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Zoethe

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Paper or Plastic? [Aug. 3rd, 2011|11:25 pm]
Zoethe
When I was a little girl (you had to walk uphill both ways in the snow, yes, yes, I know...)

Bear with me; this really is going somewhere.

When I was a girl, the mushroom selection in the produce aisle looked something like this:
Mushrooms

When I visited the grocery store today, the mushroom selection looked like this:
Mushroom heaven

Likewise, my childhood peppers selection was pretty much this:
Peppers

While on today's visit, I was presented with this:
Peppermania

I could go on about the iceberg and romaine lettuce heads of my childhood and contrast them with the vast variety of leafy greens on display and more, but it would belabor the point--and the police officer who guards the front door of the store was already raising an eyebrow at my photographing the produce section, so let's limit this to one more image.

When I was a girl, the supermarket produce aisle was two parallel refrigerator cases and a row of unrefrigerated tables running down the center, with the bakery area taking over in the back half of the aisle--and that was in a big supermarket. This is a glimpse of the produce section in my neighborhood grocery store today:
Produce

One enormous refrigerator case isn't even in the picture. It's a breathtaking spread of vivid fresh food. It borders on acreage.

And yet.

As I walk past the table filled with peaches and plums, all I smell is the industrially refrigerated air of the grocery store. I pick up a nectarine and hold it to my nose and I smell...nothing.

Who is eating this lifeless produce? How can they not know better.

I remember a time when the first table of peaches in the store would almost buckle my knees with its sweet perfume. When buying peaches wasn't a choice; it was a compulsion. I couldn't walk past that scent without my mouth watering. And fruit brought into the house would be devoured almost before it could be removed from the grocery bags. These days? I see the peaches, the nectarines, the plums. They look pretty enough. But then I take a deep breath? And I might as well be sniffing a photograph.

The same goes for tomatoes, often for strawberries. Grocery stores are filled with produce that's designed to ship well, store well, survive rough handling with minimal bruising and rot.

Flavor is secondary.

I know this about peaches and tomatoes. I know that I need to look to alternate sources if I'm going to find fruits that taste like summer. But how many other food items have had their flavor profile diminished so slowly and subtly that I don't remember what they used to taste like, don't know how much I'm missing?

The most vivid example of this comes from last Thanksgiving, when we went to Maine to visit our friends Cat and Dmitri. They were keeping ducks, and fed us scrambled duck eggs. Cat warned us that the flavor was different from chicken eggs and to be ready for it. And, indeed, the flavor was very different from the bland and lifeless scrambled eggs to which I had grown accustomed. But the flavor was a lightning bolt of sense memory back to my childhood and my great aunt's house and the chickens she kept. This, this, was what scrambled eggs were supposed to taste like: deeply flavorful and eggy, not bland yellow lumps needing cheese to give them flavor.

When we got back home, I tried buying eggs from a farm house, but the lack of taste isn't so much in the place the chickens were raised as it is in the genetic manipulation that's been foisted on the available laying breeds, manipulation designed to guarantee consistent and voluminous laying without much attention to the quality of the eggs themselves. Home gardeners have suffered dismay in their tomatoes, finding themselves with a bumper crop of thick-skinned, low-flavor, red softballs instead of the tomatoes they remember. It's one of the reasons that heirloom seeds have gained so much popularity: people seeking out the flavor they remember from the past. Refusing to accept the industrial versions in their homes.

Now, no doubt there are some things that have been improved over the years, mostly in the vegetable field: spinach is sweeter, less bitter, the variety of produce is vastly improved.

But we've lost something that some people don't even know is missing - because if they did, those piles of peaches and nectarines would languish in the store until they rotted.

Last week in Heinen's Grocery a miracle happened. I staggered to a stop in front of the peaches, my knees buckling from the heavenly scent. I bought two of those lovely orbs and when I got home I just stood over the sink, juice running down my chin, groaning with pleasure.

