Thursday, March 19, 2009

Perfectionitis in the Produce Dept.

Over on Tigers and Strawberries, Barbara and her commenters are having a good old time talking about frugality. In an aside, Barbara asks,"What is it about American’s quest for “the perfect—-fill in the blank with the name of a fruit or vegetable?” This quest for perfect produce is what has led us to beautiful but tasteless Red Delicious apples, huge, perfectly smooth skinned pumpkins with watery, tasteless flesh and giant, sweet-smelling strawberries that taste like styrofoam. It is all a passel of aberrant behavior on the part of food marketers and people who eat with their eyes, not their mouths–in other words, they want food that is pretty rather than food that tastes good." Let me take a stab at answering that.

Think for a moment about a produce section: bins and bins of produce, each offered at its own price. There is no way to tell within a bin of, let's say, Pippin apples, which are good and which are not, unless 1) someone has shown you how to tell, or 2) you've eaten enough to have learned how to tell except by looking for whichever ones are less "damaged", except by looking. Rooting through a bin of Russett potatoes, it is an intelligent choice to only take those which are perfect-looking, because why would you take a different one if it is not cheaper or better in some way? My point is, when there is a choice between good-looking and not, it is a rational choice is to take the best looking.

But Yogi, you say, what if the best looking isn't the best tasting? My answer is, when you don't know how it tastes, you go for looks. And now the grocers are left with bad-looking (but perfectly good) produce that they have to sell at a discount or toss. Their rational response is to only buy what sells, yes? And so on up the chain. When you match this with the agribiz push for monoculture, you end up with the modern-day produce dept. To blame this on consumers who are simply trying to decide what to buy for dinner is to miss the essential point: why do they not know better?

The answer is in the pattern of immigration and movement: when people move out of their native zones, they no longer know what is the standard for selection. Over many, many years (about 5 generations, at this point, maybe more in some cases) their reliance on visual cues for produce selection combines with the other rational choices to give us what we see now. When I moved to NY 10 years ago, I was appalled by the low quality of produce, and lack of selection, particularly varietal selection. I literally didn't know what type of lettuce would be best, out of the sorry selection I was offered. I found out quickly, because I have cooked for years and am passionate about it, but our housekeeper at the time was Guatemalan and there were many things in the anglo market she would have had to guess at. Conversely, when she took me to the local hispanic/latino markets, she had to show me how to choose chayote and such, as I had no clue. Migrants (whether immigrant or not) often had no choice but to choose with their eyes. I'd also like to point out that even now, in my 50s, I still can't always get a great watermelon. But I can afford to toss it if it's really bad. Many people can't.

1 comment:

  1. true with fruit and veggies. and until we learn better, with mates, dates and conjugates as well... the pretty boys have to 'prove it' before i'll give 'em the time of day!