local_cafe Certified Organic

by Jeremy O'Brine

Published in Issue No. 160 ~ September, 2010

“Are your eggs certified organic?” says a lady wearing giant, oval shaped black shades as she stoops over a notebook filled with 4 x 6 pictures of chickens engaged in various chicken activities. There are plump, brick-red hens scratching through straw, pecking at invisible specks of food, kicking dust up under their feathers, resting in cozy looking roosts, and grazing in safe, well-kept fields. The question is directed at a plump lady in her late-twenties wearing a black and white striped apron surrounded by boxes of eggs. She runs this booth, and from what I understand, makes her living selling the eggs of her happy chickens along with the bacon, sausage, and other meat products of her not-so-happy pigs.

With a slight frown she looks up and says, “no, haven’t had a chance to get our food certified at this time.”

“Oh, hmmm…” and the lady trails off while looking through the notebook of chickens, studying each carefully, perhaps wanting  to catch the lady out, expecting, maybe, to find evidence of chicken abuse in one of the pictures: a small chicken head, barely visible, bulging, beady eyes strained in pain as it tries to bawk through a red, ball-gagged beak; or, maybe she will see an odd shadow in the background and discover each happy chicken is no more than a wooden chicken cutout, mischievously placed to trick the untrained eye into thinking these chickens are well cared for when secretly they are in heavy poultry bondage, whipped and beat and tied in place until each delicious egg is squeezed from their flightless bodies.

Soon enough, though, the lady relents and buys a dozen white eggs. Interestingly enough, she doesn’t pop the box open to look for broken shells. Personally, I would have looked … one never knows if there is a Judas among an otherwise pearl-white, un-cracked dozen.  But, that reality doesn’t matter, because here at the Issaquah Farmer’s Market, a place that is supposed to signify a return to the natural, the pure, the carnal urge for food a mere step away from the earth it was grown in, all semblance of The Real is stripped away and a new façade is born. Here, organic is the name of the game, and the monomaniacal pursuit of it and it alone destroys the market’s attempt to return the pursuit of food to a natural state.

As farmer’s markets go, the Issaquah Farmer’s Market is reasonably sized, and, Issaquah being one of the first large towns west of Snoqualmie pass, it is stocked full of produce shipped from Washington’s fertile inland empire. There are vendors selling products as varied as handmade jewelry, honey, baby clothing, asparagus and snow peas. There is also a nice mix of international cooked foods, and you can get anything from tacos al pastor, big, sticky Hum Bao (BBQ pork buns), chorizo paella, flavored shaved ice, sweet and savory crepes, to pulled pork sandwiches served out of a giant, iron pig on wheels that often sits at the center of the market puttering and growling away, its huge, sharp, devil’s ears pointing out at opposite angles.  Its color a dark, steel grey.

The heart of the market is Pickering Barn, a giant, red barn with bone white trim that outlines its exterior like a blueprint or a skeleton. Its interior is filled every weekend with arts, crafts, and demonstrations. The barn is hospital clean, and in good condition, a sure sign of its status as faux-barn, as an imitator at the heart of the market itself. Although once, perhaps, a used barn, it no longer serves the function of a barn. For, at the Issaquah Farmer’s Market, there is not a single living example of livestock, or any trace of their existence apart from the end products of their life. One can buy steaks, bacon, carne asada, but apart from pictures of happy chickens and an iconic, sterilized barn, all evidence of the reality of farming is purged or hidden.

The market itself is located to the east of a Costco and the west of a small creek that runs into Lake Sammamish. To its north is a main road, and to its south the giant parking lot of a business park. Behind that is a small forested area with a number of trails running through it. Though most people don’t know it, one can leave the market on those trails and weave their way towards any number of destinations in Issaquah. It is on those paths that I found another barn, a different kind of barn.

The barn on those trails is in bad shape, stuck between the freeway, two business parks, and the heart of Issaquah; it is not accessible by any city roads. The exterior of the barn, although still a stunning red, is falling apart. It appears to have once been converted into a house, and then abandoned. Its windows are broken out, and its roof is all but collapsed. The yard surrounding the house is overgrown with weeds, blackberry vines, and is piled high with trash. To its rear lies a series of pens, garages, and other structures, all falling apart. The whole of the lot is surrounded by high fences and adorned with “No Trespassing” signs.

