When Fresh Food Is a Luxury, Beauty Becomes a Necessity
In the midwest food desert I grew up in, there are higher standards for what we wear than what we eat.
Dad can’t believe what he is able to grow from Wal-Mart seeds. Every summer when I visit home, it’s the same conversation. Standing in the backyard, hovering above waist-high wire towers of vines and stacks of leaves, Dad says, Can you believe the size of— And the length of— And the shape of—
And every visit, I nod and comment on how the pepper cages are more colorful than the last, like looking at a wall of nail polish at a salon—oranges and reds and yellows so vibrant you want to frame and hang above the living room fireplace. My dad the gardener can, indeed, grow something out of nothing.
He moves dirt around with the top of his loafers, shoes from a display case near where he selected the seeds. He consults a hand-drawn map of his do-it-yourself drainage system and where each of his forty-nine plants are located. He bends and plucks an Anaheim chili. No longer fixated on the source, now it is time for the harvest.
Inside the pantry in my parent’s kitchen is a stark contrast to the rich oranges and reds in the backyard. Shelves are stocked with white and navy store branded boxes of noodles and soups.
Saint Joseph, Missouri, is a food desert. Acres of barren parking lots and hallowed-out store signs dot the entire state the way small, sunken specks can appear on a ripe tomato when black mold enters through the rotted cracks of a bottom blossom; areas where businesses and grocers once thrived before relocating online.
As a teenage girl, my attention and money were always better spent on foraging tasty new products: Dr. Pepper-flavored Chapstick and apple-scented lotion from Bath and Body Works, Scratch ’n Sniff stickered t-shirts featuring cartooned fruits; items for smelling, not eating.
Food as fashion.
And when it wasn’t fashion, it was all about recreating the mouth-watering cinematic cheese pulls in the Taco Bell drive-thru. Learning basic nutrition, how to eat with a fork and knife, and meal preparation were not priorities. As an adult, I am more confident applying a straight line of waterproof liquid liner than I am chopping an onion. More confident in ordering items from commercials than shopping for real food.
Real food wasn’t for families like mine.
Back then, real food was for those families that lived north of town, with parents who were home by five and enjoying meals, not on a TV tray, but around a table. Real food wasn’t for families like mine, where both parents worked multiple jobs and had to purvey frozen dinners that the kids could heat on our own. Real food was for the privileged—those who could afford the hours and energy it takes to cook.
Back then, real food was not for families like mine.
I’m in a rental car, parked in the lot of a national grocery store chain waiting for my respondent to arrive. When I am not moderating focus groups for beauty brands, I am conducting in-store interviews, or shop-a-longs, with respondents to talk about beauty. Clients representing one of the top grocery store chains in the US have hired me to help them understand how to enhance their self-care section. So, for the past several weeks, I have traveled to different cities across the mid- and southwest, walking side-by-side with women my age as they push their carts, asking them to tell me, What is the mood of this section? How does this endcap make you feel?Why did you decide to put that in your basket?
I continue to wait in the car with my window half down. I take a picture of myself sipping a Route 44 limeade—an iconic beverage where I am from, known for its unique ice pellets and styrofoam cup that never sweats. Its red straw matches my gel manicure. I text it to Dad, ice expert and enthusiast. Before he worked as a technician on ice machines, he worked in a factory that manufactured paper. A lifetime working jobs that required harvesting nature at the service of big commerce. Turning trees and water into wood pulp and cubes that crunch.
Chewable chips, I caption.
He writes back, Scotsman Style, referring to the machine, also known as a flaker or nugget, and includes a picture of a large tomato. The shine on its outer skin is so bright, so glossy it looks plastic, and is as supple as the cheeks of a model in a makeup ad. My dad, the gardener, former ice farmer and paper producer, now focused on growing fruit just for himself.
Once the respondent arrives, she grabs a cart, and we enter the store. She leads us through the bakery and rounds a corner up toward the deli counter. As we move away from coolers of cold cuts, she makes it clear that she is not looking for products that aren’t on her list.
Food as nothing new.
I nod and jot down a few things on my notepad, and then instruct her where to turn next. We enter the hygieneaisle, pausing midway in between the Tampax boxes and rows of hair brands. She pops open a top of a shampoo and gives a good whiff. Despite all the fun smells and colors, this section, she tells me, is a bit depressing. Dark, dingy, not looked after.
This is the last stop, but is the only aisle of interest for the clients. I turn on my salesperson charm and say, What if I told you that you could buy all your makeup here? All your cosmetics and food under one roof.
I pause and wait, feeling like I just tried to con her into a waterfront property in the Sahara.
Finally, she explains that shopping for makeup at this grocery chain is equivalent to buying mascara at a gas station. She would never buy makeup here. Here being all grocers in the midwest food desert, where there are higher standards for what we wear than what we eat.
She hands a soda and pack of peanut butter crackers to a cashier along with her stipend from the study. Buying food is one thing, but for beauty, she needs the real deal.
Artist Chloe Wise thrives at the intersection of food and beauty. Named the “carb artist of her generation”by Vulture, Wise was launched into the mainstream in 2014 when actor Bobbi Salvör Menuez attended a Chanel event wearing Bagel No. 5—a sculpture of a bagel with cream cheese decorated with the iconic Chanel purse chain and charm logo. The sculpture, made of urethane and oil paint, was perceived by onlookers as a real designer bag until it was revealed to be part of a collection created by Wise. Bread Bags features a range of breads and breakfast foods modeled after real-life designer-labeled It Bags: the Louis Vuitton Baguette (2013), the braided loaf adorned with a Prada charm titled Ain’t No Challah Back(pack) Girl (2014), the Moschino English Muffin (2015),among others.
