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My cherimoya, shortly before it became smoothie fodder.

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March 26, 2005

Better Bland than Offensive

The other day, I think maybe on the NAFEX mailing list, I came across the Slow Food "Ark of Taste". I'd heard of the whole "slow food" movement before, and while I they manage to bury it under a bunch of goofy philosophy and an obsession with slowness and snails and so forth (which is a shame), I really think they make a number of very good points, primary among them is the fact that for whatever reason (they have their theories), people these days are not coming remotely close to enjoying everything that's available in the way of food, including lots of things people even a generation or two ago were consuming on a fairly regular basis.

This extends to pretty much everything we eat, but I think it is particularly striking when it comes to fruit, because, thanks to the wonder of clonal propagation, you and I can eat virtually the exact same apples, strawberries, pears, etc. that our grandparents did. But we're not. And most of the time it has absolutely nothing to do with quality.

My first job in fruit was with a university grape breeding program. Up to that point I basically thought of grapes as green, red, or black, seedless or not, and 'Concord' (my great aunt had a vine in the backyard). If pressed I might have differentiated between wine, raisin, and table, and I might have recalled the hideously acid wild grapes I'd tasted back at camp. I feel kind of silly admitting it now, but I suspect that it's not a very different view than that held by most consumers.

That first season, I was blown away. The range of flavors and textures available in the cultivated grape vastly exceeds what makes it onto the grocery store shelves. There were grapes which tasted like pineapples, grapes that tasted like apricots, like strawberries, like honey. There were grapes with a taste of spice, or pepper, or disgustingly perfumy cheap artificial grape bubble gum taste. There were grapes with skins so thick you could barely chew them, and so thin you could hardly feel it. There was a whole class of grapes, muscats, which tasted like nothing I'd ever tasted before (I like it, but my wife says it tastes like pesticide residue). These weren't secret projects of the grape breeding program, waiting to be released to a public eager for novel grape flavors...most of these were cultivars, available to any one who wanted to grow them. It's just that hardly anyone does.

This isn't unique to grapes. It's happened with every fruit species on the market. A hundred years ago, upwards of 5,000 apple cultivars were grown commercially in this country. Now you're lucky if a grocery store stocks five. And if I'd had to pick five apples to represent the range of apple germplasm in the world, any one of that five could have nicely stood in for the lot of them.

There's a powerful trend towards homogenization in our fruit. The people who market fruit have gotten it in their heads that there is a very narrow definition of a particular fruit that people will accept, and they are determined never to stray from it. Grapes must be large, seedless, thin-skinned, and have a flavor about as complex as sugar water. Apples must be large, either fire engine red or flawlessly yellow-green, with zero russeting. There's a little variation in the flavor and texture allowed, but only within the existing categories, such as: sweet and bland ('Golden Delicious'), crisp and tart ('Granny Smith'), meally and bland except for the tough, bitter skin (Red 'Delicious'). There's no room for such delicious oddballs as 'Knobbed Russett', which looks rather more like a potato than an apple, or 'Pink Pearl', with its unusual pink flesh.

The people who sell us our food claim that no one wants to be surprised by their food, that people want a grape to taste like they think grapes taste, an apple to taste like they think an apple tastes, a pear to taste like they think a pear tastes. And they'd rather be bland than offensive to some one. It's a silly oversimplification, and I for one find it insulting. I am not confused or annoyed by the fact, for example that dark brown soda could be cola, or root beer, or Dr. Pepper, or some hideous diet thing: I just buy what I like. What they really like about the current system is the economies of scale it allows distributors to create: if people come to demand ten different types of grapes, for example, that's ten types of grapes they have to find producers for, and keep stocked, and market, instead of just having "red grapes" and "green grapes". Admittedly, there are other concerns, too, like shipping and storage quality. They'd claim that the current system saves the consumer money, and I'm sure they're right, but I'd counter with the fact that I'd rather pay a little more to be able to buy better fruit. And I think most folks, if they knew their options, would too.

The Ark of Taste, as goofy a metaphor as it is, emphasizes the importance of preserving these fruit traits that are getting forgotten in the rush to bland homogeneity. If these fruits disappear, they're almost certainly gone for good. Do you really think any one will ever intentionally breed another 'Knobbed Russet'? (Although I have a dream of one day, when I'm the scary Emeritus Professor somewhere, of slaving away in my private breeding program producing bizarre, hideous fruits that no one would ever grow. But that's just me.) The National Plant Germplasm System has done an awful lot for this cause with comparatively little public fanfare by physically preserving these plants (I think the Ark of Taste is really more of a tool for awareness than actual collection and preservation), as have numerous private groups and nurseries, and even individuals with small private orchards. There are practical reasons for preserving these old cultivars as well as taste reasons: the homogenizing of the fruit industry leaves us wide open when it comes to novel pest and disease threats, and these forgotten genotypes may hold the key to defeating such new challenges.

So take a look inside the Ark of Taste (the international and American "Arks" seem to be separate), and see if you can find some of these fruits (I do think some of their choices and omissions are a bit odd, and their info's not always perfect, but it's really more of a promotional tool than a scientific effort.) Grocery stores are probably a lost cause in most cases, for the moment anyway, but the local farmer's market probably isn't. And, of course, you can always grow them yourselves (I will try to post a link to nurseries offering such fruits at some point in the near future). Explore what's out there. I think you'll be surprised.


At 3/28/2005 08:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just eating some pineapple as I read your post, and was thinking, "I wonder if there are grapes that taste like pineapple?" and there it was, in your next sentence. Wow!

Which variety of grape tastes like this?

Now I wonder about pineapple, how many flavors of that are there? Which one am I comparing to the grapes I've never tasted? ;)

It's also very weird that you might be able to get more tasty fruits from a farmers' market at a lower cost that one could do it at a grocery store. Yet, reasons that could be cited for bland food may be related to reducing costs and increasing sell-through.

At 3/28/2005 10:03:00 PM, Blogger Evil Fruit Lord said...

Glad I successfully anticipated your question...

Actually, the grapes which most taste like pineapple, I think, is a Cornell breeding selection (something like 86.0836.06 or something, not that that means much to you (or me anymore)). I think really ripe 'Seneca' has a sort of pineapple mixed with honey sort of taste. There are a couple of others, but the names escape me.

I honestly don't know much about pineapple. There are really only a couple of commercial varieties, so my guess is that like so many things we're only eating a tiny, tiny portion of the spectrum of potential tastes. Maybe I'll do a little research and write up a post on it! I actually had thought about that a while ago, because I found an interesting story about Columbus and the pineapple (which I've forgotten, though I think I have it bookmarked) that I thought might make an interesting post.

Part of the reason one can get better food cheaper at the farmers market (though this is by no means alway the case...I recall some organic apples I saw two years ago that looked like they'd spent a few seasons in some one's basement or something, and they wanted $1 apiece for them...) is that there are few middlemen and no marketing. Farmer grows the apples, takes them to the market, sells them to you.

Whereas, the apple you buy at Super Walmart (or wherever) was grown by a farmer, who sold it to a distributor (taking his cut), who trucked it to his distribution center, ran it through grading machinery, probably waxed it, then sold it to Walmart (taking his cut), who then trucked it first to some distribution center, then trucked it to the store, then paid to put out the little apple picture of the apple in the weekly circular, then paid some guy to greet you as you walked in, then sold it to you, taking their cut.

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