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Skin Deep
by Matthew Amster-Burton

September 4, 2000


The objective

Pavarotti frowns

"The QFC produce section is like a graveyard," I said to Laurie as we filled a paper sack with juicy Washington-grown peaches at Queen Anne Thriftway.

"It's more like the produce is stillborn," she replied, holding a ripe Mary Hill peach to her nose and inhaling its bouquet.

Earlier that day I had been to the Broadway QFC in search of a tomato for a salad. I knew, on some level, that this would be like searching for a rustic vin de pays at 7-Eleven, and sure enough, I was faced with the usual unsavory tableau.

There were two varieties of BC Hot House tomatoes, grown in secretive North-of-the-border greenhouses. One was a salad-sized "beefsteak" tomato, each one more perfectly round than the last, deep pink, and basically indistinguishable in taste and appearance from a large racquetball. Then we had "tomatoes on the vine," a cluster of small fruit with, yes, some desiccated tomato stems binding them. These are being marketed with the slogan "Like buying milk with the cow still attached," and if you find this idea appealing, you'll love the BC Hot House lineup. "Great looking!" trumpets their web site, which later asks, "What was Mother Nature thinking?" growing plants outdoors instead of hydroponically in greenhouses. The whole operation is as complex as Biosphere II, and about as successful.

There was a pile of roma tomatoes devoid of smell and less squeezable than a Charmin competitor, the sort that would cook up into a sauce over which Pavarotti would prefer Ragu.

It is currently the height of tomato season in Washington. Last Saturday, Laurie and I went to the University District Farmer's Market, where we sampled over a dozen different varieties of local tomatoes—sweet yellow Taxi, complex and bulging Brandywine, tart roma. Prices ranged from sixty cents to a dollar a pound.

Now, here at the QFC was a sad pile of "local tomatoes," variety unknown, picked green and smelling faintly of wax, marked at $1.99 a pound.

I grew up believing I hated tomatoes. I used to describe the raw fruit as tasting like curdled water and preferred tomato sauce from a can. But it was not by accident that the tomato rapidly insinuated itself into the world's cuisines after 1492: it grows like a weed and wherever this weed took root, locals fell in love with it. To grow a bad tomato takes careful planning and is an achievement of which one should be ashamed.

In fact, the whole produce section was as antiseptic as a dentist's office, with none of the pungency that travels with the August harvest. I'm not even going to talk about the peaches.

"Ripe fruit wants to be eaten," writes Jeffrey Steingarten, and plants will use every means at their disposal to attract animals to come eat the fruit and spread the seed. A proper produce section, bringing together myriad fruits and vegetables who never meet up in nature, should reek of sweetness and greenery.

Red wines meant for aging often go through a period described as "closed." This means the juicy qualities of a young wine have dissipated, but the wine hasn't yet begun to break down further into the unusual flavor compounds (the ones that get compared to leather, petroleum, or sex) that mark a well-aged red. A closed wine is boring, lacking in aroma.

Closure is a natural part of a wine's adolescence. It is a sign of delinquency in the life of a fruit, however, and how QFC can offer nearly everything in this persistent vegetative state is a mystery.

Top 10 Punchlines to Dirty Tomato Jokes

Now, to be fair, there are some things worth buying at QFC or any typical supermarket. The basic yellow onion is unassailable, as are Idaho russets. Bananas are much the same anywhere except near the source (where they are, I've heard, revelatory). Limes and lemons are all right, but don't get me started on the oranges. And because Washington is the nation's leading apple producer, there are often interesting and tasty apple varieties, like Pink Lady, if you can pretend you don't see people passing them over for Delicious varieties, which are as delicious as Styrofoam peanuts.

The decline of the produce section is nothing new—my friend Neil told me he saw David Letterman do a bit about lousy tomatoes...on his morning show—but nowadays most stalls at Pike Place Market are QFC in miniature. The supermarketization of Pike Place isn't complete (during organic farmer days locals bring quality produce to sell) but if a farmer's market is where farmers travel to sell the wares they've grown, well, someone deserves a Nobel Prize for growing bananas in Washington.


