Saturday, September 30, 2023 Sep 30, 2023
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Health Food

A Meditation on the Proper Care of Good Cheese and the Soul of Dallas

As a British expat, I found (nearly) all I need at the Lakewood Whole Foods bar.
By Richard Patterson |
Back in London, as a younger man, I frequented a couple of pubs with long traditions that a group of us had hitched ourselves to during art school: the Coach and Horses and the French House, both in Soho. The former, a journalists and writers pub, was a second home to Jeffrey Bernard, a magazine columnist so notorious that a play was written about him titled Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (a reference to the standard notice that The Spectator was forced to run when Bernard failed to turn in his column). “Has Jeff been in?” It was a common refrain, even from people who didn’t know him. At the French House, an artists and writers pub that had been a safe house for La Résistance during World War II, I once saw the famous painter Francis Bacon at a small table drinking with a friend.

Going to one of these pubs on Friday night was a way of being and feeling connected to other people. You didn’t need to know who was going because chances were, people you knew would be there, along with interesting people you didn’t yet know. They weren’t just places to be seen at, to drink at. They were important cultural hubs, a point of contact or attachment. Progress—the modern world, city life—was hatched, mulled over, disemboweled, and rewritten down at the pub. Art shows, dance, theater—it always got discussed, before and after, down at the pub. You generally arrived and left on foot. You got the train or bus home. You were always with people, known and unknown, until you fell into bed.

Having a drink at the airport isn’t really having a drink; it’s waiting for a plane. So, too, at Whole Foods.

I’ve never quite matched this in Dallas. Maybe social media has dulled a certain need, even though I only do emails and I only started texting last year. And if there is such a place, I have to drive to it, and I feel weirdly sat-nav suburban and un-vital and too nice before I’ve even gotten out of the car. Generally nothing surprising happens on the way there or back. I don’t seem a good fit in the Dallas barroom, truth be told. I prefer wine now. I’m older. I need fine wine, and I need it with food. I like to cook. So I like being at home, cooking, sipping, cooking, glugging, boozing, cooking, writing.

One day about six or seven years ago—I forget when—Whole Foods had the simple idea of placing a bar at the back of their store in Lakewood. I discovered you could drink while you shopped while you drank. Shopping for food and having a glass segued directly into my going home and sipping wine while I cooked. Genius. I remember the day I saw a glamorous possible divorcée, kind of a Dallas blond Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, pushing a cart around the store in a summer dress and large sunglasses, drinking one of those Texas-size wineglasses full of white wine. It wasn’t my mother-in-law. But it could have been. How civilized, I thought.

Soon everyone was doing it—the newlyweds, the young courting couple, the stressed midlife crisis people, bankers, Realtors, deep-in-thought artist-philosopher types, karate coaches, artisanal welder types from the parts of East Dallas that are still affordable. There’s a certain Park Cities contingent, people who have to settle for Lakewood Country Club, next door, while they wait for admission to Dallas Country Club. Which shouldn’t be confused with the other, diametrically opposed Park Cities contingent, the ones who moved there for the schools, hung on by their fingernails to pay the mortgage and property taxes, then, soon as the kids were out of the house, made a run for the border while they still had the last vestige of their sanity. They all found that Chardonnay and 11 percent ABV beer make shopping so much easier.

The bar expanded as it became a hit. It’s a grocery store, not a bar, you understand. Having a drink at the airport isn’t really having a drink; it’s waiting for a plane. So, too, at Whole Foods. You’re actually shopping. The missus sent you out last minute for the French butter, lemons, and fresh thyme and rosemary for the Anthony Bourdain roast chicken that you’ll be making. You’ve taken Junior to help you carry the lemons—and you’re now having a pint at the bar while Junior is dutifully testing his herb recognition skills over at the bunches standing in water near the electric door. Always task Junior with finding the more obscure items. It takes him longer, develops initiative and a sense of entrepreneurialism, and it gives you extra drinking time. Junior won’t be able to rat you out to his mother that you’re drinking two pints because he won’t have seen you ordering the second one, so deep will he be in a discussion with a helpful Whole Foods associate about marjoram and oregano and whether one can be substituted for the other in a boeuf bourguignonne. Every boy should know how to cook and shop for food. So should every girl. Never rush them. Even if it takes a third pint at the bar. Your wife will understand. I don’t have kids, but I have many progressive ideas on parenting.

