Why Does American Produce Suck?

Got this message the other day, from Mike and Sally Poutiatine,

Hey Food-Dude,

Sally and I have a query – we noticed recently in Ireland that the produce there is SO much better than we get in our restaurants or stores in Spokane. We found eating either in a hole-in-the-wall pub or a 4-star Castle dining room the greens were equally good and way better than we find most of the time in Spokane. The veggies in general in Ireland were much better (though they tended to cook them about 10 times as long as necessary) – We found the same thing before when traveling in Italy, Japan and the UK in term of quality. Is it as simple as faster, more direct farm to table? Or do other countries just take green veggies more seriously than we do? Why is that?

My immediate response was this, ‘Oh, I am SO making this the next blog post – Great question!’

Simple salad with real lettuce - A whole ‘nuther animal
Simple salad with real lettuce – A whole ‘nuther animal

The serendipitous part of the question is this – Earlier, while watering our very bountifully producing little veggie and herb garden, (a daily ritual I not only love, but seem to need), I was contemplating the same thing. Our stuff tastes so much better than 90% of what we find for sale – The only thing that rivals it is found in trips to our local farmers market, and through good CSA operations. And therein lies the short answer – While M and I choose not to accept the produce status quo here, most Americans accept (and have been indoctrinated to expect), relatively shitty produce. That is not good, and it needs to change.

Typical Grocery Store Produce - Bletch!
Typical Grocery Store Produce – Bletch!

The first thing that comes to most folks minds when they experience this is the natural assumption that some combination of basic factors are better over there – Better soil, environmental conditions, and so on – But truth be told, that’s a bunch of hooey – writ large, there’s demonstrably nothing special about european soil, etc, that makes their produce taste better than American produce. This has been pretty well studied, and it comes down almost solely to the fact that most world food cultures other than ours value flavor and taste in their produce more than we do – That’s it. That said, we could be, (and more and more folks are), growing stuff every bit as good – it’s just not often sold in mass market grocery stores.

Mighty ‘Mato’s - Not your typical grocery store fodder
Mighty ‘Mato’s – Not your typical grocery store fodder

Let’s take tomatoes as an example – Many will cite the famous Italian San Marzano as the ne plus ultra of tomatodom, but truth? There are a lot of shitty San Marzanos, gang. Like anything else that gets wildly popular on a worldwide scale, production needs outstrip high quality real quick – And by the way, those things are basically Roma’s, a paste tomato variety – They’re great for sauce when grown right, but for other stuff – Not so much. Here on this side of the big pond, (where tomatoes originally come from, after all), you can bet there are some amazing ones. We make a point of planting Mighty ‘Mato grafted tomatoes each year – They’re a thing developed by Dr. Jim Baggett of Oregon State University. Grafting makes them stronger, more disease resistant, and boy oh boy, do they yield – And they’re stunningly lovely. Yet despite all that, they don’t lend themselves well to being sold en mass, so… Or take the case of horticulture Professor Harry Klee, of the University of Florida, creator of the Garden Gem. That’s an incredibly tasty, hearty, disease resistant variety with a great shelf life – But at roughly half the size of the ‘average’ grocery store tomato, virtually nobody appears interested in bringing those to you and me. And here’s the kicker – The Italians have ordered tens of thousands of Garden Gem seeds – Insult to injury for American consumers.

Lettuce, real lettuce, just doesn’t ship, store, or last all that well...
Lettuce, real lettuce, just doesn’t ship, store, or last all that well…

How about lettuces? Well, M and I grow those, and let me tell ya, those are exactly what I was thinking of when I was watering the other day – A simple salad we’d made had taste and texture, because of the lettuce – Shut up! Ah, but those aren’t nice, uniform, large, tough, resilient heads you can ship and display and sell for days, so, they’re out too.

Real Celery isn’t insipid - It’s flavor packed and seriously crunchy
Real Celery isn’t insipid – It’s flavor packed and seriously crunchy

Celery, maybe? Celery?! Tasteless, boring celery? Well, in the store, yes, that’s exactly what it is. Our plants are anything but. They have bold flavor to match a crisp, crunchy texture – The leaves alone are potent and complex – But they don’t grow in big, tight, uniform bunches either so again, no go.

