So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)
Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.
Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.
It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.
He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…
Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.
Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.
Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.
Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.
Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers.
Schatzker argues that the inborn connection between flavor and nutritional value has been disrupted with detrimental effects on appetite and our food expectations. Flavor, he says, can only be restored by going back to smaller production, more careful use and experimentation starting from heirloom breeds and seedstock, and by prioritizing native flavor of whole foods as a key criterion for breeding and growing them.
And then he sets out to prove it. As the culminating event of the book, Schatzker sets up a super-flavor dinner, inviting and sourcing ingredients from many of the experts he profiled earlier.
Every strawberry, every piece of meat, every vegetable and grain to be served is lovingly doted on and the acquisition of each for this epic supper becomes a drama unto itself. The saga of the Garden Gem tomatoes alone is an exercise in extreme foodieism.
The unfortunate byproduct of this experiment, if it is an experiment, is cost, which Schatzker sums up in the case of the Garden Gem tomatoes and the import forms he has to fill out for them at customs as “worth the $405 shipping fee.”
With fewer than twenty diners participating, the tale adds up in my head to something like “Babette’s Feast.” It’s an extravagance that cannot fully be appreciated by most people not because they can’t tell exquisite flavor when they taste it, but because the cost is so extreme as to put it out of reach. It’s like the New York Times restaurant reviews that boast of $600 bottles of wine and multiple-hundred-dollar entrées, shared with a celebrity chef or cookbook author at a restaurant with four Michelin stars on the publisher’s dime (or thousand-dollar bill). A tale you can tell entertainingly if you live through it yourself, but an experience your middle- and working-class readers likely cannot share or reproduce at home.
By and large, that also means Schatzker ultimately does nothing much to suggest what to do to help the average family of four with the ordinary supermarket produce, meats and poultry they have access to, other than to complain to the store managers and return flavorless goods. Cold comfort–there’s no one much to complain to in most supermarkets. If you keep returning food that lacks strong intrinsic flavor, yes, you may eventually send a message, but in the short run there’s usually not much to replace it with.
Can you make better food choices with ordinary produce and butcher selections? Yes. Can you increase your perception of flavor without dousing supermarket tomatoes in ranch dressing, as Schatzker insists is the only widely known strategy? Yes again.
One thing he seems to leave out of consideration is the role of salt in shaping flavor perception. Cutting processed food consumption entirely for a bit, consciously limiting sodium intake from all foods for a week or two by skipping sodas, packaged goods and restaurant food and focusing on fresh produce at home can change your salt palate dramatically and sharpen your perception of other flavors in fresh unprocessed foods. The next time you go to a Superbowl party, you discover that you can tell the difference between taco chips with and without MSG with your eyes shut, and that MSG no longer tastes good. Soda tastes oversweetened and sickly. Carrots and peppers suddenly taste fresher, more complex. Even without ranch dip.
Learning to judge the fruit and vegetables you buy helps. Buying them at ethnic markets where they’re cheaper and sold closer to ripe also helps, as does buying bulk full-grown vegetables that have had time in the soil to develop flavor complexity, rather than the more expensive and blander “baby” versions of bok choy, carrots, peppers, celery and lettuces (many of these packaged ultra-expensively in branded plastic bags).
Ripening your produce yourself is another consideration. Tomatoes and some fruits benefit from time on a kitchen windowsill, exposed to air and sunlight for a day or so. We’ve lost the patience to try that, and it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Schatzker, who may simply be too young to remember when that was an ordinary thing to do with one’s storebought tomatoes and no one expected to eat them all right away. But it can turn completely flavorless orange grainy winter tomatoes into ones with better texture and at least detectable flavor, if not the perfect summer acidity and fragrant pungency we seek in Fresno tomato season. Simple cooking sometimes also brings out unsuspected flavor from produce that is admittedly bland and uninspiring raw.
Growing your own vegetables and fruit trees is another avenue to properly flavorful and ripened produce, although it’s tricky for many people. It also requires time, land, and planning–as well as some cash layout for pots and good soil if your backyard doesn’t provide it or you only have an apartment balcony to work with. The $64 Tomato is still a real dilemma for purple thumbs like me, even here in Southern California where sun and warm-to-scorching weather are givens year-round. (This morning: 90 degrees! in February!)
Meat and poultry are not something I buy very often anymore (I keep kosher and it’s kind of a pain to switch from dairy to meat dishes and cooking utensils. I don’t have the patience other than for holidays, and even then I’m not good about it). So I can’t advise reliably on what to do with them. My top two? three are:
- marinate with wine, garlic and herbs (rather than salt) before roasting or grilling, and
- brown aggressively before braising or stewing with aromatic herbs and vegetables (and more garlic; can’t help it, it’s in my blood)
- oh yeah–and if you’re going to make hamburgers, start with actual ground beef, pat them pretty thin, top them with a sprinkle of teriyaki sauce and a pinch of garlic powder, and broil them quickly on each side. Don’t let them shrivel up into little gray balls of death. My sister and I used to see our mom coming in the door with a pound of raw hamburger and we’d immediately rescue it by offering to make dinner while she relaxed somewhere else. It was the only way to make sure we wouldn’t suffer horribly.
All three strategies seem like much better ideas to me than topping meat with large amounts of bottled glop. Or ranch dressing.