Wise describes bread as a ubiquitous symbol for status and wealth, calling out how this has penetrated our linguistics (e.g., terms like ‘breadwinner’ or ‘dough’). The same can be said for what designer It Bags meant for social status starting in the early 2000s when America’s obsession with luxury came into effect.
Food as art.
Food as a medium is not all that novel in the history of art, and in the twentieth century became prevalent in its associations to the consumption of the female body: Meret Oppenheim in My Nurse (1936) binds a pair of high heels with string resembling a woman on her back, legs spread, suggesting a prepared poultry on a serving platter; Marilyn Minter’s 100 Food Porn (1989–1990) paintings show a series of food preparation images as sexually suggestive, showing desire is imbedded into even how we view the mundane; Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby (2014)features a seventy-five-foot sugar-coated sculpture of a sphinx meant to symbolize a Black woman in the antebellum South, responding to the closing of the Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg and its history.
Food as female; females as food.
Our ultra-consumerism turns food into a material with which to play, photograph, perform, pose.
Austrian artists Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter, a.k.a. Honey and Bunny, reexamine the wastefulness of modern dining through a series of staged performances. One performance involves cutting through layers of cellophane and plastic wrap at each course. In another, Bunny, dressed in a floor length gown, stands from the table and approaches a Bundt cake with a chainsaw. Excess defines the fine dining experience, and what makes food real, worth consuming.
In the group exhibition Indoor Dining (2021) at the Marinaro Gallery in New York, Chloe Wise uses fake food to explore what the dining experience currently means.
I saw Indoor Dining on a Tuesday afternoon in July. And instead of entering with intention to wander, I stepped into the gallery to see one object in particular: Salad Sconce. I had seen a photograph of the salad sconce shared online weeks prior. It made me laugh, and I knew I had to see it in person.
Food as entertainment.
The gallery was meat-locker-level cold, and, except for the two people behind the front desk, without visitors.
Three levels underground, past a silicone asparagus and a large soft sculpture of a microwave, at the back of the basement is a faded brick wall, the center cut into an indented archway that normally would be for clearance of a firebox and mantel. But there is no hearth here. Centered in the indented brick is an oil on linen painting entitled If You’re A Bird (2021): a shelled and deveined shrimp suspended atop the horizon, sunset and water in the distance.
Down here, it is quiet and removed from all that is happening above in lower Manhattan.
On each side of the flying shrimp are the salad sconces (I and II), oil paint and pepper on urethane. For the base, Wise modeled each off stalks of romaine, with a light white viscous dressing drizzled around the edge that glistens under the electric candle stick’s yellow bulb. The sconce on the left features a square crouton, like the store-bought butter and garlic brand my parents would buy, and I would eat by the handful. They are smaller than I anticipated.
I hold up my hand for scale and snap a picture that I later post on my Instagram stories.
Food as a well-mounted light fixture.
Food in America, as anything but food.
Wise’s work says: Look but don’t eat. A popular tip in the world of beauty: Rub a Potato on your face, buy bananas to smooth and soothe skin, everything from eggshells to citrus rinds to over-ripe avocados can all be repurposed in your routine! Sweet roller baby jelly lip glosses, designed to plump lips and not hips. While my clients continue to allocate marketing dollars toward increasing the appetite appeal of packaging, many of their consumers lack accessibility to real food.
What does it mean to have access to real food in this country? In the last year suppliers have made headlines—Goya Beans CEO Repeats Election Lies, Tyson Foods Managers Take Bets On How Many Workers Will Get Covid-19, US Processing Plants Become Outbreak Hotspots—all prompting boycotts and sending a message that there is power in rejection of food.
Dad tells me, in Saint Joe, everything has become a political statement, down to the brand of bread you buy at the store. There are many weeks when they can’t afford to buy the democratically leaning brands of their choice, and thanks to supermarket redlining, there aren’t many options.
Food as politics.
Food as freedom; food as never free.
This summer, Dad has two garden plots. From the pictures he sends me, I can see that the foliage in the tomato plot has grown to the top of their neighbor’s wooden privacy fence.
If my adult kitchen still resembles a food desert, my dad’s tomatoes are an oasis.
Since starting his garden, the kitchen at my parent’s house has evolved over the years to accommodate all the tomatoes: brines for pickling, jars for canning, gallon and quart sleeves for vacuum sealing.
While their kitchen is transforming into the set of Cook’s Country, the small area designated for culinary activity in my apartment in Brooklyn is more form than function: hanging plants drape over cabinet doors, a marble slab is used for mixing foundations and catching loose powder instead of cutting vegetables. The front stove burners are where I set my mail, next to the platform cake stand that houses candles, not cookies. I do have some essentials on hand, like margarine for when it’s warm out and I need to grease the swollen kitchen door to keep it from sticking.
If my adult kitchen still resembles a food desert, my dad’s tomatoes are an oasis.
After seeing his pictures, I decide to buy some tomatoes of my own.
I prepare them just how he has shown me. I set a bowl next to the stove and work in batches: dropping several tomatoes into boiling water, waiting for the skins to dimple, fishing each out with a slotted spoon before it splits. Dunking each into an ice bath so I can slip the skins off more easily.
Unlike apples, which are applauded for their nutrient-dense skin, a tomato’s skin can be tough and bitter. And if it’s a beautiful, slow-cooked fresh sauce you’re going for, tough bits of skin floating about will ruin the effect.
That trip home, together, Dad and I skinned close to seven pounds of tomatoes and filled the pantry with stunning shades of carmine, crimson, and burgundy.
KATIY HEATH is an essayist from Saint Joseph, Missouri. Her obsessions include women who bathe, women who work, and women who witness. She currently is writing a memoir about her experience moderating focus groups for skincare companies. Read more from her at CHEAP POP, Pigeon Pages, and XRAY Lit.