Recently, I wrote a piece about my great-grandfather Willie Rankin’s chain of greengrocer shops, Rankins’ of Edinburgh. I expected a few responses from fruit and veg ‘nerds’ into historic trade routes and vegetable breeding (you know who you are). What I did not expect was an outpouring of nostalgia for the traditional greengrocer.
Strangers and quite a few long-lost cousins got in touch to share their memories of Rankins’. The greengrocer was often a childhood memory and the descriptions have all the colour and excitement of a child’s imagination: the huge cauldron of beetroot bubbling at the back of a store, the smell of strawberries arriving by train from Hampshire in June, the excitement of bananas ‘just flown in from Jamaica’ or trying new ‘avocado pears’ from South Africa.
There were 20 branches of Rankins’ throughout the city and many remembered working as shop boys and girls after school in their smart green aprons. Customers would come in every two days to stock up on fresh vegetables and seasonal fruit, rather than bulk buy, and always returned boxes. There was no plastic.
Then there were the characters: my great grandfather chain-smoking in a bowler hat, my Great Aunt May stamping ration books and making sure no one got an extra banana and the staff who sent flowers to a sick little girl on the street every day.
It turned out that Rankins’ was not just a greengrocer for a lot of people, it was a daily ritual, an opportunity to connect to the seasons of Britain and even the rest of the world, a place to catch up on gossip and see a friendly face. As the responses to the blog show, many people miss that experience. Like most greengrocers, Rankins’ went out of business in the 1980s unable to compete with out-of-town supermarkets.
The loss of the greengrocer not only killed the high street, it changed the way we shop and eat. Yes, we eat more fruit but the big increase is in bananas while local varieties of apples are no longer commonly available. We actually eat fewer fresh vegetables, relying more on processed veg. Most importantly perhaps we have lost connection to our food. Now fruit and vegetables are available all year round, it is difficult to keep track of what is actually in season. We don’t even have a human being to ask at the check-out, never mind a friendly face.
As the great granddaughter of a greengrocer, I feel I should be able to tell my own daughter where her food is from. For this new column series for Wicked Leeks, I want to put on my smart green apron and tell the stories behind our fruits and vegetables.
That is not always going to be pretty. Bananas are picked by poorly paid workers, lettuces are doused in chemicals and our latest craze, avocados, is draining poorer countries of water. But there is hope. Workers are demanding fair pay, the introduction of predatory insects in glass houses is reducing the use of pesticides and drip irrigation techniques are ensuring avocados could be farmed sustainably.
In these challenging times, when it seems there is little we can do about climate change, what we eat is one of the few ways to reduce our individual impact on the planet. Ultimately it is a way to create a better world for my little girl, the great-great granddaughter of a greengrocer, to grow up in.
I’d love to know your memories of visiting a traditional greengrocer and what you would like to know about the fruit and vegetables we eat today in the comments below.