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Legibility and Food Access

Returning to San Francisco from a trip to New York City, I ruminated on my first experience of staying in midtown in the city in which I was raised. The city is different, of course. Times Square has fulfilled its Blade Runner destiny, and blue Grecian “Greatest Coffee in the World” cups have been supplanted with those from Starbucks. What stayed with me, however, was a brief exchange with another attendee of the same conference for which I was in town. “Everything is so expensive” she lamented. “I see people with yogurts and sandwiches and other things that don’t seem to cost too much, but I don’t know where they get them.” “Oh, there’s plenty of stuff around here” I replied. “You just have to look.” 

Lisa Feldstein | March 2, 2012, 5pm PST
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Returning to San Francisco from a trip to New York City, I ruminated on my first experience of staying in midtown in the city in which I was raised. The city is different, of course. Times Square has fulfilled its Blade Runner destiny, and blue Grecian "Greatest Coffee in the World" cups have been supplanted with those from Starbucks. What stayed with me, however, was a brief exchange with another attendee of the same conference for which I was in town. "Everything is so expensive" she lamented. "I see people with yogurts and sandwiches and other things that don't seem to cost too much, but I don't know where they get them." "Oh, there's plenty of stuff around here" I replied. "You just have to look." 

It was true. There was plenty. And because the landscape was legible to me, I knew how and where to find it. Earlier that day I had gone across the street to the Halal cart and gotten a fantastic falafel sandwich and a beverage for under $5.  I knew to go to that stand, and not its rival across the street, because it had a long line of people who were waiting patiently for items from their brief menu of beef, falafel, and hummus. In the same block, but set back from the street, was a small deli where one could get fresh sandwiches, salads, and snacks. A couple of blocks away was what New Yorkers call a "Korean Deli". These ubiquitous markets are run by Korean families, open 24 hours a day, and offer gigantic salad bars, sushi, fruit, vegetables, and packaged ready-to-eat foods, among other things.  A block further and there was a supermarket (New York-sized; compact and crowded, no sprawling aisles or even parking). And the "drug stores" on every block might still have pharmacies, but they are well hidden today behind the refrigerated dairy cases, the fresh produce, and the aisles of canned and boxed foods.

I was surprised, at first, that this conferee hadn't checked out the Halal food stand across the street. But of course, street food isn't part of the American landscape, and probably looks untrustworthy and unsavory to visitors who are seeking nourishment rather than a "New York experience". And without knowing what to look for, the deli across the street probably didn't look accessible.

I've encountered the same illegibility when visiting other cities. If I'm not seeking a familiar chain, how do I find food? How do I know where to go, what to purchase, and how it is consumed locally? How do I order from the menu of a cuisine I've never encountered? How do I make this food landscape legible? 

Taken a step further, how does someone in a neighborhood without supermarkets learn how to prepare fresh food? How does the newcomer learn to understand the produce of another culture, if that is what is available to them?

What food landscapes have you found legible and illegible?

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