Bloomingdales and Produce

The following essay by Farmer John is reprinted from the Farm News: Week 7, August 13, 1994

in Bloomingdale’s New York this weekend. I was in New York for reasons I’m not quite sure of. Perhaps it had to do with a hundred days straight in the fields of Angelic Organics. Maybe I needed a break from dry weather, hot weather, cold weather, workers quitting, weeds flourishing, scorched clutches. Maybe I was just in terror of the stampede of vegetables coming our way–twice the crop we’ve ever raised, the daunting, exhilarating problem of a dream come true. Perhaps I needed a reminder that the throb of Angelic Organics produce was not the only commotion in the world. Anyway, I found myself in New York City–at the Lexington and 59th subway station. As I ascended the steps, I noticed the entrance to Bloomingdale’s. I was wearing a shabby straw hat. Perhaps this marvel of consumerism would have a suitable replacement.

Dozens of groomed women greeted me with atomizers as I made my way through the enormous cosmetics department.

“Would you like to try our Jaipur by Boucheron?” A poised uniformed clerk, her features impeccably shaded and toned, misted my wrist with a luxurious fruity haze of eau de Toilette Jaipur. “It’s made exclusively for Bloomingdale’s of New York. You can’t get it anywhere else in the world.”

Does this mean it’s indigenous? I wondered.

I wandered the aisles of glamour. Chanel, Lancaster, Orlane Paris, Sheisido, Studio Gear, Clarins, Clinique. Scrubbed, coiffed clerks offered exotic aromas. Teeth gleamed. Eyes glistened. The Lancome display implored, “Choose your two colors: Personal Eyes”. Bien Fait enticed with “Total Well Being for Your Skin. Total Hydration. Total Radiance.”

Something in this is familiar, I mused. There is an impulse here that is similar to an impulse in the produce business.

Alexander de Markoff offered “Eye Shapers–the nonsurgical eye lift; Face Shapers–the secret weapon that’s easier than a face lift.”

In produce, I thought, quality is usually associated with exterior qualities–sheen, uniformity, and the absence of blotches, insect damage, worm damage. A certain look is regarded as identical to wholesomeness, freshness, quality. But was the crop really grown on well mineralized, biologically active soil? Was it really harvested recently? Is that reflective skin an expression of inner glow or just the right wax?

“Lasting, Luxury Lipstick gives a smooth, moist ‘youthening’ glow.”

This is the image era. Photographs are marketed as memories. Intense personal moments are “like something in the movies.” The image becomes the real thing. The wax on the apple becomes the message of health. The blush applied to the woman’s face becomes her vitality. That celebrity who celebrated the beauty of pregnancy by offering her naked body to the front cover of a national magazine–the image went back to the studio again and again for manipulation, once for a smaller neck.

“Why are you picking up all those brochures?” the Gale Hayman saleswoman asked me.

“I’m a farmer, and this cosmetics floor is making me think about vegetables.”

She looked confused.

“It’s about looks–” I offered, “cosmetics and vegetables. Do any of these companies offer health programs, spas, food seminars? Anything ayurvedic?”


“It’s an Indian approach to well being. It’s a little more comprehensive than this.” I gestured towards the counters.

“Oh, you mean from the inside out,” she offered. “No, on Fifth Avenue there’s a company that does that. I don’t think it’s Indian, though. This is all from the outside in. Just looks.”

“I grew up in Vermont,” she added. “Everyone had gardens. No one worried about what they were eating there, ’cause they just went out in their backyard and grabbed it. You know what I’m really worried about, though? I don’t want pig genes in my potatoes. They’re starting to do that, you know, and it’s terrifying.”

“It won’t even be labeled,” I mentioned. “The FDA pulls supplements off the shelves of health food stores, but they won’t protect you from animal vegetables.”

I proceeded through the plume of fragrances. Estee Lauder beckoned with lotions–Youth Dew, Knowing, Beautiful.

I was mesmerized by these shortcuts. I’ve never minded makeup, never thought it was something people weren’t supposed to do. But as I navigated this labyrinth of images, aromas, colors I kept imagining customers buying engorged, glossy peppers in a produce department. They ignored the organic section.

“What are you doing?” I asked the lanky red-headed Tuscany clerk.

She quickly covered a drawing.

“Nothing,” she answered.

“You’re doodling,” I challenged.

“That guy over there,” she nodded towards a handsome young man in a white jacket at the Aramis booth. He was flanked by plexiglass display columns of colognes. “He keeps making drawings of me. He puts them in my drawer. I want to get back at him.”

She reached into a drawer and handed me a flattering sketch of her, done with a slight art nouveau flourish.

“He wants a date,” I said.

She giggled.

“Show me your drawing,” I requested.

She reluctantly revealed a primitive sketch of round eyes, triangular nose, a line mouth–the beginnings of a stick person. Behind the clerk loomed a giant illuminated-from-behind black and white photograph of a couple-in-love, reveling in the fragrance of “Joop!”

“Did you hear that?” she asked.


“The bird noise. You’ll hear it.”

A tropical warble floated through the Bloomingdale din.

“It’s that guy who draws me,” she offered. “All day he makes those bird noises. He doesn’t even open his mouth.”

I watched him polish bottles of Devin cologne. His mouth seemed closed.

Another beautiful bird sound floated through the hubbub.

“I have to get back to work,” she said.