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Paper or Plastic? [Aug. 3rd, 2011|11:25 pm]
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:

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

Likewise, my childhood peppers selection was pretty much this:

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

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:

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:

[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: naamah_darling
2011-08-04 03:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, I have no doubt at all that a red delicious apple (the irony) is way less nutritious than a real apple.

Oh my god, that orange sounds DIVINE. *weeps*

I tell you I had never in my life voluntarily eaten more than a few bites of grapefruit until that guy let me try one of his and I just about cried.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-07 01:29 pm (UTC)
I grew up in Oregon's apple country, and I won't even buy Red Delicious apples anymore. They are terrible.

I have a reaction to whatever it is they put on apples in the grocery store, so my apple eating is pretty much limited to the fresh ones we pick at Patterson's Farm in the fall.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-07 11:23 pm (UTC)
Honey Crisps are delicious if you can get them.
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[User Picture]From: daemonnoire
2011-08-04 04:11 pm (UTC)
My husband's grandmother has grapefruits shipped up from the Rio Grande valley every Christmas. The first year she did this, I was very "meh" about them, because I'd never eaten a grapefruit that I liked. Then I decided to try one, since it was either that or throw them out.

I ate the whole box. I bought a juicer just so I could make myself tall glasses of beautifully fresh grapefruit juice. It was like I was eating a completely different fruit from what I was used to.

Part of the reason I want to go back to Mexico for our next vacation is that the fruits and vegetables are so beautifully fresh, picked ripe and shipped straight to the store. The avocados have this amazing buttery flavor that I keep searching for here in the states, unsuccessfully. All of the food simply tastes better, and cooking down there is a dream. The 20 foot display of goat cheese helps, too. :D
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 05:57 pm (UTC)
I'm jealous. I live in the nation's breadbasket, though, and should be able to get good produce.
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[User Picture]From: merle_
2011-08-04 06:41 pm (UTC)
Weeelll.. it is the breadbasket. It isn't really the fruitbasket or the vegetablebasket though. I lived near you, and suffered through iceberg lettuce pseudo-salads for a long time.

The rise of the heirloom strains is a good thing. Too many foodstuffs have been homogenized and are not only bland, but a single blight could completely wipe them out (bananas are currently threatened). Diversity is good for longevity. Supermarkets don't care for it any more than livestock producers do, but they do not look long term. As long as they are the main provider they will profit.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 10:18 pm (UTC)
Good point; I need to be spending my dollars elsewhere.
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[User Picture]From: daemonnoire
2011-08-04 07:16 pm (UTC)
You live in the nation's fruit and vegetable assembly line. Worse, you live at the first drop point of the assembly line. Veggies which are picked with the intention that they will show up on most American tables next week only take a day or so to reach your table.

I'm jealous of you. Y'all live in a place where you can easily grow veggies in your own back yard without worrying that the insane heat and drought will fry the whole lot in the space of a single day. Plus, you get to have bees and a fabulous kitchen.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 10:21 pm (UTC)
True. I need to get myself a vegetable garden. Next summer.
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[User Picture]From: daemonnoire
2011-08-04 07:23 pm (UTC)
Pittman & Davis is the company who she orders the grapefruit from, by the way. They're expensive, but for a special occasion or treat, they're completely worth it. The oranges were a little bland last year but that's apparently unusual. And I'm told the honey mandarins are amazing.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-08-04 10:25 pm (UTC)
Ooo, thanks!
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