Issaquah itself, as with many of the mid-sized towns in the area, used to be a farming community. But as times changed the farms were forced to close through rising property taxes or laws designed to give them no choice but to leave. Yet, as the barn in the woods collapses under the wood-rotting weather of Western Washington, Pickering Barn has become a bizarre simulacrum, or perhaps an anachronism, of a community’s past. Or, perhaps it is a structure caught in a stereopticonic blur between those two things. At once a celebration of the town’s history, a place where the town, like an immigrant, can look back towards its roots and place itself, concretely, in the oft-unverifiable past, while also acting as the pyre of that same history, a synthetic barn that both signifies a barn in the mind of the observer, but also fulfills none of the functions of a barn.

Outside of the barn, in well-defined rows under canopies of various colors and makes, is where one can peruse the vendors. It is there that you find specialty breads, kettle corn, soaps, pies, vinegars, and other foods. Each item is wrapped in its own label, some as intricately designed as anything you would find at an upper-end grocery, and each echoes a common mantra: “Farm-Fresh,” “Hand-Picked,” “Locally Grown,” “All Natural.” Among these slogans and creeds, one word is ubiquitous, as giant and strange as the barn itself: organic.

How is that word strange? Two reasons. First, there has never been definitive evidence that organically grown food is actually filled with more nutrients or more flavor than non-organic foods. This includes livestock raised organically. Most studies have been split, and a scientific consensus has never been achieved. One study, based on fifty years of evidence and conducted over twelve months, showed no empirical evidence to support the idea that organic food is somehow filled with more vitamins. Others, however, including another conducted over five years, show that it does. Second, being in Washington State, most of the produce that people buy at farmer’s markets is most likely from a farm within eye-shot of the produce that you would buy at a supermarket. The supermarket, for legal reasons, can’t label something organic unless it is certified organic, whereas at a farmer’s market there is more leeway for brandishing this label. This fact often allows for higher prices at a farmer’s market, because one can claim something is pseudo-organic.

None of this, however, stops people from paying top dollar for the produce at the Issaquah Farmer’s Market, often refusing to shop anywhere else while it is in season and swearing that not only does it taste better, but that they feel better having eaten it. It is a fad akin to the vitamin fad, another cultural phenomenon that had no basis in scientific fact—my favorite myth being that vitamin C can miraculously prevent the cold virus from entering one’s body. It just isn’t based on solid evidence. Now, this isn’t saying that organic food isn’t good for you, it is merely stating that to believe that it is, is to hold a belief that has not been verified by any solid scientific data. It is a culturally held belief, not a scientific one.

The idea of organic, though, as opposed to the vitamin craze, is an idea of absence rather than presence. It signifies food that has no additives, no pesticides, nothing synthetic within it. The idea being that what might be in the soil will be absorbed into the produce, and then absorbed into the flesh. What might it cause? Cancer, sickness, incurable, irreversible damage to the body, for, in the mind, it is hard to separate what we eat from how we feel and who we are. In a world where uncertainty prevails, even the packaging of bread at the grocery store contains strange, foreign words and place names which are whispered and toyed with by quivering tongues under the florescent glow in supermarket isles. How could it be healthy? So one buys local, and one buys organic despite all lack of evidence. At a farmer’s market, one can browse through pictures of chickens, read that produce was grown in a farm within driving distance, that the food that they hold is free of all mystery other than the esoteric knowledge of the farmer. The item is pulled from the earth by the same hand that presents it to you. Gone is the ambiguity, the critical distance of the eater.

Like Pickering Barn, the term organic sits at the heart of the Issaquah Farmer’s Market. It is what allows a local farmer to raise the price of an otherwise cheap item; what allows him to have people wait all week, forgoing the convenience and cheap prices of the supermarket, and buy from him specifically. It cuts out the middleman, and allows small time famer’s to make money once again. It creates a space that should be devoid of the myriad of images, marketing, and bizarre fantasy that surrounds our other food sources. From television commercials that promise a microwave meal can transport you to a quiet bistro in Venice, to humanized animals winking from packaging that carries the dead flesh of their brethren, the food found at other stores is wrapped firmly in fiction. And yet, the farmer’s market cannot escape its own fictions, its own strangeness and marketing fantasy.

