When I was a little girl (you had to walk uphill both ways in the snow, yes, yes, I know…)
Bear with me; this really is going somewhere.
When I was a girl, the mushroom selection in the produce aisle looked something like this:
When I visited the grocery store today, the mushroom selection looked like this:
Likewise, my childhood peppers selection was pretty much this:
While on today’s visit, I was presented with this:
I could go on about the iceberg and romaine lettuce heads of my childhood and contrast them with the vast variety of leafy greens on display and more, but it would belabor the point–and the police officer who guards the front door of the store was already raising an eyebrow at my photographing the produce section, so let’s limit this to one more image.
When I was a girl, the supermarket produce aisle was two parallel refrigerator cases and a row of unrefrigerated tables running down the center, with the bakery area taking over in the back half of the aisle–and that was in a big supermarket. This is a glimpse of the produce section in my neighborhood grocery store today:
One enormous refrigerator case isn’t even in the picture. It’s a breathtaking spread of vivid fresh food. It borders on acreage.
As I walk past the table filled with peaches and plums, all I smell is the industrially refrigerated air of the grocery store. I pick up a nectarine and hold it to my nose and I smell…nothing.
Who is eating this lifeless produce? How can they not know better.
I remember a time when the first table of peaches in the store would almost buckle my knees with its sweet perfume. When buying peaches wasn’t a choice; it was a compulsion. I couldn’t walk past that scent without my mouth watering. And fruit brought into the house would be devoured almost before it could be removed from the grocery bags. These days? I see the peaches, the nectarines, the plums. They look pretty enough. But then I take a deep breath? And I might as well be sniffing a photograph.
The same goes for tomatoes, often for strawberries. Grocery stores are filled with produce that’s designed to ship well, store well, survive rough handling with minimal bruising and rot.
Flavor is secondary.
I know this about peaches and tomatoes. I know that I need to look to alternate sources if I’m going to find fruits that taste like summer. But how many other food items have had their flavor profile diminished so slowly and subtly that I don’t remember what they used to taste like, don’t know how much I’m missing?
The most vivid example of this comes from last Thanksgiving, when we went to Maine to visit our friends Cat and Dmitri. They were keeping ducks, and fed us scrambled duck eggs. Cat warned us that the flavor was different from chicken eggs and to be ready for it. And, indeed, the flavor was very different from the bland and lifeless scrambled eggs to which I had grown accustomed. But the flavor was a lightning bolt of sense memory back to my childhood and my great aunt’s house and the chickens she kept. This, this, was what scrambled eggs were supposed to taste like: deeply flavorful and eggy, not bland yellow lumps needing cheese to give them flavor.
When we got back home, I tried buying eggs from a farm house, but the lack of taste isn’t so much in the place the chickens were raised as it is in the genetic manipulation that’s been foisted on the available laying breeds, manipulation designed to guarantee consistent and voluminous laying without much attention to the quality of the eggs themselves. Home gardeners have suffered dismay in their tomatoes, finding themselves with a bumper crop of thick-skinned, low-flavor, red softballs instead of the tomatoes they remember. It’s one of the reasons that heirloom seeds have gained so much popularity: people seeking out the flavor they remember from the past. Refusing to accept the industrial versions in their homes.
Now, no doubt there are some things that have been improved over the years, mostly in the vegetable field: spinach is sweeter, less bitter, the variety of produce is vastly improved.
But we’ve lost something that some people don’t even know is missing – because if they did, those piles of peaches and nectarines would languish in the store until they rotted.
Last week in Heinen’s Grocery a miracle happened. I staggered to a stop in front of the peaches, my knees buckling from the heavenly scent. I bought two of those lovely orbs and when I got home I just stood over the sink, juice running down my chin, groaning with pleasure.
Everyone should get that.