The “Artisan Salmon” of Whole Foods

“Charlie, they don’t want tunas with good taste. They want tunas that taste good.” — Charlie the Tuna advertisements from the 1960s to ’80s.

I recently visited the local Whole Foods that is 21 miles downvalley. (Aspen itself has banned chain stores because customers like them more than City Council thinks they should.)

I overheard a conversation between a customer (or what they surely call a “client”) and a fish monger wearing a purple earring (what they probably call a “pescateur”).

Client (looking over a counter of iced salmon): “But are the salmon farmed sustainably?” She asked her question a little too loudly so that other customers could hear it.

Pescateur: “Are you kidding? This is artisan salmon. Our partnering salmon supplier — which operates off the coast of Norway using special deep water salmoniniums — harvests two salmon eggs for each salmon they sell.”

“What happens to the eggs?”

“They’re at the other end of the counter.”

“OK, I’ll take 4 pounds of salmon.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll take 4 pounds of the salmon, please.”

“Lady, we don’t chop these up. This is Whole Foods and we sell only whole salmon.”

“Fine, I’ll take two whole salmon.” The woman was getting rattled, but was thankful she hadn’t asked for hamburger.

“Which ones do you want?”

“Oh my, they all look the same to me.” She pointed. “I guess those two.”

The pescateur looked horrified. “In your anthropocentric world where you suppose you’ve purchased social justice and hipness with a hybrid Prius and a COEXIST bumper sticker, which you drove 21 miles to display in our parking lot, I’m sure all salmon look the same to you. But they’re not. This is Olga. Her favorite movie is ‘The Little Mermaid.’ This is Hans. He likes ‘Jaws’ and he wants to become a pilot.”

The woman could feel other customers glaring. And she wondered how he knew about her car.

She fished around for a little cred. “Oh, I love that diversity! But what’s the story about the one that’s all alone at the end?”

“That’s Ralph. He’s a rescue salmon. We don’t know his story. They just found him swimming out in the ocean. He was floundering. He had no school, or he might have been home-schooled.”

“Eww, I don’t want him. OK, could I please have Olga and Hans? And a recipe for preparing them with organic herbs from my garden.” She was speaking loudly again.

“Listen, lady. Olga and Hans are already well-prepared. They both swam in the best private prep schools. The question is whether you are.” He handed her a bound folder. “Here’s the adoption application. And we’ll need refrigerator specs and two references.”

She lost it. “Oh, my gosh! Enough already! These fish are friggin’ dead!”

“Don’t get crabby. To them, you’re the one who is dead. Frankly, you have all the charm of a 3-day-old mackerel.” He snatched the application out of her hand.

OK, apart from the first few sentences, this story is made up.

But this part is not. Whole Foods is actually closing some stores. This company that made groceries cool isn’t so hot anymore.

Surveys suggest that it’s a victim of its own success. People are turned off by its pretentious customers.

Personally, I like Whole Foods. I don’t care about the pretentiousness of the customers, even though a Prius with a COEXIST bumper sticker grates on my nerves as much as those of any other red-blooded American. And I don’t find their food much different than ordinary grocery store food.

But I like their employees. I’m not wild about the purple earrings, but they seem to love their jobs and want to help customers. I also appreciate that the checkout counters are usually staffed sufficiently.

You wouldn’t know it from the employees but John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, is an ex-socialist turned libertarian. He likes Ayn Rand and dislikes unions. I imagine him chuckling about how he daily gooses the pretentious Prius drivers. But maybe not; he’s also a vegan.

So he’s an interesting character. And so is his company. In the next few years, we’ll see whether they were a flash in the pan — an artisan salmon — or a sustainable business.

(Published May 28, 2017 in the Aspen Times at

Should Toledo Taxpayers Pay for Aspen Art?

Here in the billionaires’ playground of Aspen, the politicians waived the zoning laws a few years ago for a monstrosity they call an art museum.

It’s a huge square wicker basket dominating a city block, with zero setback and zero architecture. This place that is supposed to display visual beauty is itself an eyesore.

Almost everyone hates it.

But not the director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. In an artistic burst, she created for herself a $900,000 salary. Her salary is about the only permanent or valuable piece in the collection. To put that number in perspective, it’s higher than the salaries paid to the directors of real museums like the Guggenheim and the Getty.

Even so, this director of the Aspen Art Museum has a bone to pick, now that she’s picked off the easy flesh. She’s grousing that budget-conscious legislators in Washington might reduce taxpayer funding for her shtick.

It’s not that there isn’t any money in Aspen to take up the slack. In perhaps the understatement of the year, I’ll say this about that: There is.

The director herself admits she doesn’t need the money. She recently told a local newspaper, “It’s less about the percentage of the budget and more about the philosophical stance that the city, state and federal government values art.”

You see, the money she receives is not about the money she receives. It’s about the “philosophical stance” of us peasants. More precisely, she wants us not in a stance, but in a bow. Like the Roman emperors, she demands money from afar not because she needs it, but as tribute.

I have news for our modern-day Caligula. The tribute she demands for this philosophical stance/bow comes from somewhere, and it’s not the government. The government is just the most recent stop. It really comes from American taxpayers.

I’ll venture another understatement: Most American taxpayers don’t live in Aspen. They live in places like Biloxi, Mississippi, Pittsburgh and Toledo, Ohio.

Those taxpayers use their money to buy food, utilities and shoes for their children to wear to markedly non-private schools. They can’t afford to spend their money on philosophical stances, and certainly not the philosophical stances of rich people in Aspen seeking to purchase a little (and I mean little) taste with other people’s money.

Maybe rich Aspenites posed in their philosophical stances would look better if they offered an artistic justification for taxpayer expenditures on Aspen art, rather than a philosophical one. But their type forfeited that opportunity years ago when they used taxpayer money to buy “Piss Christ.”

That was the name of a piece of “art” for which the taxpayers paid about $20,000 in the 1980s. It’s a big photograph of a plastic crucifixion immersed in urine.

The $20,000 came from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts.

I’m no art critic, but I know what I don’t like. I don’t like “Piss Christ.” And I don’t like my taxpayer money paying for it.

This isn’t about censorship, mind you. It’s about taxes. The “artist”who created “Piss Christ” has a right to create and display this kind of “art.” But he doesn’t have a right to make me pay for it with my tax dollars.

Besides, if this stuff is so great that it’s worth taxpayer dollars, then surely it’s so great that some self-anointed and self-deceived patron of the arts on the Upper East Side or in Beverly Hills will buy it. Just don’t ask the rest of us to.

Same in Aspen.

If the billionaires want to buy houses that span multiple ZIP codes, or hire an obscenely paid art bureaucrat to look after a non-collection in an illegally gross building, or purchase a self-congratulatory “philosophical stance” of themselves, that’s all fine. Just don’t ask the Toledo taxpayers to pay for it.