Ugly Food

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I’d like you to take a moment and picture a carrot. But not just a carrot – the carrot, the one that is the gleaming pinnacle of carrotness, a carrot that all other carrots jealously whisper behind its back about. Do you imagine its crispness, the glowing orange sheen, lush greens, ruler-straight posture and long isosceles taper that would make Euclid weep for joy?

It’d be a rare person who imagines a white or purple carrot, one with appendages or a twist, a frumpy stub of a thing that has spindly lone roots that draw your eye like miscoloured hairs on a wart, etched with trails and ducts from burrowing insects. It sounds gross, and is probably an immediate reject on sight alone. But how would it taste?

I’m currently dealing with the fallout from soil that doesn’t dry, and a fair share of insect damage (which I’m in part to blame for cheaping out on row cover). This leads to root rot, splitting, discolouration and holes in leaves, roots or stems. I do what I can to remove the damage, a sort of triage at harvest. But I’m left with the challenge of convincing people that not only is the food still tasty and healthy even if it has imperfections, but they should give me money for it just the same. This is hard, and I don’t have a good way of doing it[1] other than to offer some food for thought.

In farming, no matter what practices you use, ugly food is common. There’s a strangely specific vision of what an edible vegetable should be, and strict regulations that police what’s pretty enough to be sold. Guided by a warped perception of food in part thanks to a regimen of artificial selection, strict regulation, advertising, and the comforting fear of the unfamiliar leads us to some pretty wasteful behaviour. Depending on which report you read, in Canada anywhere between one-third to a half of all food gets tossed. And this isn’t the stuff that you forget about at the back of the fridge for four months, or that cucumber that was buried under everything for so long that it’s now a grey goo. We’re talking perfectly edible and delicious food being thrown out, and that’s insane.

The causes are nebulous. It could be links to affluence, abundance at a ridiculously cheap price,[2] enormous serving sizes, the misguided fear of best-before labels. But the fact is that from producer to retailer to consumer, there’s incredible waste across the board based on appearances alone. For some farmers, sometimes entire field blocks are left unharvested because it’s not up-to-grade (called a “walk-by”), and further culling based on appearances happens at packing facilities and retailers. Even food that makes it through the gauntlet can become a walk-by for the consumer, more often than not ending up in a locked dumpster (and is sometimes doused in bleach, to dissuade dumpster divers).

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has some real gems in their inspection manuals. Cucumbers “must be practically or fairly straight”, where “the height of the inner arc of curvature does not exceed the diameter of the cucumber, when measured from a flat surface.” Carrots are docked points for being “ridged, grooved, or lumpy … so as to materially affect appearance”, and any forking can’t be longer than 1 inch. I really encourage you to check it out here: CFIA Inspection Manuals

Any foodie will press the claim that it’s the flavour that counts, but flavour is an all-senses experience. Taste is affected by visual appeal,[3] just the same as smell, texture, and even emotional state. Anyone remember purple ketchup?

Visual bias goes deeper. Pretty food is pop culture nowadays. We share pictures of pretty meals, watch documentaries and TV shows featuring celebrity chefs and haute cuisine. Food stylists paint and glue food to the point of inedibility just to try and sell you things that will never look as nice. Culture plays a huge role in what we see as palatable – how about being served some pineapple, peppers, and marinated crickets on a shish kebob[4]? Panfried mealworms with garlic and chilis, anyone? Social pressures when inviting over dinner guests compel us to serve huge good-looking meals, lest we be demoted on the grand social hierarchy due to our strangely shaped and holey spinach served in meager portions. You could even blame the handy scapegoat of evolution – when humans foraged for food, visual differences might have signaled a health hazard. Though far-fetched, maybe we’ve inherited a hard-wired aversion to different-looking foods.

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There are definitely efforts being made to reduce food waste in a time of high prices and global food shortages. Loblaws has recently started a campaign as part of their No Name brand called “Naturally Imperfect”, selling aesthetically sub-par apples and potatoes at a discount. In France, new laws ban food waste at supermarkets – safely edible food must be donated to charity, and if not, to farmers for animal feed or compost. Many producers with the money and facilities send things off to processors to make value added products. Pock-marked potatoes? Peel and cube those suckers! Weird looking carrots? Baby food! The European Union has recently relaxed regulations on banana and cucumber curvature to reduce waste, among other regulations concerning wonky veggies. Supermarkets are starting to sell ugly veggies and food near its best-before date at heavy discounts. But it all comes down to the people who are able to choose what food they want to eat and serve – from restaurateurs to the average person going to the market.

So what to do about it? I think the emerging interest in where our food comes from and how it’s made should help a bit. If people know how their food is grown, what challenges are faced in the field, and are conscientious of waste, they might be more willing to buy things that they might not consider traditionally pretty. If they make a personal connection with their food producers, they might not be so quick to scoff at what’s on offer. Jeeze, pick any angle you need – for your health, for the environment, to acknowledge the sanctity of food in a world rife with social inequality, or just to try new things.

Try to come up with and share creative ways to put ugly food to good use, even if you aren’t ready to serve it as-is. Grab that carrot that looks like Mickey Rooney and make a soup. Take that arugula that looks like it was hit with buckshot and make some pesto. Find radishes that look like a screaming Pacman? Try pickling them. Look beyond aesthetics – you might just find that truly caring for your food is the spice you need to achieve full flavour.

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1) Save for forcing people to eat it regardless, which probably isn’t a business-savvy decision. BACK TO POST
2) “Buy 2, get 1 free!” or the tricky but now common fine print, “Get 4 for $1 each, less than 4, $2.00 each” BACK TO POST
3) There’s a classic experiment that asked people to describe the bouquet and flavour of red and white wines. After sampling a white wine, they were served the same wine, but with a sneakily added red dye. Testers used the descriptors that they used for the red wine to describe the faux-red’s flavours and scents – which is enough evidence for me to reaffirm my suspicion that somaliers and connoisseurs are just making it all up. BACK TO POST
4) Shish ke-bug? BACK TO POST
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