The old reliable

I'm not arguing that we should go back to the days when all produce was local and no American ever tasted a cherimoya. We can't get Thai-quality pineapple in the US, but that's no reason not to eat a slightly inferior Hawaiian pineapple. But something is deeply wrong when I can't buy quality local tomatoes within two miles of my house and am forced instead to make do with a greenhouse-raised impostor lobbed over the border from Canada in what should be considered an act of war.

Despite all this, there are auspicious signs in the Seattle produce world. I have raved at length about the annual Peach-O-Rama event put on by Queen Anne and Admiral Thriftway stores, and they are now starting to feature better tomatoes as well, the kind whose smell permeates the whole car. I have suggested that they expand into a full-fledged Tomat-O-Rama, but perhaps they're hung up one whether to put one or two O's in the middle.

The University District Farmer's Market is thriving, as is one in Columbia City, whose large nonwhite and immigrant populations are in greater need of affordable produce and, for whatever confluence of historical reasons, better able than the average American to identify quality. (When I travel to southern Italy I intend to bring a BC Hot House tomato to Naples as a practical joke. I have no doubt it will survive in my carry-on luggage.)

One shot across the bow of the tomato racquetball club arrived in Seattle last year in the form of Whole Foods, which opened a huge store in Ravenna. I had low expectations for this natural foods mecca, figuring that like most such enterprises it would carry an unusual odor and the insinuation that you should buy the food but not enjoy it too much, as that would be disharmonic with nature.

So I was delighted to find that Whole Foods rains down a fresh-smelling liberation theology on such unpalatable dogma. Their produce department seems to be dedicated equally to finding unusual specimens and improving the quality of the usual ones. One wall is lined with greens and root vegetables, from broccoli rabe to turnips. The aroma is overpowering. They also stock key limes, which Laurie turns into pies of distinction. Ass-kicking distinction. The grocer confided to me one day that I'm one of only a handful of people who buy them, but they've made no move to discontinue carrying the tiny, seedy, delicious things.

At Whole Foods I was introduced to the ambrosia melon, a soft and winy import, and broccoletti, a small broccoli relative that sautÚs beautifully with some lemon and garlic. They do sell some bad tomatoes, but also good ones and usually for a reasonable (though not farmer's market) price.

The only part of the Whole Foods produce section I can complain about is the potatoes, which is a small lineup of the usual suspects (russet, red, Yukon Gold), although one day I found the highly russeted Bel Rus variety, which is a legendary baker. Note to Whole Foods: how about branching out into creamy Yellow Finns or German Butterballs?

Act Three, in which Lenin asks: "What is to be done?"

Chances are, unless you are reading this in a fortunate corner of Europe or Asia, your produce situation is as dismal as mine. What can you do?

  1. Send a letter. The manager of your grocery store receives very few letters from customers and is therefore likely to take yours seriously. Feel free to include a copy of this article. Be specific in your requests: fresh, local tomatoes (if you have local tomatoes) or ripe peaches, for example. At Whole Foods they have a message board where the manager posts replies; next time I'll mention the potatoes.
  2. Support your local farmer's market. Now that we've discovered the University District Farmer's Market, we go every Saturday morning, rain or shine. We are eating that much better for it. Get to know the farmers and you'll probably pick up lore and cooking suggestions the average produce stockboy wishes he knew. On the downside, you'll miss out on the stockboy's N64 cheats. There is a national directory of farmer's markets online at http://www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/.
  3. Buy produce in season. One of my favorite books is Can You Trust a Tomato in January? by Vince Staten. The answer is no.

It would be improper not to note that most of the criticisms of the produce section apply equally and then some to the meat department. Health regulations prevent Washington farmer's markets from offering fresh meat, and this at a time when quality of supermarket meat has never been worse. In Bangkok we saw freshly killed chickens and whole pork bellies for sale alongside vegetables and noodle stalls. Unsurprisingly, the meat was better there.

What's good for GM is good for America?

