Thursday, September 06, 2012

Market Demands...Perfection

The Good Tomatoes - suitable for market.
Every once in a while over the summer, I'll have a realization about real-world agriculture and how it relates to me, as a consumer, and I'll think, "This is exactly the kind of lesson that I've come here for."

I had one of those today.

My edible wares.
So, y'know how we all complain about those hard plastic pink things they sell as "tomatoes" in the big chain supermarkets? "Ugh! So hard and tasteless!" we whine with our back-in-my-day memories. "Remember when tomatoes were red and actually had flavor? Hmph!" 

We mourn the monotony of produce and say that it doesn't need to so uniform, so perfect, so alien. We could stand some imperfection if it meant that the goods didn't have to come all the way from Mexico, Chile or Guam. We could stand a little flavor. It's like dating the most handsome guy in town and discovering he lacks personality.

Well, I think we may be in denial about our own aesthetic behavior, just a wee bit. I realized this when I was getting ready to head to the weekly Farmer's Market at the nearby town of Cavalier (Pop: 1,302) and loading up my garden goods.

Moon & Stars Watermelons
Yellow Pear Tomatoes? Check. (10¢ each!)
Spinach leaves? Check. (5¢ each!)
Basil? Lemon basil? Check and check. (25¢ each!)
Moon & Stars watermelons? Check. ($3 per half!)
Giant pumpkin, plus decorator pumpkins? Um, check.

Now, for the tomatoes...

With somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 tomato plants, I have quite a few with end rot, bug squatters or some that were just plain ugly. So, I began sorting out the less attractive ones and favoring the beautifully perfect red ones that could have starred in their own Prego ad.

Beauties on the left, Uglies on the right.
And then it hit me: "This is how it happens! This is how and why our produce has 'evolved' into the Stepford version of its' former self. Holy crap. I get it now." 

Seems like a simple thing but the consumer preference is for physical perfection and the industry delivers exactly that - for your eyes ONLY.

"For the last 50 or more years, tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield — they want plants that yield as many or as much as possible. They also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially turned orange [with ethylene gas] and then shipped away and still be holding together in the supermarket a week or 10 days later.

"As one large Florida farmer said, 'I don't get paid a single cent for flavor.' He said, 'I get paid for weight. And I don't know of any supermarket shopper who tastes her tomatoes before she puts them in her shopping cart.' ... It's not worth commercial plant breeders' while to breed for taste because their customers — the large farmers — don't get paid for it."

--Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit 

I'm grateful for the small food/Ag lessons that I keep learning day after day, week after week, month after month, here at SCRANCH. Being on the other side of the market counter sure does broaden the picture. I'm getting all kinds of insight here; that fancy book learnin' can only take you so far, y'know?

"I am NOT an eggplant..."
With all the political conventions going on, I thought it worth noting that Richard Nixon has actually been reincarnated into one of my tomatoes. Sadly, he did not sell at the market, although he did try to buy off all the other tomatoes....


Susie said...

I totally would have bought Richard Nixon - just for the photo fun that could be had, although I'm sure he will taste delicious too.

Your point is really interesting because having had my own experience with less then perfect tomatoes from my garden, I would not spend the same money on them as I would on perfect tomatoes.

I don't buy tomatoes out of season anymore, but now that my bushes are blown out I am still buying at Farmer's Market - and I would not pay the same premium price for bottom rot tomatoes.

I would however pay half price and be happy to have half a tomato that tastes good.

Please take a picture of your garden from the tank!? I haven't seen it in a while and I bet it's beautiful.

Heather Clisby said...

Haven't eaten the Dick Nixon tomato yet but I hope he doesn't taste all GOP-ey.

Yes, I'll take some tank photos this week. Tried to last week but the Tonka Truck was in the way with a dead engine.

Lindsay said...

I love the comparison to the hot guy w.o any personality! Haha! That is one of those big ah-ha moments, I don't think I've really ever connected the dots either. That we love to have things look perfect and uniform and therefore demand that in our food and supermarkets. Love your blog!

Heather Clisby said...

Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay. As you well know, we are having to educate ourselves in order to be more mindful (healthy) consumers. Plus, I like any excuse to use hot guys in my metaphors.