I have a confession. I was once a tomato hater.
My love for this seedy fruit extended only to ketchup. There was no room in my heart for any other tomato product, not sauce, not soup, definitely not a fresh-picked tomato sandwiched between two slices of bread.
I hated the tomato.
And now, I know why.
The tomato I was introduced to came from the grocery store. It was not the same kind of tomato my grandmother purchased from the store when my mother was growing up. That tomato had tomato flavour. It wasn’t the tasteless, mealy, squishy, watery red fruit that I tried. So I banned all things tomato from entering my mouth, with the exception of ketchup which I put on everything (including white rice, mashed potatoes and pancakes — don’t judge).
Today, I have love for the tomato that extends beyond that sugary concoction which we North Americans drown hamburgers and french fries alike in. But not all tomatoes.
For me to eat tomato in its true form, it has to be fresh-picked, grown organically and from a plant that wasn’t modified for the sole purpose of growing more and bigger tomatoes. I’m talking about heirloom varieties, which come in shades beyond the standard red from plum purple and brown black to tiger-striped green tomatoes and little itty-bitty yellow cherry ones. These flavourful tomatoes, while not often commercially available, can be grown in your backyard vegetable garden or purchased at a farmers’ market. They boast flavour that doesn’t need to be enhanced with spices and sauces. It is fine with just a little salt and pepper, or delightful on toast with some bacon, lettuce and mayonnaise.
The problem with commercially available tomatoes today, is that they have been grown with one thing in mind: revenue. Research and technology into real foods has focussed on bigger and better at the cost of flavour. At the same time, the processed foods industry has focussed their innovation dollars on developing synthetic flavours that mimic those found in nature. Natural foods are losing flavour while foodstuffs are tempting our tastebuds. This research and technology has changed what and how people eat, and the results, as disease and obesity statistics indicate, are not good. Flavour has become something bad. The foods that should taste great because they offer our bodies needed nutrients, don’t and the foodstuffs that offer few, if any, benefits to our health are full of man-made flavour.
Blandness and our attempts to disguise it is the hidden scourge of our time.
—Mark Schatzker, The Dorito Effect
Today’s chicken, as Julia Child once put it, tastes like the stuffing from inside a teddy bear. The renowned cookbook author also said “Chicken should be so good in itself that it is an absolute delight to eat as a perfectly plain, buttery roast, sauté or grill”. But the chicken of today must be drowned in seasoning, salts, marinades, brines and sauces. On its own, it tastes bland, kind of like cotton stuffing. It’s not like the chicken of yesteryear which was grown on an actual farm (think Old McDonald) and fed food that wasn’t engineered by some scientist to be the most efficient at turning feed into fat. It wasn’t bred by wannabe chicken breeders competing for a $10,000 prize in the 1940s’ Chicken of Tomorrow Contest, a way for the industry to have others do the work of creating the biggest chicken in the least amount of time. I experienced that flavour difference when I slow-roasted one of our Barred rock roosters into the best chicken noodle soup I have ever tasted (it was so good, I even ate the carrots. If you don’t regularly follow my blog, I have even less love for the carrot than I did for the tomato though I don’t hate it as much as peas — the worst vegetable on the planet). It was rich and complex. It had a flavour I couldn’t quite place. The stock was much richer than the commercially-made versions available by the carton. More rich than homemade broths I’ve made with store-bought chickens. It was exquisite.
That is the sad reality of our current food supply. Flavour exists mostly in the man-made food products and rarely in mass-produced wholesome foods. This is one point food journalist Mark Schatzker makes in his new book The Dorito Effect. The Dorito Effect is what happens when real food gets blander and flavour technology gets better and how this master trickery impacts our health. Science has enabled us to produce bigger chickens in less time and higher-yielding tomatoes that are resistant to disease at the sacrifice of flavour. This 200-page book outlines how and why that happened and the consequences it has had. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, until I got to the conclusion.
While Schatzker hits the nail on the head with his theory, what he doesn’t get, is that flavourful, wholesome foods do exist, they just aren’t grown on acre after acre of “farm” land.They are instead grown by home gardeners, hobbyists and small-scale organic farms. They are available, they just cost a lot more and are harder to find. But they do exist.
I loved the book. Most of its 200 pages intrigued me. Schatzker tells the whole story of the Franken-chicken, the bland tomato and how flavour plays an important nutritional role. Humans once ate to fulfill a need, today we eat because we can. Fake food is literally everywhere.
While I disagree with the conclusion, I would still recommend reading The Dorito Effect. The book is filled with interesting facts about the evolution of food and its impact on health. Schatzker points a finger at the evolution of the flavour industry for the rise in obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems. These fake-food stuffs are packed with flavour but little to no nutritional value. Real flavour, Schatzker says, is intricately linked with nutrition. By nature, our bodies should crave what it needs (Schatzker uses scurvy-ridden sailors and angora goats in the mountains to demonstrate this). But instead of craving a big bowl of kale, we salivate at the image of a McWhatever which offers mass amounts of calories and little by way of nutritional value. These fake foods tastes good, but will likely leave you feeling McRegret (as Schatzker puts it).
Here’s my beef with the book: The author seems to discount those who are working to fit the missing piece of flavour back into the food puzzle. The folks who have long recognized that flavour and nutrition work hand in hand. They recognized that something was missing in the conventional food supply and set out to fix it. They looked not to technology but to history. They decided to grow heirloom varieties that were left untouched by the men in the white coats and goggles. They chose heritage breed chickens over the franken-variety. They chose flavour.
And you can too. Plant a garden, shop at farmers’ markets and visit local farms to access healthy, flavourful foods unparalleled to those that are mass produced. Flavour is out there, you just need to seek it out.