"No matter how basic—even if it’s just an apple, a cabbage, an onion, or a potato—you can be confident that it will be better here than anywhere else."
If you had asked me, I would have told you that health food stores are pretty much a thing of the past. Supermarkets are filled with organic stuff, huge chain drug stores sell supplements at half the price, and many gyms sell those muscle-building drink. So how does a health food store re-invent itself in the twenty-first century?
To find out, I headed over to the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, often reputed to be the best health food store in the state. Here you’ll find better organic produce than any chain (and in Princeton they have all the chains, we’re talking about a town with Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Trader Joes). Yes, the place has an ivy league intellectual vibe about it. The parking lot is filled with new hybrids featuring bumper stickers for causes that most Jersanians didn’t know existed.
The Center is newly enlarged and now has a café and restrooms, this is a welcome addition because you can wind up spending a lot of time here. Between the produce, bulk items, supplements, cosmetics, baked goods, and frozen foods, some people have been known to try and take up residence.
Think of that produce section as an aggregator with the best offerings of local farms all in one place. Meat and dairy are the same.
Whole Earth Center was an early adopter of the local foods movement, sourcing as much fresh produce, cheese, and meat as they can from the area. Come here on a day when it’s too rainy and gray to go out to the farms and get yourself some quality food. No matter how basic—even if it’s just an apple, a cabbage, an onion, or a potato—you can be confident that it will be better here than anywhere else.
When it comes to the fridge and frozen sections, I always seem to have a chip on my shoulder. I don’t know why, but beautiful fresh tofu from Allentown, Pennsylvania, warmed my heart. How is it that our local Asian megamarts don’t stock it? Yogurt is also special here for me because the small-producer products they offer have a distinctly different flavor.
From a serious cook’s point of view though, the centerpiece of the store is its bulk food section. There are 28 different kinds of nuts. Nutritional yeast, lecithin granules, vital wheat gluten, barley flour, brown rice flour, and whole rye flour just scratch the surface of the grains. Four kinds of seaweed make a sort of footnote between flour and beans, and plastic packages of items like domestic brown teff decorate the tops of bulk grain shelves.
Not satisfied? Walk over to the bulk spices section and pick up some Birdseye chili peppers, astrogalus root, frankincense tears, and milk thistle seed.
Of course, as the fussy guy that I am, I noticed that there was no brown Arborio rice. But that’s a tough one; most health food stores in Italy don’t even have that.
If you need a break, there’s a café and takeout section. Grab a pastry from the bakery department and get a cup of fair trade coffee, or go for a sandwich, salad, or prepared hot dish. That will give you some time to ponder what you can make with all this stuff.
I’ve been so impressed by the Whole Earth Center that I’m willing to overlook its cooler of organic drinks and wide selection of snack and convenience foods. I’m afraid that when I say that I come here for things I can’t find anyplace else, it makes it sound like a last resort—it certainly isn’t.
It’s the standard by which all other health food stores are judged.
Whole Earth Center
360 Nassau Street, Princeton NJ 08540 (map) 609-924-7429
Note: While Whole Earth Center is technically in Princeton, it’s nowhere near the train station and not really near downtown. Don’t be fooled.