Sacrifices in the Produce Section: Trading Flavour for Convenience

One of my favourite food writers of all time is Jeffrey Steingarten, who’s written some fantastic stuff about food, food culture, and food politics. One of his essays that still lingers with me is a discussion about the breeding of fruit to make it ready for market, and the progressive selection of specific traits that make it easier to handle, ship, and display. As Steingarten pointed out in the essay, fruits that bruise easily or lose flavour rapidly are tough to handle and ship, and thus major agricultural producers have sought ways to modify them to make them more marketable.

After reading that essay, I had a much better understanding of what was going on in the produce section, and why it was that I had so much trouble finding good fruit. I understood why supermarket tomatoes always tasted bland and dull, without the rich explosion of flavour that pops in your mouth when you eat a tomato grown in the garden or on a small farm. I understood why so many fruits weren’t sweet and juicy even if they were large, and why some fruits never really seemed to amount of anything no matter how carefully I selected them.

I was a victim of an agricultural system that wasn’t interested in catering to my palate, but to the need to fill produce sections with arrays of fruit no matter what it actually tasted like. And so I started selecting fruit with more care and being more picky about what I ate. And more understanding of people who professed a hatred of, say, tomatoes; if all you’d eaten throughout much of your life was the pallid supermarket offerings, I wouldn’t blame you for not liking tomatoes.

Which is why I was intrigued with the big furor over the summer when people started talking specifically about the tradeoff between flavour and handleability for tomatoes. People seemed genuinely shocked to learn that tomatoes had been bred to have a rich red colour and easy handling to the exclusion of their flavour, when this was something I’d been aware for a number of years, and had even talked with people about. It’s not like Jeffrey Steingarten is an obscure food writer, or that his books haven’t been widely read and circulated; even people outside the food community read him.

And it was foodies who seemed the most surprised by this study, which was disheartening for me to see. When people have been talking about this issue and raising awareness around it for well over a decade and people are just now finding out, it makes me wonder what the point of talking about these things is, after all. Why bother to talk to people about how fruit is bred or genetically modified if they apparently aren’t going to pay attention?

Produce is tricky stuff to grow, and it’s trickier still in an era when people increasingly rely on food shipped in across great distances, want to see everything in the store all the time regardless of season, and expect certain things of their produce. Things need to be a certain colour, size, and shape to be recognizable and acceptable, and things that don’t fit that metric are viewed with inherent suspicion. Unfortunately, flavour is one of the first things to fall by the wayside here, because flavour is complex and relies on a lot of variables. Too many variables for the taste, so to speak, of industrial agriculture, which wants to be able to control every step of the growing process.

Unripe peaches are picked in Georgia because they’re less likely to incur damage in transit if selected while they’re still hard, and then they’re trucked or flown across the country to California for sale. They may be treated with ethylene gas to hasten the ripening process so they’ll look good in stores, even if the rapid ripening doesn’t benefit the fruit and it loses some of the complex and desirable flavour because it’s not on the tree. Peaches are a climacteric fruit, which means they will continue to ripen after picking, but they won’t get any sweeter, because there’s no source of sweetness and nutrients.

The consumer gets used to seeing big, even, rounded peaches with a somewhat dull flavor. The innards are often a bit dry and sometimes stringy. This must be what a peach is, because it’s all the consumer sees and knows. A farm-fresh peach bought at a farmers’ market or eaten in someone’s home becomes a revelation, a shock, an aha moment, because the consumer learns that the grocery store carries only a faint shadow of what a peach can and should be.

Addressing the issue of bad produce requires talking about some things consumers don’t want to hear. Like that they really do need to buy things in season. And that they should pressure regional stores to buy within a local foodshed, because shorter transit times means that easy handling is less of a concern. Buying regionally and in season, stores can select produce of a higher quality; it’s going to taste better, feel better, be better.

It’s also going to mean that there are some things you can’t get all the time. If done well, it shouldn’t make produce more expensive, but there might be an initial spike in the prices of some items, and people who care about produce need to talk about that, too. Because there are some people who are not going to be able to afford even a small price increase, who shouldn’t be left out in the cold without fresh fruits and vegetables. In the process of opening up a world of better produce, people need to be talking about how to make sure it’s accessible to everyone, because everyone deserves the experience of biting into a good peach, the flavour of a perfectly ripe tomato.