One very strange description crops up in nearly every expert’s take on processed food and the way it’s overtaken fresh and whole foods in the American diet. Everyone from food industry veteran Hank Cardello (see the Stuffed book review) to NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle in What to Eat talks about fast food and junk food as “tasty”. David Kessler goes even further: in The End of Overeating, he adds “irresistible,” which he says is the problem he faced most of his life.
Moreover, “tasty” has become the important word in processed food advertising. Driving home from the post office today I even saw it on a billboard for Vitaminwater10, with the tagline: “10 CALORIES. 4 NEW FLAVORS. TASTIER THAN EVER.”
Tasty. It’s the word of champions, the key, the adword to beat.
And for the life of me, I’m not sure why. Because the words I would have chosen for most of it include stodgy, greasy, cardboardy, screamingly salty, day-glo ™ orange, and “a lot like airplane food, only on the ground.” Am I the only one?
But “tasty”–specifically that word–is clearly the accepted description, even among these food experts, and that points to a host of disturbing assumptions. Either they mean they find processed food tasty or they mean they think everyone else finds it tasty and irresistible–even if there’s something better to eat. That’s kind of defeatist, isn’t it? If everyone “knows” fast food is tastier than fresh produce, what hope is there for mainstream Americans to eat healthier than they do today?
What do they actually mean by “tasty” in the case of processed food? They don’t mean fresh, as in fresh produce. They don’t mean tangy, as in yogurt or a tangerine, or sharp as in horseradish or cheddar. Certainly not aromatic, like dill or fennel or rosemary or sage. Or rich and funky and thought-provoking, like aged camembert or shiitakes or asparagus or toasted sesame oil. And they don’t mean complex and savory and surprising, as in a palak paneer punctuated by smoky black cardamom pods, Armenian string cheese with nigella seed, or a long-cooked carbonnade or daube of beef with some cloves thrown in on a whim.
They can’t possibly, honestly, mean “these fresh hazelnuts are so sweet you’ll plotz” or “one bite and you’d better take this nectarine somewhere private.”
Most of the food experts who’ve posited that processed food is “tasty” in their books and articles are older than I am by about 10 years, old enough to remember eating late-July nectarines that devastatingly fragrant, backyard tomatoes earthily ripe and pungent, foods utterly unlike what’s available even in the produce section of most chain supermarkets today.
So I can’t help thinking that their casual use of the word “tasty” reflects and even perpetuates the hopelessly tattered, stunted and inexperienced taste imagination of the masses of people who don’t cook for themselves anymore and have given over completely to packaged food, with its excesses of salt and its bland, stale cardboardy background flavor. The ugly assumption they’ve bought into is that people who eat mostly processed food can’t change, won’t change, and most importantly, wouldn’t like fresh food if they tasted it.
Can the surge of food blogs with their encouragement to try something new, visit local farmers’ markets, maybe even take a share in a community garden plot, change this trend? I hope so, even though I know the open air markets are not often very available in poor neighborhoods and they tend to be as expensive as supermarkets. But when they are made available in urban areas, all kinds of people from the neighborhood suddenly come flocking to them, hungry for real food and the chance to see the broad variety of what’s growing for themselves.
It doesn’t matter what kind of food you’re normally exposed to, or whether your whole diet consists of vending machine food and Burger King on the run to soccer practice or a business meeting or just because it’s the only food store in your neighborhood. If you can get out to an open air market, or grow something with your neighbors in a community garden, you’ll want to taste the produce. The fast-food version of “tasty” gets knocked aside in an instant for the real thing.
Meeting your neighbors, talking to the growers, trading ideas and smelling, touching, even occasionally getting a taste of something completely new is a small adventure but an important one. The produce seems so much more alive and fragrant out in the open air, so different from the chilled and uninviting displays of lackluster vegetables under fluorescent light in the supermarket. And in fact it is more alive and more worth eating, because it’s harvested riper and because it hasn’t been refrigerated and gassed. Even the decorator “tomatoes on the vine” that you get for $4.99/lb in the supermarket have only about half the flavor complexity and none of the rich, pungent aroma of tomatoes grown in a home garden with good sunlight and good soil. It’s only natural that the open air market turns people on to fresh vegetables and trying new things.
Children who never eat vegetables if they can help it, children who make every possible excuse at home until their parents simply give up and feed them something from a box, also somehow get excited to taste green beans or peas–even some of the more pungent herbs–if they can try them at a farmers’ market or pick them right off the vine outside the classroom or in their neighbor’s backyard.
My daughter’s school has a garden plot behind the classrooms and all the students get to help plant it at the beginning of the year and take turns watching and tending it. There’s a bed of mixed lettuces, radishes and carrots, a sprawling corner with zucchini and pumpkins, another far corner overrun with straggling mint, some staked cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas, a lemon tree and a pomegranate that don’t produce very frequently–all the usual stuff that a lot of the school parents say their kids won’t touch at home.
