I am spending the week with my family in the Bay Area, California. It always feels like a hedonistic paradise when I visit, kindof like going to Italy…the sun is warm and the air mild, citrus are dripping from trees everywhere, and people sit outside and share coffee and locally grown vegetables in the most unlikely of places. If you want to get a nice flavor of the epicurean daily life of a Bay Arean, check out Heidi Swanson’s gorgeous food blog 101cookbooks.
Now that I’m a committed New Englander it always feels a little decadent and a little nostalgic to spend time here, and the place that says Berkeley more than anything to me is the Berkeley Bowl. I remember going to the Bowl as a little girl, on Saturdays with my dad. The original location was in a former bowling alley, and we would park in a back lot and enter through a creaky old door into the bulk foods section. In my memory it was a little labyrinthine, dark, and dingy, and there was an excitement of treasure hunting and exploration in this jumbled and exuberant profusion of grains, tofu, and spices. My favorite part of every trip was the fried tofu skins: they were kept in barrels and my parents let us eat them as we walked through the store, turning them inside out and eating all of the soft tofu insides and then savoring the crispy, oily skin at the end. In 1999, the Bowl moved to a former Safeway across the street: more rational aisle organization, more parking, better all around. No more barrels of fried tofu.
So I couldn’t have been more excited to head today to Berkeley Bowl West, a newly opened location on the other side of the city. I had heard from a friend that the new Bowl had quickly become a foodie mecca, so I insisted on an outing. The large, sleek contemporary building is no Whole Foods…it says Berkeley independence all the way. It has a lot of parking — one of things that continues to shock me about Berkeley is how this extremely progressive community is completely reliant on the car because of its design — and it faced a steep battle with local businesses because of the threat of congestion and traffic from avid vegetable junkies. And the massive, diverse produce section, which takes up almost half of the store, is definitely pretty incredible. I can’t say that I found it to be much of a revelation, and I still like something about the funky, scraped-together feeling of an old co-op or natural foods shop, but if this is the mainstreaming of healthy, whole foods, I am all about it.