Everyone should get that.

Crossposting from Dreamwidth now. Sigh. If LJ won't let you comment, you can comment here: http://zoethe.dreamwidth.org/780530.html?mode=reply:
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[User Picture]From: naamah_darling
2011-08-04 03:58 am (UTC)
A lot of it is sold not-quite-ripe, too, which affects taste. Strawberries especially suffer from this. They should be red clear to the leaves, but a lot of the ones I see in the store still have white caps.

I remember the traveling fruit salesman dude that showed up on my doorstep years ago with a box of grapefruit and oranges from the Rio Grande valley, picked two days before. He cut an orange open right there on the stoop and it smelled and tasted like heaven. I bought a whole box, and wished to hell I'd had money to buy more. The oranges were sweet enough that you could eat the rind, too, and the grapefruit needed no sugar at all, none whatsoever, to be perfectly sweet-tart and edible.

Oranges especially have suffered. Dry, flavorless, disgusting. And peaches. Peaches are not what they once were. Paper-bag ripening them helps a lot, and I live in peach and strawberry country, so if I can find someplace that stocks local produce, it generally tastes better. Still. Blechh.

I am glad that produce is cheap, and that people are, you know, eating something. I mean, I'm fuckall poor, you know? I can't afford the money to go hunting out the expensive organic stuff, and I can't afford the spoons to go hunting for a small farmer's market when grocery shopping is one of those things that makes me angry and miserable to have to do. Also, I hate gardening. So I know how that is. Someday when I have lots of money (dear god let this stupid crazy thing we are doing WORK) I will be able to afford to buy food that tastes like something.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:22 pm (UTC)
The non-ripe would be okay, but it seems that most of the peaches go from green to mealy without any sweet and juicy phase at all. That's why I won't buy them if they don't smell delicious.

And I totally agree about citrus fruit. The first time I enjoyed a grapefruit was when someone came into the place I worked selling hand-picked, carefully packed, flown-in citrus. My only experience with grapefruit was bitter, pulpy fruit that no amount of sugar could truly amend. These were a revelation. (Then there were the Jaffa oranges I ate in Israel. So juicy that a wedge of orange sloshed. Oh my stars....)

It's kind of a crazy balancing act, getting healthy food to people at a decent price, and you make a good point about the tradeoffs. Still, I wonder what else is being compromised by these changes--nutrition?
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[User Picture]From: oceansedge
2011-08-04 04:07 am (UTC)
thankfully there is slowly gaining backlaash to this, in forms like the 100 mile diet, potager gardens. We're working towards a more self sufficient lifestyle .. perhaps the selection will be less, but I'd rather have a 100 things that taste good, that fill not only the belly but the soul with the satisfaction of eating what we've produced ourselves, then a 1000 'pretty' tasteless things.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:23 pm (UTC)
Having grown up in the culinary desert of the 60s, I appreciate the variety and flavor possibilities. But I agree that there has to be some balance.
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From: simulated_knave
2011-08-04 04:20 am (UTC)
Certainly, American strawberries are no patch on local ones. They look so beautiful, but there's nothing to them.

Growing up in rural PEI, my vegetable selection was pretty much the same (hell, it still is). And I do wonder whether the increased selection has been worth it.

I mean, I like mangoes. But I wonder if mangoes that can take intercontinental shipping are really that tasty.
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[User Picture]From: kuangning
2011-08-04 06:24 am (UTC)
They're not. The proof of that -- besides the watery tasteless lumps that make it -- is that you usually find only one or at best two varieties of mango in the stores. Travel nearer the equator where the weather's right for them, and you get hundreds. Mango Julie, Mango Rose, long mango, tea mango, dou-dou, calabash, starch, turpentine, Graham, and lots of others, and they have as many uses they're suited for as apples do.
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[User Picture]From: roadnotes
2011-08-04 05:06 am (UTC)
I will generally only eat local strawberries, in season. I am mildly allergic to them, and break out in hives, but there's nothing like a proper strawberry, staining your lips and shirt. (I am not allergic to the oversized half-white ones, though.) And don't get me started on these new giant-sized apples. I DON'T WANT A POUND OF WATERY APPLE. I want a small, tart, delightful fruit, and I don't care if it's not perfectly symmetrical, with flawless skin. I want flavor and texture, damn it.

