On “No Reservations” the other evening, Anthony Bourdain and French chef Eric Ripert were dining in Paris when they both agreed that a sliced carrot — a small component of an entrée they were extolling — tasted so much better than any carrot they would eat in the United States. Bourdain cracked up Ripert when he suggested that perhaps U.S. carrots suffered from a lack of dead Romans in the soil.
The produce aisle has come a long way since I was a kid. It was just an aisle — not the predominant section of a grocery store. And it was an aisle my mother largely bypassed for the modern convenience of frozen peas, corn and lima beans (thufferin'thuccotash!).
Now, the American public has largely heard Michael Pollan's Food Rules message — "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." The perimeter is being shopped like no other time, and mainstream grocery retailers are continually re-thinking and re-staging their produce sections to be "more like Whole Foods" — a less-processed, relatively package- and brand-free, fresh food environment.
My supermarket has recently renovated its produce section — and it’s a big, beautiful cornucopia of goodness. I spend a lot more time and money there than I used to (or my mother ever did). And yet, like Bourdain and Ripert, I'd trade all that merchandising splendor for produce with more flavor. I'm afraid we've been breeding our fruits and vegetables for looks and shelf life for so long, that the trade-off — even with organics — is flavor. In fact, according to estimates from the United Nations Environment program, some 20-40% of fresh produce is wasted because it doesn't conform to the way we want it to look — so it never even makes it to the grocer's shelves.
Enter Intermarché, a large supermarket chain in France that embraced non-conforming produce with their "Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables" campaign. They sold the red-headed stepchildren (pardon moi, you gingers) of the produce section at a 30% discount — and smoothies and soups made with the inglorious produce — so consumers could discover how good they still tasted. The campaign educated consumers about the issue of food waste, all while driving a 24% increase in store traffic —proof that powerful differentiation in the produce section can deliver incredible results that are usually so elusive to grocery retailers.
Eating ugly may be a first step toward eating well (it's certainly a big step toward eating less expensively!). I join Bourdain and Ripert in longing for more access to great-tasting produce. I find it at my farmers market, but only from May to October. Somewhere, an enterprising produce expert will successfully differentiate a retail brand by focusing on better-tasting produce. We'll have to get used to eating seasonally again, but the taste will be worth it.
And like a top sommelier at a fine restaurant, this retailer — whose promise is anchored in superior-tasting produce — will find and guide us to the really fine-tasting stuff. We'll be willing to pay more for it. And like my favorite bookstore, there will be handwritten notes (or digital displays) from the staff telling me about the grower, and suggestions for preparation with other great produce conveniently merchandised nearby.
I'm not getting on any high horse here about corporate agriculture and GMOs. I just want a good carrot. Hopefully, it just takes a savvy produce expert with a tyrannical focus on flavor — and not a bunch of dead Romans.