The bar is at the back, adjoining the cheese counter, with a clear view to the meat counter, the fish counter over catty-corner, the olives and artisanal crackers made of Parmesan nearby. The wine and beer racks are in clear and present view/danger over to the west, stage right, as it were. You can take a bottle from the rack. Take the most expensive one. Why not? Or the cheapest. It’s a free country. Take it to the bar, and have the barman open it for you. Because you’re shopping. Excellent. You’re actually virtually at home, in fact. Merely minutes away. Considering tonight’s menu. Pour me a second glass, won’t you? Who else wants a glass?

You sit, if you have any sense, with your back to the vitamin and nutters’ section of the store, the place where all the very unhealthy people congregate, determined to ward off ailments with tankloads of pills and secret fish oil concoctions to tip into the four-person yurt-ready meal they’re probably putting together. I strongly advise keeping your back to this section. It’s counterproductive and throws you off your game. The bar is well-designed for this. Nearby is the coffee and tea. Farthest away is the yeast, mung bean variants, the Puy lentil loading stations at the Annie Hall plastic dispensers next to where Woody would have been complaining about the cracked yeast salad. Beware the recycled sandals made of rainforest-gathered legume shells and pressed chaff from faraway places. They tend to hang them near the vitamins. I’m convinced they’re the slippery slope, the trickle down, the rising tide raising all sandals, that will lead me involuntarily to wearing those rubberized clog things for garden gnomes. I don’t think I can do that, even if they are truly good for the arches of your feet. Sometimes you have to draw a line.

So my regimen is to stick with the older and more trusted drugs, the ones that actually work. The alcohol, the caffeine, the red meat, the salmon, the vongole, the European cheeses, the walnuts. The bar betrays this hierarchy in a fairly honest fashion. Around it radiate cheeses from distant shores—not a stellar collection, but if you look, you’ll find Borough Market and Neal’s Yard cheeses from England (you won’t find much better English cheeses than these, though the selection is limited to only a few), some decent French, Dutch, and Italian cheeses here or there. I can, if I pick through, be truly cosmopolitan. I’m almost back in Soho with its myriad Continental delicatessens and street markets. I’m steps from the meat counter, which is good because I’ll be over there in a minute to quiz the butcher on whether that leg of lamb is truly from New Zealand or merely mislabeled as such (watch out for this) and to buy ground chicken for Murray, the dog. He’s not allowed in the store, so I have to pick it out for him. He trusts me implicitly on this.

And then the hardcore gear: the caffeine, the booze, the oily deep-sea cold-water fishes to keep my skin and hair looking “always fantastic” without the aid of $140 worth of vitamin pills. Why spend $140 on pills when you can buy a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Keeps your hair looking great. “What’s the secret to your youthful boyish looks, Richard?” “Try a case of this! It’s only $900.” Have people lost their minds since the election? Vitamin pills? When there’s a Neal’s Yard Stilton and a Roquefort? Do they not know about the caves of Combalou?

So. I’m not a barfly at all. I like wine but not what’s behind the bar. I like beer, but I’m not a craft beer nut. Although I appreciate the efforts, and Dallas-based Peticolas Royal Scandal is first rate in my view. For an Englishman looking for a good English-style IPA, this is it. This will do fine. More than fine, in fact.

But that’s not why I’m here. I don’t want to be in a bar. But what Dallas sorely lacks is a sense of the town square, the piazza. No such thing exists in Dallas, anywhere. There’s only the ubiquitous, utterly soul-destroying, vapidly squalid, and culturally hoodwinking strip mall. Who invented these things? You can be sure they were in league with road builders. Those places around which supposedly America is to be made great again. How is this to happen? The lack of street, the incessant valet culture, the parking—I can’t really deal with it all.