But volunteer during the school day and you see something you’d never believe otherwise. Whenever my daughter’s class has its turn in the garden, the one kid with a seriously fast-food-and-candy diet at home (and the belly to prove it) is always right up there with the all-organics boy, eagerly plucking yellow broccoli flowers off a stalk that’s already produced its limit of green florets and popping them in his mouth. The flowers aren’t sweet, burger-like or salty. They’re bitter and fresh and bracing, like raw broccoli–and he loves them exactly for what they are, not what they aren’t. In fact, he doesn’t whine about trying anything from the garden, and he doesn’t demand gobs of bottled salad dressing or reject his share whenever the school makes a harvest salad for lunch.
So the reality is that kids, grownups, all of us have the potential to appreciate all kinds of fresh produce, complex flavors, and food that doesn’t come in a box, as long as we really get the chance to test it out. Calling prepackaged stuff tasty by default and assuming we won’t try or can’t like fresh food is a huge cop-out.
But not everyone gets this chance to explore. Can you do foodie kind of food from a supermarket? Can you give inexperienced kids (or adults) a chance to test out new flavors and expand their palates? You know–you probably can. It’s better, of course, if you can get yourself to a smaller ethnic grocery or a farmer’s market, because the vegetables and fruits will be closer to ripe and sometimes cheaper, and certainly more interesting than most of what the supermarkets stock. And you’ve got a better shot at fresh herbs for a reasonable price.
But by being willing to experiment and bring home something unfamiliar every once in a while à la Julie Powell, and being absolutely ruthless about skipping the packaged and bottled stuff in the center aisles while you’re trying it, you can do an awful lot to make eating more interesting and genuinely tasty.
A few palate-expanding experiments that get away from salt:
1. Raw vegetable assortment. The idea here is to taste a few different raw fresh vegetables together and get your tongue to start noticing the different aromatic flavors. This works best plain to start–no dip or sauce to distract. Try a selection of celery, radishes, long carrot slices, red and green bell peppers, red cabbage, and/or romaine lettuce (well-washed from a whole head, not a pre-bagged overpriced number). Sliced raw fennel is another good choice, and so are washed raw green beans, though both of these may be more expensive per pound. Keep out the tomatoes and baby-cut carrots for this one (too bland, too sweet, not enough complexity compared with the regular big carrots). Have everyone try and describe the flavor of celery–it’s a challenge. Compare radish and red cabbage, red vs. green bell peppers–can you taste a difference? Can you tell them apart with your eyes shut?
2. Fruit and cheese matchup. The same kind of idea with sliced firm pears, one or two varieties of apples, orange or tangelo sections, maybe plum or nectarine slices as well. Pair with thin slices of decent cheese–sharp cheddar, firm gorgonzola, havarti, gouda, and baby swiss are all widely available in decent quality and not too expensive versions. Toast some walnuts to munch with them.
3. Dried spices: inexpensive half-ounce packets of many spices are available in the Mexican food aisle at my supermarket, and an even greater variety are offered at the local Latino supermarket (which has a huge, inexpensive, and pretty exciting produce section with cactus leaves, tomatillos, quinces, and other stuff not carried by the mainstream chains). Try aniseed, whole cumin and caraway seeds, fennel, mustard seed, coriander seed, thyme, marjoram, sage, and oregano. Which ones look alike? Which ones taste sweet? Which ones taste similar? If the participants are old enough to tolerate hot spices, try black peppercorns as well–compare them with the standard ground pepper. Which one’s more flavorful (setting aside the bite)?
Then try a little of some of the sweeter spices with prunes. Try cumin seed and one or two of the Italian herbs with slices of tomato.
4. This one’s not fresh produce, but it’s a fun and thought-provoking exercise a friend of mine once set up for her dinner guests. She bought four different ice creams–all vanilla. One was Haagen-Dazs, another Breyers, a third the store brand, the fourth Hood Lite ice milk. Without letting us see what she was up to in the kitchen, she prepared a small juice glass for each of us with a tablespoonful of one of the four and brought it out along with some scrap paper and pencils for scoring. Our assignment? Rate the ice creams from highest quality to lowest in a blind tasting, and then try to identify the brand of ice cream for each sample. And so we sat and tasted a small amount of each of the four in order. As we finished the first and made notes, she whisked away the glasses for the next sample. We thought and wrote and tried to remember the others and thought and wrote some more and scratched things out and reversed them. The whole thing took more than half an hour, each of the ice creams was distinctly different from the others, and sometimes the highest quality wasn’t necessarily each person’s personal favorite. Moral: there’s no such thing as “plain vanilla”.
Filed under: books, cooking, Eating out, Food Blogs, Food Politics, fruits, kid food, Vegetabalia | Tagged: community gardens, cooking, David Kessler, farmers' markets, fast food, flavor, Food Blogs, Food Politics, fresh food, fresh produce, herbs, junk food, Marion Nestle, palate, processed food, produce, spices, supermarkets, vanilla |