Shortly after 6 am on Saturday for the last few years, I have ceased sleeping to get myself to the Lethbridge Farmers Market. Those who know will realize that this is no small feat. I love my job. I mostly love meeting so many different types of people. The farmer’s market seems to be an interesting place to investigate ideas about food and consumption. This morning I was preoccupied by a fairly singular focus – I wanted to buy an eggplant. Even if I had consulted the venerable vegetable availability chart, I would not have been forewarned that there were not going to be any eggplant available. Just last week there had been two vendors who had carried the beautiful little beasties. I got this wicked Eggplant Curry recipe from a Guyanese Canadian vendor who operates a world renowned hot sauce company producing one of my favourite condiments Basil's Fire and Brimstone. I usually get a few moments just before the market opens to wander around to the other vendors tables and check things out. This morning my ‘pre-game’ stroll left me empty handed. I really wanted an eggplant so that I could make that curry tonight. That’s when I bumped into a honey vendor whose honey we use in some of our products. We got to talking about food and this sociology course I was taking.
“I’ve stopped shopping at Wal-mart.” she confessed after we had talked for a while. Having already complained to her about the lack of egg-plant I quipped, “Yup, I try to avoid going there as much as I can but you know that if I go there this afternoon they are gonna have egg-plant.” Sure enough later this afternoon I did some grocery shopping for my family at Superstore (a no less attractive grocery giant) and they had eggplant! I didn’t pick any up mostly because they were not that nice and a little too large for just me and Char to share since the boys won’t eat it. It got me thinking about stuff again…
I am proud to work for Sunrise Berry Farms and get to sell their pies to eager customers. My bosses are some of the hardest working individuals I know and they have worked hard to produce products that exceed all the standards of value, quality and amazing taste. Sometimes I get to help work on some advertising for the company which is just way more fun for me. One of the things we often say about our products is that our pies may not be the cheapest but we are convinced they are the best you have ever tasted. I often tell the my customers that I have a money back guarantee – if they eat the whole pie and find it unsatisfactory – they should bring it back for a full refund. We’ve had no refunds. One of the curious things that happens from time to time is that people will be drawn to our attractive booth and see the even more attractive pies for sale. But when they ask about the price of the pies they either turn away or even more interestingly make a distinct frown – put the pie back on the shelf and walk away. I always wonder about these people. Frankly there are many people out there who are more than willing to pony up their cash for some Saskatoon heaven. But when I first started this phenomenon kinda bothered me – in fact I have to admit that I was inclined to offer these people a deal just to try to convince of how good this pie really is.
This morning, it happened again. After the frown-y faced lady walked away, I wondered what might have caused her to walk away. Why did the price of the pie seem to make such a difference to her? Maybe she is a lady who usually makes her own pies but this one time was considering buying one – but when she realized that she could make one for much less she thought better of her indulgence. Perhaps she usually buys pies for deserts in her family but she usually gets them at a department store where she can get them for a much cheaper price and expecting the same sort of price range she was caught off guard by the price of this pie. Or perhaps there was something else going on that couldn’t be so easily imagined.
Why do people go to farmer’s markets? It can’t be for selection since clearly the department store chains have better selection. It can’t be for price since again department stores can be substantially cheaper. It can’t be for convenience – again there are way more accessible options for getting your produce and other such things. These would be the way that a market economy approach might try to evaluate their choices. I wonder if the reason that people come to farmers markets to buy stuff (esp. food) is because they can construct themselves in a particular way as a part of society. They can use the food they buy at the market to accomplish some function of their social situation. Maybe what is going on is that individuals are able to translate the products they buy into a form of cultural capital with their friends. This might be to reinforce a notion about their ability to buy good quality products for at a more expensive rate as evidence of their social status. They might also be able to reinforce the idea of their commitment to personal health – since clearly these products are better for you. (Almost every food booth at the market is either organic this or non-hormone that) They can do this without even sharing the food they purchase with their friends. Just being able to be known to be at the market sets them apart. Growing their own gardens could accomplish some of the same things – but for these people it is important to have the farmer take at least a little bit of the farm out of the product (civilize it). I talked to the butcher in the booth beside me and he says nobody ever comes out to his farm to pick up products from there. Maybe people can get the same product that they would normally buy at any other location – but because this is the farmers market they can accomplish something socially that they could not otherwise.
This puts an interesting spin on the idea of price. Going back to that frown-y lady…can we say that her response is a form of resistance to the aesthetics that the farmer’s market can produce? Or is she like so many other people who (even though they often know better) persistently ask me for a deal on the pies? Is it really a deal they want or do they want this potential negotiation in price to also somehow construct their identity? Is a deal a way for them to demonstrate their superior status over the vendor and then also in other social space a competent customer. Imagine this…
“Sally, do you know those pies I always bring to bridge? Well, this week I told that cookie to give me a deal cause I was gonna order a bunch of them and do you know what he took a whole dollar off the price. You know Sally you just have to know how to talk to those guys…”
Of course I am not trying to leave a negative impression of these people even though you might suspect a more than sceptical tone. I think it is fascinating that people might be using this venue as a significant part of their social identity. Its almost like the market is a sort of mirror within which they can see themselves…And I should be quick to point out as you will already be suspecting that I find myself caught up in that same trap – after all here I am getting rather perturbed at not finding an eggplant at the end of October in a Southern Alberta farmer’s market.
One more thing if you would like to construct yourself as fabulously decadent individual I would love to recommend you visit our store and pick up one of the best pies in the world. In fact why don’t you pick up a frozen un-baked pie that you can bake yourself invite your friends over and tell them you baked it yourself? – I don’t mind if you lie about it even though I was a former minister – I’ll this one go this time…