I miss the street, the Yorkstone pavers, the piazzas, the small garden squares with their plane trees. Cambridge Circus, where you’ll find the Coach and Horses, which was next to Leicester Square, which was next to Piccadilly Circus, which was next to Regent Street—aah, London, London, London. What a city! Dr. Johnson, Lord Nelson, Brunel, Charles Dickens, Hogarth, Gilbert & George, Richard Patterson. Anyway, I’m not there. Dallas is not London. It’s Dallas. I’m not there. I’m here. Honest I am.

You sit, if you have any sense, with your back to the vitamin and nutters’ section of the store, the place where all the unhealthy people congregate.

In my head, I’m totally in Dallas. To prove this, I stare at the ceiling in Whole Foods and I remind myself of what I like about here that I couldn’t get there. Like the feeling of being completely unhurried while I shop. The almost surreal Luis Buñuel-like feeling that I’m in a French art film/dream sequence as I drink a glass of something in a supermarket, in a giant shed, near a large artificial lake. Whole Foods has a modern metal ceiling like an aircraft hangar. This I like. I like its diamond-polished concrete floor. It is the indoor Dallas piazza. It’s quintessentially both modern and old Dallas. You feel the enormous weight of the water of White Rock Lake not far behind you. You can almost smell the pond weed, reedy, sulfurous, lake-ish smells from the spillway.

The lake: Dallas’ leading nature feature. I used to live adjacent to the lake. I like it a lot and now regularly walk around it. Driving past it at 3 am on the way back from the studio and seeing the moon reflect off its surface was always a touch Raymond Chandler to me, a bit Hollywood to the British eye. So standing in the Whole Foods parking lot, looking north, up the gradient, and at the storefront, you see only the store’s facade and then the sky. It’s a stand-alone effort, apparently guarding the old world of Lakewood from its final extinction by the inane architecture of Walgreenses and CVSes and toll roads and big strip mall idiot signs (although it’s not without all of this stuff). But if you stand in this spot and don’t move, you could believe otherwise.

Looking south, you see the yellow neon Wells Fargo sign on the top of the bank, which although not the actual bank nonetheless serves as a reminder of the progressive Oklahoma banker who relocated to Lakewood in the 1960s and had the vision to give out loans to less likely mortgagees on the proviso that homeowners began to improve and restore the neighborhood. Then, across Abrams, the 1930s Lakewood Theater and its period lighting, which might for now stand in as a medieval Sienese tower or something from a de Chirico painting marking the corner of the piazza. And then the rooftops of East Dallas beyond, under which—at least until they are all torn down and replaced with condos and apartments that look like prisons—bongs and didgeridoos and throwback vintage cheese fondue sets are at standby, ready to be rediscovered by Gen Z and their grandparents alike. Added to that, the massive blue Texan skyscape, or the brooding tornado-laden green skyscape, or whatever is stretching across the Great Plains or whipped up from the Gulf. Somehow, the Whole Foods parking lot is the place to contemplate un-London Dallas, American politics, Dallas politics, New Zealand lamb, home-cooked dog food, early music. All of these things.

As an immigrant, it’s my version of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. A View From the Parking Lot, the Last Bar. “I want my name!” he yells.

Inside at the bar, if I can, I just listen and watch. The great actor Oli Reed talked about sitting in bars as being a key insight into human nature. It told him everything he needed to know about acting. Generally, I only stay for a single drink, and when possible I prefer to be alone. But I can be alone and around people. Doing so at this bar is not quite like being the lone drinker in the regular bar because you may, in fact, be having a chat with the butcher to determine why they stopped doing chicken livers. He peers inside a couple of chicken carcasses to double-check, while you take another gulp of wine. It’s a bloody civilized way of getting to know how it all works. Now they’re doing chicken livers again. Eventually you determine that Whole Foods HQ makes a lot of the decisions and that the customer is not always right, because the aggregated customer from elsewhere has determined whether or not Niman Ranch European-style ham will be deleted across the board. Whole Foods apparently has its own electoral college. It’s way more human and persuasive to sort this out over a drink. You get to reason with the staff in this way.

