Column Food should taste good, shouldn’t it? So why don’t we buy the good stuff?
Peruse your average grocery store and take a look at the fruits and vegetables. Everything is perfectly sized and colored. The apples are bright red and green, the potatoes all similarly oblong and the heads of lettuce without a trace of dirt or defect.
Bite into one of these products though and chances are they’ll be bland. The perfect example of course is your average out of season tomato versus an heirloom variety at the end of summer. Bright red and perfectly round, the out of season tomato plays a trick on your senses; look how beautiful it is, it must taste amazing. But one bite and you’re wishing you had known better.
The heirloom tomato on the other hand is always the funkiest looking of the bunch. The colors are inconsistent, and if you had to choose five tomatoes all the exact same size and shape you’d be at the market stand for quite some time. But when it comes to taste, there’s no going back.
Which raises the question: when it comes to food, when did looks start trumping taste?
Because we’re highly superficial about what we eat.
In the modern world, we have learned to control our environments. Nowadays you can live in a house that stays the exact same temperature all year round, regardless of whether it’s snowing or painfully warm out. Electricity has allowed us to extend our days, making us out of touch with the natural rhythm of light. If modernity has brought us one thing, it’s certainly consistency.
And when it comes to food, most people definitely want consistency. That’s why they end up buying the perfectly shaped, perfectly colored apple. But in the search for consistency, looks trump taste.
When I’m at the market I seek out the crooked vegetables. I seek out the bakeries whose loaves of bread don’t all look the same. I find joy in fermenting things because the outcome is always a little different. In fact, if there’s one thing that I love about food, it’s the inconsistencies. Because inconsistencies leave room for serendipity, the chance to discover a taste you maybe weren’t expecting.
A critique of the natural wine movement (a movement that supports minimal intervention in the winemaking process, use of indigenous yeasts, etc.) that I hear a lot is “they’re so unreliable,” meaning that when people buy a bottle of wine, they’re not always 100 percent sure of what they are going to get. But isn’t that the beauty of food? Food is natural, and things that are natural are inherently inconsistent. It’s thanks to those inconsistencies that you get the tastes that blow you away. The yin and yang of food so to say.
What’s “good” depends on a weather, soil, seasons and so much more. To produce the exact same product – be it apples, wine or bread – that looks and tastes exactly the same time and time again requires intervention. It requires scientific precision. It requires humans to control nature, to add preservatives, to treat with chemicals, to alter the genetic makeup. But in doing so, we lose the natural goodness that made us fall in love with the product in the first place.
We expect that food should taste good, but we don’t just want it to taste good, we want it to taste the same kind of good every single time we consume it. That choice can easily have us eating mediocre foods.
This is why food companies are so successful; they have managed to find the specific formula that makes a certain food product look and taste the same every single time. You can buy whole oats and make your own oatmeal, but the taste will depend on everything you put in it. Or you could just go ahead and buy the instant pack, premixed with sugar and dehydrated fruit. It’s not as healthy for you, nor does it taste as good, but at least you know what you’re getting.
The same goes for almost every single food out there. We choose Starbucks because they want coffee to taste exactly the same no matter where we are in the world, instead of seeing how the locals turn beans into a drink. We buy fluffy, white sandwich bread made of nutrient deficient flour because it makes a sandwich look the way it should instead of opting for a denser, healthier bread that’s a bit funny looking. We buy industrial eggs because we’re afraid of a little dirt and feather remnants.
If we are truly committed to eating well, then we have to give consistency the kick, because the reality is that good food isn’t perfect. We have to depend more on nature and less on science. We need to use whole ingredients. We have to eliminate the processed stuff.
Go natural. Take risks. Buy that funny looking vegetable.
Sure, not everything will be amazing all of the time, but chances are, when it comes to taste, it will be lightyears beyond what science put on the grocery shelf.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.