Chicken is another one of the things that has changed in flavor since I was a child; most of it is now Generic White Meat, even the drumsticks, so when I get real birds, I revel in them
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:27 pm (UTC)
I've noticed that about chicken, particularly of late. Lots of cooking effort to produce very little flavor.
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[User Picture]From: ivorywitch
2011-08-04 05:08 am (UTC)
Our tomatoes were extremely fragrant - and I don't like tomatoes, but my husband loves them. The deep red makes you WANT to eat them. I like them cooked, in sauces - it's a texture thing. But hubby likes them fresh from the garden and this year ...I sort of understood why. They were magnificent. Oh yeah...they were grown from seeds I saved last year from the 'Grainger County Tomatoes' just to see if it was the soil or the seeds. It appears to have been the seeds.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:29 pm (UTC)
Flavorful tomatoes are definitely making a comeback in the small garden. I need to get ambitious about getting some in next year.
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[User Picture]From: xpioti
2011-08-04 06:25 am (UTC)
Squash. Squash has become a complete boogie-man, especially summer squash, because the junk you buy in the grocery store has no aroma or flavor. I've noticed that it loses most of it's vigor by 5-6 hours after picking, so I try to grow it and then pick it just before using it.

Green beans, too. The beans from the store do have flavor, but they've lost their floral aroma and most of their crispness. They're crunchy, sure, but not moistly crisp.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:32 pm (UTC)
Ooo, good point. The last time I cooked acorn squash they were watery disappointment. I blamed myself, but maybe I wasn't at fault after all.
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[User Picture]From: mrs_kat_tyler
2011-08-04 06:40 am (UTC)
You might be interested in the book "Tomatoland." It discusses some of the reasons we get produce like that tastes like cardboard and quite a bit about toll our desire for cheap produce out of season causes.

I am lucky enough to live in an area where the non-organic produce at the farmer's market costs about what the grocery store does--when the markets are going during the summer. Looking at how much of our produce gets to our table made it hard for me to buy blindly at the grocery store but we are way too poor for the local organic food at Whole Foods. Summer is fine for us, but it can be hard during the winter to get what we'd like--and that cheap summer fruit at Safeway gets mighty tempting come January.

The issue of good quality produce is one more reason I get frustrated with apartment living. My parents have a lovely yard that could be used for vegetable gardening but they don't need to since they have the money for a house. My husband and I live in an apartment because we have a shortage of money but HAVE to buy at the store because we have no place to grow--it feels like a double hit to our wallet. And because of all these money issues, we are part of the reason there is a demand for cheap food. It feels like a ridiculous circle.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the book recommendation; I will look for it.

