Stay Tuned/The National Food System

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

The National Food System
5 January 1998

I've been reading an interesting book called CookWise which is somewhere in between a food science textbook and a cookbook. Among other things, the author talks about the differences between hard and soft flours, which I already knew, having discovered it the hard way when I arrived in the north.

For those who don't know, some flours are made from hard (high-gluten) wheats and some are made from soft wheats. Soft wheats are, well, soft. They make things tender and flaky; they make good pie crusts, cakes, and biscuits. What they don't make well is bread. They aren't springy enough to hold the air properly.

Southern regional flour brands (Martha White, White Lily) are soft. I used to wonder why Swan's Down cake flour existed - why would anyone need a special flour to make cakes? They baked just fine with regular old flour. What I didn't realize was that in the South, local flour nearly is cake flour. When I moved up here and began using another regional flour, King Arthur, I didn't figure out why my biscuits were so tough for quite a while. Now I make my biscuits with half hard flour and half cake flour.

But note that I went from using one small brand to another. If you used nothing but Gold Medal flour, and moved from south to north like I did, you might not notice a difference. And this is what CookWise seems to confirm: Big flour manufacturers blend their flours so they can sell them all over the country and keep a consistent hardness.

I don't have a problem with that. I think it makes sense. But it made me think a little about standardization of food.

I've noted before that one of the amazing things about McDonald's is their quality control. Barring a franchisee who's slipped the leash, you can walk into any McDonald's anywhere in the world and the burger will taste the same, look the same, smell the same, even be wrapped the same way. That's nothing short of incredible. (The fact that this standardized package isn't a particularly appealing one is beside the point, although one does wonder what those phenomenal resources could do if they were turned in the direction of some real food.)

No one but me seems to think this kind of uniformity - in the chain restaurants and in the grocery stores - is amazing. Remember, not all that long ago, people bought and ate whatever happened to be locally available, and only during the times when it was available. Now we can buy strawberries in November anywhere in the country and no one bats an eye.

This has its drawbacks.

For one thing, regional foods lose character in the process. You can get "New England style" clam chowder anywhere in the country, but it's likely to be pretty bland. Now, it's one thing to have the exported versions of clam chowder not be as interesting as the genuine article - that would be understandable - but the backlash is that the clam chowder being served even in New England restaurants is declining. With everyone's palates set to expect the least common denominator, why bother to do better? Why bother to pay for better? Some of the local restaurants have declined so far in their clam chowder standards that I've stopped ordering it. I'd just as soon go home and have a can of Progresso.

OK, that one was cranky. Truth is, clam chowder is a pretty simple dish that's hard to ruin. Let's try a more plausible example. Strawberries. Everyone can get them out of season, but except for the two months a year when nature intended them to peak, they don't taste as good. But people have forgotten to care. They'd rather have bland strawberries year round than good strawberries for only two months.

Tomatoes? The commonly available ones, to quote Al Sicherman, "tend more toward transportability than juiciness." The truck tomato - dry, pinkish instead of red, and hard as a rock - is now the standard. I would almost rather buy only locally grown, organic tomatoes (which means I'd only get them a few months a year) and forego the nasty ones. But again I'm in the minority - and here I profess weakness: It's hard to cook without tomatoes in this house. I'll cook with the nasty ones, but I won't put them on sandwiches or eat them raw. For raw tomatoes I want the tiny vine-ripened local ones, the kind that often come still attached to the vine.

Once upon a time, people grew herbs in their back yard. Herbs are ridiculously easy to grow, but not as easy as buying them in the jar. The problem is that herbs lose most of their flavor when dried. Of course, if you never try them fresh, you'll never know what you're missing. Maybe you're better off that way, eh?

All right, so I'm a grouch. I admit that standardization of food is in many ways a Good Thing. I admit I like being able to go into a grocery store and get sweet potatoes no matter where I am. And I agree that having bland versions of regional foods spread across the country is better than not having the other parts of the country exposed to the regional foods at all: Bad gumbo is sometimes better than no gumbo.

I just think that we've let our standards of good taste decline.

You think I'm cranky? Let me expose you to a master of the art. This is an entry from the book Lost and Found, where author Robert Paul Smith does nothing but talk about the way things were better in the good old days. He at least had the excuse of age. I'm this cranky and I'm only thirty. But, you know, everything moves faster these days.

"This is a bowl of wax fruit. A not uncommon artifact was the wax fruit that stood in a bowl on the dining room table. It was the most perfect-looking fruit that ever was. It was all a little over size and the vivid colors and perfect contours made it a model of what fruit ought to look like. The taste and consistency, however, left something to be desired. That is to say, it strongly resembled the real fruit of today.

"Fruit was ever a chancy thing, it being local produce grown in a local orchard catch-as-catch-can, not in the outdoor factories that send us our fruits and vegetables from clear across the continent and sometimes across the world. It was a gamble: sometimes it was green, sometimes it was overripe and usually it assayed fairly high in worms and other strangers. But when you got a good one, it was tree-ripened and full of sun, and the juice ran down your chin. And it was not improved the way so much fruit is today. A sickle pear (I know now it's Seckel) was supposed to be small and hard, bumpy and flinty. I was given one the other day that was beautifully pear-shaped, a lovely green with a red blush and there was that faintest hint of the flavor that made a Seckel pear a sickle pear. Sickle pears were in season for only the briefest time, coincident with Concord grapes, and they may not have been good for the bowels, but they were very good for the soul.

"There used to be white peaches and yellow peaches. White peaches had the most delicate flavor in God's green world, and yellow peaches were very fuzzy, left your lip sore, and were mainly used by one's mother for canning. There are no more white peaches, except occasionally in cans from Korea. True.

"There were two kinds of corn for eating on (off?) the cob, Country Gentleman and Golden Bantam. The Country Gentleman corn was white, the rows were uneven and straggled all over the cob. It was more delicious than can be told. Golden Bantam was yellow, very even, and orderly, and it was what you ate when you couldn't get Country Gentleman. There is no more Country Gentleman.

"There were bananas, and red bananas, and little tiny finger bananas. Now it's all bananas. With trademarks, yet.

"All cooked vegetables were cooked until they could not be cooked any more. You knew there would be cauliflower for dinner half a block from home.

"Turkey was once a year, and we were thrilled by it the first dinner, and loathed it by the end of the week, as it kept popping up in transparent disguises, just as it does now, but longer because the turkey was bigger. (I read recently that commercial turkey raising is only about thirty years old, so I suppose it would have been more exciting if we'd known it was wild turkey, but nobody ever said so because apparently there was no other kind.)

"Back then, food had to do with the seasons. You ate root vegetables all through the winter because that was all you could get. There were small individual seasons, too, when you ate the same thing every day because it was in season, not only vegetables, but smelt and shad when they were running. You ate rhubarb in the spring because it cleaned the blood (whatever that might be) and butter was almost white all winter long, and only came yellow when the cows went back to pasture greens.

"So as far as food went, then everything was good but not perfect, and now it is perfect but no good."


[February 2007:] Upon rereading, I'm surprised to see that half of this column is the Robert Paul Smith quote. I suspect I was suffering from exhaustion after all the Christmas columns.

CookWise is by Shirley Corriher and you should be able to find it from any half-decent book emporium, real or virtual. Lost and Found (sometimes listed as Robert Paul Smith's Lost and Found) has been out of print for ages, but it's worth buying if you find a copy.

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