Tropic of Groceries

Dallas' pent-up lust for exotic foods has finally been met with the opening of Central Market. Will shopping ever be the same? Will our appetites?

But Romano says Eatzi's balance sheet has been scrubbed of the New York mess, and he plans to forge ahead and launch up to seven Eatzi's in the Dallas region beginning with Plano and South Lake. He's even talking about developing 7-Eleven-sized Eatzi's fed by centralized kitchens, steering further away from the dreaded grocery-store paradigm.

"The edge we've got on grocery stores is that when you go into a grocery store, it's a job," he insists. "You're out there to do a job. You've got a list. At Eatzi's, you go in there, no list. You're shopping with your heart."

Heart is what seems to be missing from the conventional food-shopping process. Traditional supermarkets have evolved into huge, high-tech institutions more eager to consume your personal shopping data than you are their toilet paper and olives. Perhaps that's why venues such as Eatzi's and Central Market incite such passion, even though the concepts they embrace have been quietly nesting in Dallas since Whole Foods Market opened on Greenville Avenue in 1986. Whole Foods has ample square footage devoted to fresh produce, whole grains, chef-prepared takeout foods and organic this and that. But it doesn't seem to have the sex appeal that Central Market or Eatzi's possesses. (Central Market is a tourist destination in Whole Foods' home city of Austin.) Part of it is probably age. Whole Foods has been around Texas for more than 20 years, while Eatzi's and Central Market are relative neophytes. The other piece is that Whole Foods appeals to a narrower niche--the organic, socially conscious consumer--although that niche is growing.
Peter Calvin

Top: Shoppers leer at the expansive "chef's case," which draws from a rotating roster of some 250 recipes. Bottom: A sample of the 15 fresh apple varieties in the produce cooler.
Peter Calvin
Top: Shoppers leer at the expansive "chef's case," which draws from a rotating roster of some 250 recipes. Bottom: A sample of the 15 fresh apple varieties in the produce cooler.

"People that go to Central Market might aspire to be gourmets. People that come to our store, they aspire to eat better," says Bruce Silverman, vice president of merchandising for Whole Foods' Southwest region. "[Central Market is] good at creating an exciting shopping experience...We're great at standards."

Romano suggests that Whole Foods is too much like a traditional grocery store to inspire thrills. (Though it's interesting to note that while Eatzi's flopped in Manhattan, Whole Foods recently opened what has become one of its best-selling outlets there.)

But that still doesn't answer the question of why food has become such an obsession. It's certainly odd to puzzle over 14 different kinds of onions, a dozen different pears, 60 different kinds of fresh sausages and a barracuda, flying fish or a mako shark on a trip to the grocer. But that's precisely the point.

James Twitchell, professor of English at the University of Florida, cites a social dynamic he defines as "a characteristic contradiction of our time, the necessary consumption of the unnecessary." In a recent article in Reason magazine, Twitchell argues that since the '80s, the bulk of luxury items--Prada handbags, BMWs, Vulcan ranges, Dom Perignon, Hugo Boss T-shirts, first-class travel (via frequent-flyer miles)--has been gobbled up by the middle class. He says that virtually the only luxury items the rich have left to themselves are time and philanthropy (and maybe a pond stocked with bass). "In the way we live now, you are not what you make," Twitchell writes. "You are what you consume."

And what you consume had better advertise a heightened sense of taste and discrimination. No longer just a necessity to keep the belly rumbles at bay, food has become a mark of sophistication, a form of expression, an entertainment, a topic of conversation as passionate as the babble over sports or politics.

"It takes a lot more to get a consumer excited these days, because they've been there, done that," says New York author Karen Page, who with her chef husband, Andrew Dornenburg, has written five books on chefs and culinary artistry. "If you look at the way that the average American eats today anywhere in the United States, you just couldn't have even imagined it 30 years ago."

Page attributes this heightened sophistication to a gradual convergence of technological and social forces, including advances in shipping, immigration from all corners of the globe, the democratization of travel, the proliferation of food shows and the advent of the celebrity chef. When seasoned with the diminishing resource of time, this confluence has led to a social shift whereby Americans are no longer fed by "Mom." Instead, they are fed--whether it's through restaurants, gourmet takeout emporiums or indirectly via television--by professional chefs.

Page also points out that the global center of culinary art has moved over the past few years. Once upon a time, an aspiring chef who wanted to acquire world-class training would make his or her way to Europe to slum in the bowels of the great Michelin two- and three-star restaurants.

"Now, the great restaurants of France and Europe and all around the world are sending their chefs to the United States," Page says. "European chefs realize that the Americans have surpassed them in terms of experimentation and incorporation of ingredients and techniques...New York is arguably what Paris used to be."

Which can only mean one thing: Our garbage must be getting a lot better. Skip the ketchup.

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