I just got back from a week long trip to California. (You can hear me talking about Proust on KQED here.) The weather was awful – rain and more rain – but I still got glimpses of what I love so much about the Golden State. Consider the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. It’s a weekly gathering of a few dozen farmers, tamale stands and organic cheese makers. The crowd is an eclectic mix of dreads and Prada, birkenstocks and Tod loafers. But I can summarize my fondness for the place with a single conversation I had with a chicken farmer who sells eggs:
Me: Are these eggs cage free?
Farmer: Yes. The chickens roam around and eat from the grass during the day.
Me: Why don’t you advertise that on your sign?
Farmer: Because we assume that you know the eggs are cage free. Nobody here would buy caged eggs.
I get these glimpses in California of how the world could be. It’s a bourgeois utopia where everybody buys grass fed beef and organic arugula. There are no Republicans and the parking lots of full of Priuses. It’s the kind of place where people just assume that their eggs come from chickens that are raised humanely. I’m not saying the world could actually be like this, I’m just saying that I enjoy pretending it already is.
Of course, there are lots of farmers markets all over the country – California doesn’t have a monopoly on self-righteous liberals and pretty lettuce. But I do get the feeling that, whether it’s the egg farmer in Hollywood or the cheesemonger in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, there is a critical mass in California that makes this sort of utopia feel less remote and elitist. If I want to buy a humanely raised chicken in my current place of residence, I’ve got to trek down the co-op, which is a smallish store hidden behind a UPS office. In other words, I’m reminded that what I’m doing isn’t mainstream, that I’m part of that alternative niche or people that also uses nettipots and practices yoga. (For the record, I don’t do either.) On the other hand, if you want to buy a humanely raised chicken in LA or SF, all you have to do is look for the most crowded marketplace. Immersed in the crowd, it’s easy to forget that most people don’t live like this, and that 99.9 percent of chickens are raised in boxes so small they can never extend their wings.