When the temperature is warmer than normal, my thoughts usually turn to Al Gore and global warming. I have this indelible vision of Al Gore as a bean-eating cowboy in the "campfire" scene in Mel Brook’s "Blazing Saddles." For that matter, I always think of the "schnitzengruber" scene from that same movie whenever Bill Clinton’s name pops up. January was downright balmy so you can imagine where my mind has been.
If you live in Beckley, however, your mind hasn’t been on January’s warm weather. No, you’ve been thinking about the "Governor Lepetomane Toll Road" scene from "Blazing Saddles."
What struck me as so odd last month were not the warm temperatures but the incredibly ripe watermelons at the supermarket. It’s just wrong to shop for ripe watermelon in mid-January. Or at least it once was.
It hasn’t been that long ago that even the most exclusive restaurants had to limit their fresh fruit offerings to whatever was "in season." Whether you were dining at the Greenbrier or the Four Seasons mattered not-their menus clearly announced that seasonal disclaimer. Then it was left to your waiter to announce the fruit du jour.
Eating watermelon in January in West Virginia tells us a great deal about the choices available to us in the 21st Century. We have come a long way in the 700 years since Marco Polo first delivered peppercorns to exclusive French restaurants. But both events are the result of the exact same system-the marketplace. The marketplace has always been defined by supply, demand, and the consumer’s choice based on price, quality, and availability. While these are tangible choices, a great intangible factor (The customer is always right!) has long been the force that drives the gears of the system.
In many respects, there is merit to the paucity of the old ways. In olden times, it was the custom in some villages to give each child an orange at Christmas. That doesn’t sound like much of a gift in our time. But if you had been dining on dried beans and salt pork for two months, a sweet orange would have been a real treat. I dare say that a child of yore had more fond memories of eating a single orange in winter than modern kids have of ubiquitous X-boxes.
When we were a society that dined "in season", we had a greater appreciation for nature, the seasons, and the bounty of our garden crops. We began each meal with a blessing and we properly thanked God for putting food on our table. Today, it is disingenuous to say a blessing when the table has been prepared by Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, or Long John Silver.
Having choices, on the other hand, doesn’t mean that we have become blasphemers hell-bent on scrapping our old social values. That’s the beauty of an economy that allows the consumer to have choices. All that is different now is that practicing the old values has now become a choice whereas before, it wasn’t.
Let’s call it the Wal-Mart phenomenon. We talk endlessly about preserving our old downtown retail districts. We wax eloquently about the family-owned stores that once graced Main Street. We lament that the big box stores along the interstate have completely rearranged the retail district. And who can forget Blue Laws and restful Sundays?
Fifty years ago, we did not wax eloquent about parking meters. We also carped that Smith’s Bicycle Shop had no competition and that they sold Schwinn bikes for an arm and a leg above wholesale. We also complained about Blue Laws. Just because the shopkeepers needed a day off shouldn’t have resulted in laws punishing the rest of us.
Consumers want choices-the more the better. That’s why Marco Polo appears in the history books. That’s why some folks prefer the Martha Stewart stuff at Kmart to the same kind of stuff at Target. In olden times, soup was a necessity, invented as a way to eat precious leftovers. Today, you can fill your pantry with canned soups of each and every kind, with or without salt added.
The Luddites of our age sincerely believe that, by encumbering Wal-Mart with "Blue Laws", they can turn the clocks back to 1950. But that is not going to happen. F. A. Hayek demonstrated correctly, and well before 1950, that consumers are the force that defines the marketplace.
Al Gore’s flatulence notwithstanding, that’s why watermelon was "in season" last month.