Herbs should never come in plastic containers...
Herbs should never come in plastic containers…

Whatever you name – Chiles, peas, cucumbers, radishes, and any herb there is – You’ll find them in the store, but what you’ll find in this country is chosen for the unholy trinity of shipability, shelf life, and the appearance of relative bounty – Three things you and I definitely do not need.

Wanna take a guess at how many folks know that this is how artichokes grow?
Wanna take a guess at how many folks know that this is how artichokes grow?

Mike followed up with this thought, ‘I have always assumed that the produce we get from our stores is tasteless because the distance from producer to table is so far – and I am sure that is part of it. But your observation that we have grown used to bad produce is insightful. We eat bad produce because we just don’t care about produce.’

Sad but true, my friends. There’s a local garden here in our area, much beloved, and big enough to regularly supply local grocery stores with produce in season. It’s pretty, and it’s fresh, but frankly – It’s a local version of the same stuff we always see – It’s chosen for those three criterion I mentioned – And as such, there’s really no magic there.

Produce magic begins at home
Produce magic begins at home

The good news is that things do seem to be changing for the better. Folks of many generations here are growing tired of paying for crap, which is forcing Big Agro to change, some anyway. We see far more varieties of apples than days of old – Same goes for lettuce, onions, chiles, and so on – And there is stuff therein that is quite good, if we choose wisely. More and more stores are stating straight out where stuff comes from, which is good, and if you do your due diligence, there’s quite a bit more to be sussed out.

A lot of that process means really, truly checking out what you’re choosing – Do you squeeze, poke, prod, and sniff what you’re buying? Do you find a produce person and ask pointed questions? That might be anything from, where is this from and when did it get here, to what’s the harvest date on this, (there is damn near always a harvest or packing or production date), to ‘I don’t know how to tell a good (your selection here) from not – how do you do that?’ In any store worth your hard earned dough, they’ll be able to answer those questions – And if they can’t, (or you don’t ask), shame on you – You get what you pay for.

Mike’s next query was, ‘So what do we do in the US that shows the care and quality that we found in the seemingly universal high quality of Irish produce?’

The good news is that there are things to be found here, and that trend is slowly but surely growing, all over the country – If you read the Rancho Gordo bean post, there’s a shining example. Try those, and suddenly you’re thinking, ‘why am I buying these plastic bags and cans full of tasteless crap when these are out here?’ I’ve seen it first hand with stuff from our friends CSAs in Minnesota as well – How folks react when they have celery that has taste, what good lettuce is like, and so on.

That’s what fresh produce looks like, gang
That’s what fresh produce looks like, gang

As for a specific answer to Mike’s last question, I’d say this – If they come here planning to cook, and have facility for such and then go to an average grocery store, what will they get? Mostly crap, unfortunately. If they’re smart, which I think many are, they’ll seek out and find farmers markets – those are the gold standard here these days. In our relatively little town, there are dozens of producers offering gorgeous produce, grown with genuine love and care, just as we do here at home – I’ve had everything from rainbow carrots with amazing taste and crunch, to tiny fingerling potatoes that were melt in your mouth delicious, with a slight tang of the earth they came from as a back note.

So if there’s a unified field theory as to how we go about changing the status quo, this would be my three cents worth.

1. Always grow a garden. You can do this, damn near no matter where you live or what you live in. From window sill to big ol’ plot – Do it – You’ll get better produce, and perhaps more importantly, tending a garden and playing in dirt is good for your soul.

2. Find a Farmers Market near you and patronize that. You’re supporting the little, local folk, and nobody deserves that more – And again, you’ll generally get far superior produce to anything in a chain grocery store.

3. Find a CSA operation Netra you and patronize that. That’s Community Supported Agriculture – we’re the community, and the growers can be anything from those same folks who sell at farmers markets, to larger scale folks who do most of their selling through CSA – Again, no one I know is more deserving of your patronage, and frankly, no one I know is more deserving of great produce than you are.

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