This week’s share: Arugula or mustard, Celery, Edamame, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers, Satina potatoes, Squash, Thyme, Tomatoes
Well, I have covered taste so it must be time to move on to another sense. How about sight?
Does it really matter what your food looks like? Well, we obviously care about it. In fact, we seem to care about it a great deal. The food industry spends a huge amount of time and effort and money on appearances, everything from worrying about irregular tomatoes to finding the proper placement of pepperoni on frozen pizzas to the minute tweezered readjustment of flower petals on a plate of crudo as it makes its way to the restaurant patron. Food stylist is an actual career choice, and food scientists work as hard on the look of what they engineer as they do on taste and texture and aroma. Food shows and magazines, unable to convey other aspects of their subject, more or less fetishize the look of ingredients and dishes. At my mother’s suggestion, I watched a piece the other day about a leading French chef who at the height of his career gave up on cooking flesh in order to concentrate on fruits and vegetables. I saw a lot of beautiful dishes with fanciful names and sometimes surprising combinations, and a lot of flawless produce being handed over to the chef, and I heard a great deal about the chef’s passion for the right gesture in the kitchen (like many things, it sounds almost compelling in French and slightly ridiculous in translation), and I learned more or less nothing about how any of the food in his restaurant is actually made or what it is like to eat it.
A great deal of this effort is carefully designed to shape our habits, to incite a deep irrational desire to consume one product or another. Hyping the look of food and creating standards for how things should look serves the food industry well. But it would not work if it did not affect us. The food industry may have done a lot to direct our responses, but it did not create them. It has simply played on our existing instincts. We may not fully agree from one culture to another what looks good to eat, but I have yet to hear of a culture that could not give a damn about the appearance of its food.
There are solid reasons to care about the look of your food. An accurate recognition of what will nourish you and what kill you is certainly useful. Recognizing ripeness and rot matters. In practical terms, certain shapes and sizes are just easier to work with, and some degree of uniformity increases efficiency–and efficient food production makes life a lot easier and frees us up to do all those things that cows, having to chew all day to live, just can’t find time for. In addition, the senses tend to commingle in our brains, and thus aesthetics can enhance the dining experience. We take greater pleasure in our food when eating something of a pleasing appearance.
So we have a natural interest in how our food looks. That’s fine and good. But when our notions of what counts for good looks are shaped by others we ought to wonder a little about their motivations. Does the food industry have our best interests in mind when it chooses how to lay out those pepperoni slices, when it defines how a tomato should look, when it tells us what luxury looks like? Well, to be fair, I don’t think the industry wishes us ill. That just happens as a side effect of the way they do business. It’s nothing personal.
I think by now most of us have some idea that plenty of dubious substances can go into processed food for reasons that make absolute sense in terms of marketability, transportation, shelf life and cost, and a lot less sense in terms of health (human and otherwise) or taste. And a number of those additives are there for broadly aesthetic reasons.
But there’s another aspect to the food industry’s aesthetics we tend to think about less: uniformity. We have been well trained to expect things to look the same very particular way all the time. Surely one of the appeals of nationwide chain restaurants is their predictability. Same decor, same menu, same shape, same everything no matter where you are. Apparently, we find comfort in such predictability.
And the same predictability has for the most part applied to produce too. Your basic grocery store produce section offers what seems like a wide array of choices, but in fact it is a shockingly narrow selection, and it’s pretty much the same narrow selection everywhere across the country, which is odd given that this is a huge country with a wide range of growing conditions and traditions. There’s no reason every tomato should look the same in every store.
They should not even all look the same in one store. And I don’t just mean that you should have a range of varieties to choose from, though you should definitely have that. Even your basic medium sized red tomatoes should vary a little more from one fruit to another, as they actually do on the farm. Yes, big tomato farms (J.G. Boswell grows around 20,000 acres in California) get pretty decent uniformity with growing techniques and plant genetics, but the uniformity we encounter is most fully achieved in the packing house, where huge sizing and color sorting machines ensure that we never have to encounter the vagaries of nature. And that’s an operation you can only run when you produce on a vast scale. The produce you see in the grocery store–the produce we have been trained to see as looking the way produce should–is a testament to the scale and industrialization of farming in this country.
Small growers simply cannot afford to sort and cull that way in order to create that level of uniformity. And frankly I am fine with that. If I wanted industrial uniformity I would be manufacturing something, not growing food. Sure, I prefer to have good yields of good produce, but even when I do my job well and the weather and deer cooperate, there’s still variability in our tomato patch. Of course, that has something to do with us growing about 50 different kinds of tomatoes, but also has something to do with the nature of tomatoes. This has been a good year for tomatoes not because they have all come out the same size and shape, but because tomatoes taste better in hot, dry years. The weather has helped concentrate the flavor or varieties that we chose in large part for their superior flavor. For their looks too, but for the diversity of their looks, for the fun of discovering the broad range of ways a tomato can be a tomato.
So does it matter what food looks like? Yes, of course it does. But we should figure out precisely what matters and why for ourselves. Having someone else shape your preferences for their own benefit ought to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Vegetable notes: A quick edamame refresher course. To prepare the edamame (the small, hairy pods in the bag), just drop them into well salted boiling water for a few minutes, until the pods are just tender (not crunchy, but still with some solid texture). After that you can just pop them out of their pods and snack on them, or maybe shell them and toss them on a salad.
Satina potatoes have a dense flesh that is excellent roasted or pan fried, and works well for potato salad (it does not crumble when you dice it). You could roast and peel some peppers and grill an onion, dice them, and toss them with the potatoes, some thyme and a mustardy vinaigrette.
Or you could cut your peppers into thin strips, sauté them over medium high heat in a good amount of olive oil until they start to brown a bit, then turn the heat to low, add a thinly sliced onion, salt, pepper, lemon juice, thyme. maybe a dash of smoked paprika, and let the mixture cook until the onions are almost starting to melt. It is good hot or cold.