09/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Grocery Man Says It Isn't a Barbara Kingsolver World

Last week, famed grocer and cheesemonger Steve Jenkins held forth on the world of food in an interview with Leonard Lopate on New York public radio station, WNYC.

Jenkins was there to flack his new book, The Food Life, but along the way he had some refreshingly forthright things to say about today's of-the-moment food culture.

What gives Jenkins the standing to opine on the topic?

For one, Jenkins is one of the earliest and best of the country's cheese experts. Years ago, Jenkins launched an extraordinary cheese department -- one that served as a template for others in the city and elsewhere -- and he's the author of the widely hailed Cheese Primer. He's also one of the partners of New York's singular Fairway Market. That's eccentric, claustrophobic food temple that resides on Broadway on the Upper West Side, and which is now celebrating 75 years in business.

Fairway (there are actually two Manhattan stores, one in Brooklyn, and one on Long Island) is beloved for its cheap prices and high-quality fare -- including Jenkins' cheese counter. It's also grudgingly endured for its cramped narrow aisles, no wider than the ones dividing the subway cars rumbling beneath Broadway. Journeying up and down the market's jam-packed rows, stocked with olive oils from Italy, jams from France and all manner of goodies, legions of determined shoppers aim their shopping carts like so many heat seeking missiles.

In the interview, Jenkins made it clear that while food is his passion, groceries are his business.

His job, as he sees it?

To satisfy the tastes of the greatest number of people the greatest number of times.

Thus, when it comes to organic, he'll give it to you if that's what you want. The same with locally grown. A few years ago, Fairway turned its second floor into an emporium reserved largely for organic and health products to satisfy growing customer demand.

Says Jenkins of the mounting taste for organics: "I never dreamed we'd do such a good job with all that organic and natural claptrap. It's opened up a lot of horizons to me. I never paid attention to health food."

"It's amazing how perceptions change and change so fast," he adds. "Those nectarines and peaches that come in from Chile, we know they're not very good but people are begging us for them."
Why give customers food that's sub par?

"It's not a Barbara Kingsolver world," he maintains, referring to the novelist whose tome, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is considered by some a virtual handbook for the locavore movement.

But Jenkins' love of food shines through. In the interview, he bemoans the fact that New Yorkers will almost always opt to dine out rather than cook at home.

And he readily admits that though he may have to stock his shelves with fruit from South America, what grows locally boasts special charms.

"To bury your face in Long Island strawberries, there's no greater olfactory sensation," he says.