Top | Our Table

Romancing the food

(article, Kim Carlson)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true]

When it comes to pretty produce, what are you thinking?

Do you prefer vegetables and fruit without blemishes? Or is taste (or price) more important to you than a few holes in the spinach leaf, where another tiny eater got to it first? 

And what about discards? How often do you toss produce that's begun to spoil? Do you take the time to cut away the bad parts, or do you ditch the whole thing?

If you admit you want your produce to look good, you're not alone. I'm guilty of it, turning over pears to find the least-marred ones to take home. Of course, I'd like our produce to taste amazing, and if it's a good price, that's nice too. But honestly, if I can't taste it first, I just go for the most handsome food.

[%image "promo-image" width=425 float=left caption="A peck of picture-perfect peppers."] 

Jonathan Bloom, of the blog Wasted Food, would like us to think about it more. Bloom spent a few months working in the produce section of a grocery store, where he was told to cull fruits and vegetables that weren't, well, gorgeous. At Bloom's place of work, this culled food doesn't get sold; it goes in the dumpster.

Last week, Bloom, who's writing a book about food waste in this country, directed readers to Wayne Roberts, a farmer writing for the online edition of Now Toronto, who is frustrated by the fact that he must throw away a fifth of his crop because it isn't pretty enough: 

bq. It disappoints visual expectations of proper size, shape, style, colour and absolute perfection. It must have no holes, no blotches, no signs of wear and tear and, above all, no suggestion that it came from the ground, which is dirty.

Roberts argues that the food media is to blame, for creating food porn, turning food into something it's not — in essence, objectifying it:

bq. The glamorous pics are especially problematic, because their message is to the subconscious. Everyone knows how fashion photographers and their set designers and airbrushers cause bodily harm by distorting the image of women, but few think about how the same people cause similar problems with their framing of food.

bq. Every food picture in Time \[Magazine's food issue\] is stunning: perfectly choreographed, colour-coordinated, almost as glistening, sensuous, enveloping and natural as Scarlett Johansson's lips.

Thus, goes Roberts' argument, food-buyers think the only food worth having is impeccable food.

But while food media may be partly to blame, Bloom argues that this myopia is also the fault of Whole Foods and other grocers who strive for the right, uh, market mood:

bq. While . . . Roberts’ article impugned food magazines, I’d also blame most supermarkets, especially Whole Foods. Most retailers make a point of having bountiful, beautiful displays. Doing so means throwing out imperfect, non-uniform produce.

bq. As Whole Foods’ Web site states, some produce doesn’t make it onto its sales floor:

bq. "Our buyers around the country are very discerning about what they purchase, scouring the land for the very best products and sometimes turning away shipments at the door that are undersized or lacking in flavor."

Further, Bloom quotes a story from Forbes_ about Whole Foods:

bq. “\[Whole Foods' style is\] a very visual style,” says Walter Robb, \[Whole Foods'\] co-president, who runs the western half of the U.S. “More than half of shopping decisions are made on impulse. When you shop, we engage your senses. We want to romance the food.”

And ultimately, Bloom says we shoppers have to shoulder responsibility for the waste that results:

bq. The quest for perfect produce doesn’t just come from grocery stores. There is a chain of culpability that explains crops of a certain shape, size, and appearance. Farmers are reacting to wholesalers who are reacting to supermarket buyers who are reacting to your perceived demands. Did you know you, the consumer, held so much power?

Deborah Madison has raised a similar issue on Culinate. A farmer Madison knows complained that she couldn't sell her produce unless she sprayed it first, and Madison was sympathetic:

bq. If we had been willing to overlook the bug-eaten holes in her greens, spraying might not have been a thought, but we weren’t. Nor do we want a wormy apple, even when we know that coddling moths are a big problem here. Can you blame a farmer for spraying if the customer won’t buy an apple that houses a worm?

bq. We would, it seems, rather have pesticides on our fruit than deal with its occasional slender denizens.

bq. Maybe we need to meet the local farmer halfway when we say we want organic and support him while he figures out how to beat the coddling moth. Maybe we could relax about greens with holes in them, whether the holes were put there by previous six-legged diners or from sharp pellets of hail (which are also known to decimate a crop and with it, a good chunk of a farmers’ income).

How perfect do you want your produce?

promo-image, l

reference-image, l