NEW YORK – The produce shelves of the Whole Foods Market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looked like the aftermath of a robbery.
It was 9 p.m. on the night before the third New York City snowstorm in three weeks, and panic shopping for what would be half a day of mild snowfall was in full effect. Elsewhere in the country – and earlier in the supply chain – a polar vortex was walloping Texas and Louisiana with ice storms and catastrophic power outages. Gone were the kiwis, the organic red mangoes. A lone bunch of bananas hung forlornly from a wall. Turnips? Rooted out. The broccoli tray? Headless. The lettuce aisle? Nothing romaining.
And yet, there was one lonely, perfectly fresh-looking vegetable still languishing on the shelves in abundance: celery.
It was as if hordes, freaking out about inclement weather, had rushed from their homes, seen the celery and decided they’d rather go hungry.
Baffled shoppers stopped to laugh and snap photos. Anecdotal reports on Instagram showed similar produce shortages – except for celery! – at Whole Foods locations across the city, from Brooklyn to Harlem and the Upper East Side. Other social media users at a variety of chain groceries in typically produce-rich Los Angeles and San Francisco were reporting the same thing: no greens, and nothing but celery for days.
“Poor celery, trying its best,” said the comedian Fred Armisen after I sent him a photo of the scene at Whole Foods. “I mean, can you imagine that people were like, ‘Nope’? It just really made me feel bad for all that celery. I’m like, ‘Sorry, guys.’”
He and his comedy partner, Carrie Brownstein, had delved deep into the vegetable’s plight in 2014 for their sketch show “Portlandia.” In “Celery” (spoilers ahead!), Steve Buscemi plays a beleaguered celery salesman struggling to keep his floundering product from being eclipsed by the ascendance of Brussels sprouts and kale. He hasn’t had a new idea since ants on a log (“What is this? 1955?” the Brussels sprouts rep asks), and he’s desperate enough to set up an “Indecent Proposal”-style deal to trade a night with his wife to pair up with the smarmy, billionaire-type Bacon.
The sketch had come from seeing crazes rise up around certain vegetables, and wondering what it was like to be left out. “It was like, ‘OK, what’s an uncool vegetable? One that never comes into fashion?’ And celery is just the one that came up,” Armisen said. “It’s not like anyone dislikes it. It’s just never lent itself to that thing where everyone’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a new spin on this.’”
After all, once you’ve dipped it in hummus or smeared it with peanut butter or thrown it in tuna salad or put it in a soup because the recipe told you to, really, what’s next? “You can’t feel passionate about celery,” he said.
The sketch ends with celery becoming the most consumed vegetable in the world. “This is not based on a true story,” a disclaimer reads. The whole thing rings as true today as it did seven years ago.
Celery once had noble life in this gentrified area of New York City, where brunch reigns supreme. It poked tall and proud out of Bloody Marys and cheerily accompanied hot wings, so you could tell yourself you’d eaten something healthy. But in these pandemic times, brunch and sports bars reign here no more. Kids aren’t marching off to school with Ziploc bags of cut veggies in their knapsacks. And, yes, a celery juice craze might have ignited in California in 2018 and 2019, but there aren’t that many New Yorkers right now stuck inside apartments with enough counter space for a juicer.
Is celery’s perceived unpopularity a construct or a fact? Or perhaps just a trick of extraordinary circumstances?
“It’s actually one of the top 10 purchased vegetables,” said Nichole Towell, senior director of marketing for Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a nationwide produce distributor and the world’s largest celery grower. When the celery juice craze hit three years ago, she said, “I think a lot of people were caught by surprise.” Prices skyrocketed and the supply chain crumbled because farmers couldn’t keep up with demand. Even once the trend passed, though, celery sales have continued to rise.
“Celery is continually one of the best-moving products right now, across the board,” said Jeremy Taylor, vice president of sales and marketing at the distributor DNO Produce. (Although according to the Q4 2020 report just released from United Fresh, a trade organization for the industry, celery is a top-10 vegetable only when it’s “value-added,” meaning someone already cut it up for you.)
