my perspective, this makes Knoxville even more livable. It won't be my only store, but then I have never found one store, anywhere, that could be my only store. It certainly expands the options.