Meanwhile some coachlike dad wanders past with his 15-year-old, who’s enthusiastically and expertly tossing a football near the olive counter. Could this be more Texan? The boy is oblivious to the plights of the Englishman and the store’s only plausible European-style non-sickly ham that’s now banished from Whole Foods despite being a bestseller in Lakewood. But there you go, very egalitarian. I’m more than happy they toss the ball in the store. I’m sure they’re equally impressed by my knowledge of Neal’s Yard Shropshire Blue or Red Leicester and my tutting at the staff about the Saran-wrapped cheeses. “Where, oh, where is the waxed paper? I mean, this is from Borough Market. Waxed paper, is it really too much to ask? It has taken them years to make this, nay centuries.” It takes all sorts. I’m cool with their football. I’m sure they’re cool with my inquisition on the fidelity of the dry-aged beef.

There is a range of people in Whole Foods willing to chat, and somehow shopping for food takes the otherwise taciturn Dallasites off their guard.

And I’m not alone in doing this. Well, maybe the waxed paper bit. You get to watch the world go by. You learn that the most experienced barman is actually the guy on the wrong side of the bar. That there’s a hard core of regulars who provide, almost without fail, ready-made scripts for a Dallas version of Cheers. I even wrote one down once, so entertaining was it, and sent it off to some magazine editor. The only reason not to publish it was that it would have betrayed their privacy. The genius of it is that it’s their ad-libbed script­—the script of life. Life is stranger and funnier than fiction. You literally can’t make this stuff up. Suffice to say, there are conversations and musings on the continued relevance of Paul Giamatti in Sideways and how he never actually says, “I don’t like Merlot.” There are discussions on political correctness long before the election hijacked the whole topic. There is a great disquisition on acid reflux, one of my all-time favorites. At the bar, I see artists I know, various crossovers from the pool I swim at, the coffee shop I coffee at. It is the village square. It’s hard not to run into someone you know. It is the natural nexus of East Dallas in some respects.

It was from my cheese-side perch at the bar that I wrote to that same magazine editor, with considerable chagrin, my prediction that Trump would win the election. Whole Foods and my coffee shop, I said, are bellwethers. I’d detected too much disdain for the election in general and an unspoken reluctance to write off Trump. A feeling that something was not right, either way around. If metro, liberal, elite, lentil-fermenting Whole Foods was wavering, so, too, surely was the nation. This is not to saddle the store with undeserved political views. I’m sure it hosts many perspectives. And as I’ve said many times of Dallas, craft beer, artisanal beards, and vintage filament lightbulb restaurants do not alone equate with liberalism. Cooking a Provençal ratatouille does not mean you’re either un-American nor a guarantee that you might not have just descended into a plot far worse and less funny than the one in Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

So for me, it’s the square. I watch the world go by in a way that I can’t elsewhere in Dallas, somehow freer from the cloying consumerism and spangle of NorthPark. It’s still consumerism, of course, but there is a range of people in Whole Foods willing to chat, and somehow shopping for food takes the otherwise taciturn Dallasites off their guard. Truthfully, everyone in there is solid and friendly. Don’t know why but that’s how it is. People meet your eye. They ask you how you are. It makes East Dallas, to me, the coolest part of the city. I don’t live in Oak Cliff. I may be too old by now. But in a sense it hipsterploded almost instantly and went a bit trinket town before it even got to the Portlandia stage. East Dallas is a bit more robust. It’s not that cool to start with. It’s a bit middle-aged and tragically like a real-life Louis C.K. episode meets a faded copy of The Ice Storm. It has a hint of what in England is called the chattering classes. The burgeoning metropolitan bourgeoisie who all read the Guardian, watch BBC Two’s Newsnight, know what’s on at Tate Modern, have several imminent reading lists, use public transport regularly, and by nature are always rubbing shoulders with each other. Without the chattering class, the arts aren’t much more than a mirage. Does Dallas have this? No, actually, it doesn’t. But in the Whole Foods bar, for a minute, you can pretend that it does.

Richard Patterson is a YBA painter who has shown in solo and group exhibitions around the world. His work is in the Saatchi Collection (London), the Tate Gallery (London), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Denver Art Museum, among others.

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