We're in the home stretch of this rant, but I'd like to offer a few words about genetically modified food.

GM food, the press often reminds us, is a blood-in-the-streets issue in Europe but not in America, where it proliferates on our grocery shelves. Pundits usually explain in a paternalistic tone that the Europeans are more environmentally conscious or hew to a charming but outdated puritanism.

Both explanations are nonsense. The French drive as much as we do in cars that pollute more, and their country is overrun with nuclear power plants. France is a modern country far less puritanical than the U.S. But what the French have that we don't is a respect for local food traditions and a healthy skepticism of the idea that a corporation is going to deliver tastier shallots or lamb than a farmer. David Rosengarten recognizes the same tendency:

I have a little theory about France. People who work in the French food industry could be a lot richer if they produced food of lower quality and charged more for it...but I think the French mind doesn't work that way. Jacques the cheesemaker says to himself, "I could make an extra 20,000 francs a year by buying lower-quality milk. But if I did that—and everybody did the same—what would I spend my extra 20,000 francs on?"

Because that's what's missing from the GM debate: taste. In the September issue of Gourmet was a long and otherwise balanced article about GM foods that did not mention taste once. We know now that GM corn poses a threat to the Monarch butterfly, and that is cause for concern. But shouldn't the first question be whether GM corn tastes any good? If it doesn't, why is anyone trying to sell it in the first place?

Time recently (7/31/00) carried a cover story on Golden Rice, a yellowish creation containing beta-carotene. This rice is touted as a savior for malnourished children killed or blinded by vitamin A deficiency. We have been down the miracle rice road before, of course, in the 1960s. No one asked then or now whether the rice was delicious, and that is precisely why the last round of end-of-hunger proclamations were so painfully wrong.

In Thailand, connoisseurs of rice can determine by taste whether a jasmine was harvested early or late. The desperately poor are not without taste buds. Visit Calabria, Italy's impoverished toe, where tomatoes are coaxed out of unforgiving soil and served over spaghetti with hot red pepper, in one of those combinations that Lynne Rossetto Kasper calls "destiny in a bowl." Foisting flavorless pap on the needy is no act of charity.

This is all especially silly because rice already contains beta-carotene-in its germ. But nearly all of the world's billions of rice eaters remove the germ, not because they have a death wish but because brown rice is, to put it kindly, not a taste with wide appeal. Maybe Golden Rice has already been test-marketed and it tastes exactly the same as real rice. But the last hundred corporate experiments promising better food haven't been so successful, and the article didn't even ask the question, so forgive me if I have my doubts.

Even those devoted to the best ingredients can be snookered by the new gospel of miracle foods (lovely appearance! excellent shelf life!) offered by the corporate engineers. Edward Behr, editor of the indispensable food newsletter The Art of Eating, published unironically the claim of tomato researcher Prof. Ronald Buttery that "a perfectly delicious supermarket tomato will be available within ten years." That was in 1990. Ed, I invite you to join me down at the QFC to see if the good professor has succeeded.

Don't you be so fooled. Supermarkets with their thin margins must be agile in their response to consumer demand. Ask them to drop the supermodel produce and sell a tomato that is pudgy and ripe and cries out to be eaten.[HOME]

POSTSCRIPT (9/17/00): I went to Whole Foods last week and their potato section included German Butterballs and Purple Peruvians. I had to eat my words along with the potatoes.

In the current issue of Foreign Policy there's a debate on GM food. On the con side, Miguel Altieri writes: "food preferences in rural areas of the developing world are culturally determined, and it is unlikely that that Asians will consume this 'orange rice' while traditional white rice is plentiful." Food preferences in urban areas of the industrial west are no less culturally determined, of course—surely America would be a healthier nation if we ate fewer doughnuts, and everyone knows this, but doughnuts are selling fine, and it's not because of the brilliance of the "time to make the doughnuts" ad campaign but because doughnuts are tasty and a valued part of our culture, particularly with a cup of coffee in the morning. Regardless, Altieri makes a widely ignored but vital point.

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