So if celery is steady or increasing in popularity, what the stalk was going on at Whole Foods on St. Valentine’s week?
Let’s consider the circumstances. Most of the green vegetables arriving at chain grocery shelves nationwide over the winter come from Texas, Mexico, Arizona or California, according to distributors. Texas was snowed in, and trucks carrying produce from the other three origins had to pass through there, or through the wall of snow and ice in the middle of the country pummeling Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. A five-day drive to get produce from the West to the East turned into seven to 10 days, Towell said.
Trucks that managed to make deliveries couldn’t get back to warehouses in Texas and Arizona to start the process over again. “We have one retailer in Texas who has 100 trucks they can’t get unloaded because they don’t have electricity at their warehouse,” Mark Bassetti, COO of Duda Farm Fresh Foods, said in an interview Thursday. “That’s 100 trucks that should have unloaded, picked up product and maybe brought some back to California. And that’s just one retailer of many.”
According to Whole Foods cashiers in Brooklyn – and a company representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly – the chain had several nationwide systems fail last Tuesday during power outages in Austin, Texas, where Whole Foods is based. The outage was brief, and the rep said around 98% of orders were being delivered on schedule; any produce shortages were the result of “customers kind of aggressively buying” in anticipation of more bad weather.
But Caleb Burgin, co-owner of the distribution company Burgin Farms, said “if they don’t have a supply chain issue, then why are their shelves empty?” The first food items people snatch up when panic shopping are bread, milk, eggs, peanut butter and beer, Burgin said. “Who panic buys zucchini? You have zero-degree weather coming, and first thing you’re like, ‘I’m going to make zucchini bread!’?”
In addition, “there’s plenty of product in the market,” said Mike Bonito, co-owner of Gold Medal Produce at Hunts Point Terminal Market in New York, which was fully stocked on everything but cucumbers last week. (Note to self: Buy futures in cucumbers.)
The produce issues are only going to get worse. According to Produce News, the unexpected freeze in South Texas is expected to affect up to 40 commodities, and especially greens, ending the growing seasons 2½ months early. Folks in the industry are calling it the “Valentine’s Day massacre for the fruit and vegetable industry of South Texas.” Cabbage, though, has literally weathered the storm. So get pumped for that.
As for why celery has been the last vegetable standing on grocery shelves, it’s because celery has the good sense to also grow in Southern California and Florida this time of year. So it’s one of the few vegetables that can still make its way up both coasts when the middle of the country is covered in ice.
Still, there’s no denying celery has a perception problem. When I mentioned that everyone seemed to be shunning celery, a wave of jokes poured in.
“Celery is only used for certain things, right? You’re making celery sticks, making juice. You’re putting it in soup. You’re not roasting celery in an oven,” said Bonito, a celery juicer himself, who points out that it’s not seen as incredibly versatile or used across cultures around the world like tomatoes, potatoes and corn.
To celery-loving chef Joshua McFadden, the vegetable is misunderstood. “Nobody knows what to do with it,” he said in a text message. “I don’t think people think about celery as an ingredient, but more as something that is added to tuna salad, a mirepoix, etc.,” using the French term for diced aromatic vegetables (including garlic and onion) that forms the base of many dishes. At his restaurant, Ava Gene’s in Portland, Oregon, he sells a celery-date salad that he’s so proud of he featured it on the cover of his James Beard Award-winning book, “Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables.”
“I love it, clearly, because of the flavor and its texture,” he said. “I think it also smells amazing and adds a beautiful perfume to dishes. That’s one of the reasons it has been in mirepoix since Day One. It’s why classic chicken soup tastes the way that it does.”
Armisen, for his part, said Buscemi’s soulful portrayal of a beleaguered celery salesman turned the “Portlandia” cast and crew into, if not celery lovers, at least celery sympathizers. “I think we sort of psyched ourselves into thinking it was pretty good,” he said.
Still, he’s not surprised that people seemed to be avoiding it. “There are vegetables I dislike more,” he said, “but to me it’s like eating water, with a slight celery taste.”