Industrial Harvest

Kavage Bros. by sarah kavage
December 27, 2009, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , ,

It being the holidays and all, I managed to convince my parents to make a visit to keep me company in Chicago for a few days.  All the thinking about grocery stores and food deserts reminded me that being a grocer is part of my own family history.  My dad grew up in a small mining / mill town along the Ohio river, and my grandfather and his two brothers ran Kavage Bros., a small grocery / butcher from the 30s into the 70s. 

I got my dad to refresh my memory with a few stories and descriptions of what the life of a small town grocer was like.  Please indulge, and hopefully enjoy, this short trip down memory lane and diversion from the regularly scheduled “research program.” 

The most important thing to remember about old-time grocery stores is that they ran on a credit system.  Kavage Bros. was no different.  Customers had an account which they would periodically pay off; during strikes at the steel mill credit would be extended for even longer periods of time.  Yes, getting people to pay could be quite an ordeal, even when they weren’t on strike.  The accounting system was a ledger with a tab for each customer and their receipts were affixed to that tab.  When a customer bought or ordered something, the new receipt would be placed on the top of the stack and a running total amount owed was written on that top receipt.  So it was pretty easy to tell at a glance which customers you needed to collect from – they had the largest running totals and the thickest stacks of receipts.  Back then delivery was free, even for a single loaf of bread – my dad did delivery runs practically as soon as his legs were long enough to reach the gas pedal. 

The store was not just a store but somewhat of a social center for a small town.  There was a pool hall in the store basement, and also a 16 mm movie projector with one old silent western on it that my father would watch daily before going to school.  Grandpa pulled the tooth of a one-armed Greek man who came in with a toothache by leaning him back on the butcher block, wrapping a handkerchief around a pair of pliers, and giving a good yank (just writing that makes my mouth hurt).   

Apparently there were also quite a few not-quite-above board activities that went on there.  My grandpa was a big gambler and made so many bets from behind the counter that it sounds like it was difficult for him to get business done; during WWII he and one brother also ran a little bit of a black-market business getting people extra sugar, oil and other rationed goods.  Family legend has it that he somehow did all of this stuff without the knowledge of the third brother who was much more pious and law-abiding. 

For a time, there were two Kavage Bros. stores, one in Yorkville and one in nearby Tiltonsville.  Like many of the small independents, the Yorkville store closed in the 60s, pushed out by the larger chain supermarkets which were coming into vogue at the time.  I have some foggy memories of the Tiltonsville store which revolved around being confused by the fact that we were allowed to eat candy bars there without paying for them.  My grandpa closed the Tiltonsville store when he hit retirement age and spent the rest of his years on the golf course, occasionally taking his granddaughters to the dog races and letting them recklessly drive the golf cart.


Greetings from the middle of the food desert by sarah kavage

Ironically, spending a month in Chicago working on a project about food and nourishment has up until this point meant sacrificing the ability to nourish myself.  You see, despite InCUBATE’s location in a pretty good neighborhood, there is little fresh or organic food to be found nearby.  It’s just in one of those nowhere-ish locations and although it’s been great to be around so much good Mexican food, one cannot live by tortillas and micheladas alone (although I’ve been trying), and eating out gets expensive really quickly.  Plus, most of the time I’d just rather eat my own cooking. 

So I’ve been getting into the terrible habit of living in semi-starvation mode for most of the day and then doing dinner meetings or social events where food is served.  Semi-starvation mode, for me, means snacking on bread (haven’t lacked for that), cheese and peanut butter, the occasional soy shake, and coffee throughout the day with no real meal.  On days when I don’t go out, that pattern just continues till I go to bed.  I most certainly am not starving, but I have a high metabolism and sometimes it feels just a little bit like it.  Plus the lack of ability to find a good vegetable is really frustrating.  I’ve been able to pick up some great baked goods, cheese and tofu at the Logan Square Sunday farmer’s market (next door!) but there’s little fresh being sold there these days due to the obvious fact that not much grows in mid-December in the midwest. 

One of the most interesting concepts in geography / urban planning to have cropped up in the last few years (or ten) has been that of the food desert.  Definitions vary, but usually food deserts are areas lacking in access to a) fresh b) affordable c) any food outlets.  Instead, you see fast food restaurants, convenience stores and liquor stores.  Usually these are poor neighborhoods with more darker skinned people and new immigrants.  It’s unfortunately no surprise that the upper-class white neighborhoods get the fancy organic grocery stores, the farmers’ markets, or any grocery store at all, and that the fast food chains prey on people who think they can’t afford anything better or are working two or three or four jobs and don’t have the time to run around the city looking for more nutritious alternatives, much less cook them.   A lot of people in Chicago (and other places) have been working to change this through community gardens and farmers’ markets, but it’s tough to get the big grocery stores to budge.  Small grocery stores can change what they carry, but are often locked out of their ability to get better quality goods because the large chain grocers have a lock on the distribution networks, or can undercut prices so much.  

I went to the local grocery store around the corner, a larger independently owned Mexican grocery that was actually quite fine in all respects except for the rather ugly, industrially produced produce.  In Seattle, the basket of groceries that I walked out with would have been of much higher quality (organic, etc) and cost between 30 and 40 bucks.  This basket?  $13 and change ($5 of which was for organic butter – yikes).  A three-fold difference in cost?  You gain a little bit of understanding into what people mean when they say they can’t afford organic.  I’m not at all rich by American standards, but I am a little bit different from most people because I don’t have a car and will pay a high premium for convenience (our local grocery in Seattle is a 5-10 minute walk from the house), and because we eat nearly all of our meals at home it’s easier to rationalize paying more.  And I love good food and want to support small farmers and organic farming.  So the bottom line is I pay that premium willingly, but I still feel like a sucker and wonder are we helping to create local food systems or are we helping to create TWO food systems, where the good food goes to people who can afford it and working class / poor people get the cheap, industrially produced crap?

To continue blathering on about my food consumption, observant readers may have noticed the use of “up until this point” in the first sentence of this post.  Yes, I finally found nourishment in the form of the Dill Pickle Food Coop, a newly opened coop that began as a buying club a few years back and now has a small storefront space in Logan Square.  Kudos again to Bryce, who seems to have his finger on the pulse of all things food-related, for cluing me in to this.  It was about a 15-minute walk, non-members can shop there, and they had some beautiful kale, potatoes, carrots and some almost at the end of their life-span but very cheap tomatoes. 

Guess how much I spent.  Forty bucks.  I knew that’s how much it would cost, too – it was just like being back in Seattle.  Despite the sinking feeling that I have become a yuppie snob, it was a great feeling to come back and actually cook.  I made some delicious lentil soup – which I ate two bowls of with the fresh baked bread and felt finally, totally nourished and very grateful that I am in the privileged position of being able to afford such things.

Look for more posts about this topic in the future.  It’s one I have a great deal of personal and professional interest in, but it’s complicated and I have not done nearly enough research to discuss all of or even some of these issues sensitively and in depth.  The food desert phenomenon is real, and illuminates so many issues of race and class in our society, but what can / is being done about it?