I am guilty of not taking advantage of the farmer's markets. I keep meaning to, but never manage to remember. Doing so is a good goal for me to undertake.
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[User Picture]From: midnightsjane
2011-08-04 09:35 am (UTC)
I agree. I love strawberries but won't buy the flavourless ones from California, even though they look beautiful; I have a couple of plants on my patio, and the few strawberries I get are such a taste treat. Likewise the raspberries I've been picking, a couple at a time, from the canes on the patio. I buy local produce whenever possible, too. The corn is almost ready, and I can't wait to sink my teeth into a juicy cob grown less than 50 miles from my front door!
I didn't plant a garden this year, and I miss the fresh green beans, etc. Next year for sure.
There is nothing to compare with a fresh heirloom tomato, picked minutes before eating...omg.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:36 pm (UTC)
I keep meaning to do SOME gardening, but have not succeeded yet. Maybe next year.
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[User Picture]From: throbinson
2011-08-04 11:11 am (UTC)
Beautiful piece, even without the luscious photos -- made me hungry just reading it! More and more of my friends are going for these farm co-op deals where you get a box of local produce to pick up every week during the summer. I would totally do that if I was able to just get a tiny quantity. My husband Does Not Eat Vegetables Or Fruit so it would be a horrid waste.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:39 pm (UTC)
that's my problem. Ferrett is a bit better on veggies these days, but still eats a very limited selection, so a CSA would probably be a waste.
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[User Picture]From: whyelaborate
2011-08-04 11:30 am (UTC)
I absolutely love this entry. Thank you for posting.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:40 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it. I am doing my part to keep LJ alive.
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[User Picture]From: khiron1416
2011-08-04 11:49 am (UTC)
Hie thee to the West Side Market ! Do you need a guide? I will take you!
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:43 pm (UTC)
I do find it a bit overwhelming. I keep meaning to make it a regular part of our shopping but haven't managed. But I've noted that even there, it's not really a farmer's market. Much of the produce is brought in by pretty big businesses.
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[User Picture]From: ser_kai
2011-08-04 12:31 pm (UTC)
I'm so, so glad I live where most things can be grown almost year round and that I can source organic, local produce that is cheaper than the supermarket, when I'm not growing them myself. Also, for the things that aren't growable locally, I can still get good quality in the same place. Every year, I get peaches like that. I revel in them so much.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:43 pm (UTC)
Never take that for granted, my friend.
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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2011-08-04 12:31 pm (UTC)
you said it all so well. And your Flist added all the stuff I would add - especially strawberries. And APPLES. My grandmother had a dutchess apple tree in her back yard and I've never ever tastes apples that fresh or that good except from apples that were just picked. I am a fruit and veggie snob for exactly this reason.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:45 pm (UTC)
Apricots, for me. My gramma's neighbor had a giant tree, and they were SO delicious.
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[User Picture]From: elf_fu
2011-08-04 02:11 pm (UTC)
Shawn and I were guilty of being walmart or Publix only shoppers. Our produce, our meat, our everything from one place.

And then one day we started noticing that on our way to these places we kept passing this run down, very old building. Wasn't quite a store, more like a very huge vegetable road side stand that turned permanent. It was simply (and semi-uncreatively called) The Produce Place.

Produce from local and out of state farmers. Produce everywhere. Normal stuff you'd find down the grocery aisle and a lot of not-so-normal. Right now they have Georgia peaches the size of a baseball and larger. They smell so good they make my mouth water and I just want to hover over them and huff them for hours. We started buying all of our produce there and pretty much haven't looked back.

The flavors are just an entirely different story. I can buy a tomato the size of a baby's head there, and let it sit out of the fridge for a week before slicing it and eating it--it's still good and tastes magnificent. The mushrooms are earthy, the leaf lettuce is crisp and actually tastes like something! It doesn't taste like bad tap water!

And of course, the peaches are divine.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:46 pm (UTC)
That's great. We have a place like that called the West Side Market, and I need to make it a regular shopping stop.
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[User Picture]From: bunny42
2011-08-04 02:39 pm (UTC)
My most delicious memory of peaches is about the ones they used to grow near Lake Erie. I'll never forget walking from Huron to Vermilion (we were kids; back then, kids still walked) eating peaches the size of softballs, juice dripping down our chins and staining our shirts. Do they still grow peaches in Ohio?

I have to suggest you try the tomatoes you can find at, of all places, Costco, in a flat with about seven or nine tomatoes. Juicy, tasty, firm and they last for several days. I have no clue where they get them, I know they aren't local. And I'm pretty sure they send the same stuff to most, if not all, of their outlets. Worth looking.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 02:47 pm (UTC)
Yes they still grow peaches in Ohio, and I need to get out of town to a stand and pick some up!
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