“Natural, Organic, Grass-Fed Beef. No preservatives, but it will keep,” yells a lanky, unshaven man in his mid-twenties. He is surrounded by white topped, blue coolers, each with a sign in front: sirloin, tri-tip, jerky, summer sausage. An infinity of cuts. I’m interested in the summer sausage, the dense, spicy, good-with-anything summer sausage. Now, I grew up on a beef cattle farm. I don’t think the cattle we raised could be branded organic, but they certainly were grass fed, and the only shots they were given were to protect against disease, so I am interested in trying out what the market has to offer. I feel this is my realm.

I ask to see the summer sausage.

“Here ya go. All natural with no preservatives, but don’t worry, that will keep in your refrigerator for weeks,” says the vendor as he hands me a dense tube of meat.

“My dad would be killing me if he knew I was buying meat from here. I grew up on a farm and we always had our own summer sausage,” I say as I look at the price.

“Oh? Was it all natural? Grass fed?” He says as he eyes me up and down.

“What else would we feed it?” I reply.

He doesn’t miss a beat.

“Because this is all natural. 100% grass fed and no preservatives.”

I frown and hand over my cash. It is like having a conversation with an infomercial, and I think to myself that every steak this man is selling came from a steer, a once-male member of the bovine clan that was turned eunuch. Someone cut off this thing’s balls, altering its hormone levels so that it would plump up … how natural is that? 100% grass-fed, Organic, ball-less beef. That should be the slogan. The summer sausage is wrapped tightly in a vacuum tight plastic bag with a neatly placed label on the package that gives information about the butcher. I wonder if the plastic is grass fed and 100% natural; I should have asked.

Even in the meat of an animal, the idea of organic, pure, natural becomes a selling point, as if impurities in the soil could be brought into the animal, digested, infusing its very meat with sickness, coughed up as infected cud, chewed, and swallowed again. Then, in the mouth of the human, the meat becomes tainted and those same impurities are taken in, chewed, and infused into our flesh. And this threat becomes worse than that of spoilage, e. coli, and food poisoning. Preservatives are thrown out the window, and a purer meat is pursued.

All of this, together, turns the farmer’s market from a return to the natural, the pure, from a space that is free from the fantasy of marketing, both the physical and psychic space of the market, into a phantasmagorical realm of metal pigs, faux-barns, and a myriad of “organic” products, where even a photo of a chicken being treated well is questioned without certified proof that its eggs are worthy to bear the holy name. It is a place where food can taste infinitely better if one only buys into the idea that it contains some kind of ethereal quality that is born upon it by its very lack of preservatives, additives, chemical fertilizers, and all other perceived impurities. A place where the strongest seasoning is not hunger, but a fiction that personifies a cultural belief in an ambiguous term: organic.

In another booth, my friend is searching through a stand filled with handmade jewelry for a present for his girlfriend. The owner of the booth is a French woman. She seems motherly, but also gives off an impression that she is childless. She is explaining that she goes from farmer’s market to farmer’s market with her booth; that some days are great and on other days she won’t sell a single thing. I hear her explain that she makes enough money to keep making more jewelry, but never really gets ahead. While she is talking a spider descends on an invisible string of web to my shoulder. I freeze up, terrified in my arachnophobia.

“Get it off, get it off,” I hiss at my friend.

He turns around and lets the spider crawl onto his finger, then, bringing his finger to the edge of a potted plant, he lets the spider go.

“Thanks,” I say, and he laughs.

“It’ll be happy on that flower,” he says.

“No it won’t,” I say, “that’s a fake flower.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah, at least I think so,” and I lean over to look at the flower.

I can see a rib on the stem, a sure sign that it was pressed.

“It’s plastic,” I state, but my friend is already turned back around talking to the lady and fingering an obsidian moon-shaped earing.

As he looks through the jewelry, I watch the spider spin a web on the plastic flower, waiting for unsuspecting prey.

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Jeremy O'Brine grew up in Wapato, WA on his father's farm. He received a Bachelor of Arts at Central Washington University, and a Master of Arts with a focus in American Literature at the University of Sheffield. He likes cats and video games.