I was out doing my grocery shopping today and I found myself in the aisle with all the Mexican food in it. I frequently shop in this aisle; the spices are cheap and of good quality, and it’s where the pickled jalapenos live, and we all know that pickled jalapenos are the fifth food group.
Anyway, I was standing there and I was weighed down with a terrible sense of hopelessness. I was facing the shelf that held the cans of enchilada sauce. There were a dozen brands and styles there, and all of them were marked “mild.” I looked southward, to the salsas, and witnessed a half dozen brands of jarred salsa, all of which tastes the same. I left that aisle empty handed but burdened nonetheless.
Why, in a nation in which there are so many choices, must those choices be so… homogenized? They claim that capitalism spurs innovation, and obviously in some ways it does, but there’s an incentive in our system to offer huge quantities of the same thing. A dozen different cans of pinto beans, all basically the same. Three different brands of peanuts, all pretty much the same. Salsas that all taste the same. Enchilada sauces that all taste the same. Cavendish bananas. Navel oranges.
The supremacy of the Cavendish banana is in part an accident. The Gros Michel banana was wiped out by disease as a result of monocropping. We did not learn our lesson… we simply moved on to a different banana and repeated the same mistakes. Now the Cavendish is on the brink. Because we grow acre upon acre of the same thing, because it’s cheaper to grow them that way, and it’s cheaper to ship them that way.
There are better bananas. When we stopped in Bangkok on the way to Bhutan, I bought a hand of bananas from a floating fruit market. They were incredible… everything I’d ever wanted but never once gotten from a banana. Creamy flesh, sweet but also faintly tart, complex and floral… I still have dreams about those bananas. And the truth is, Thailand grows dozens of varieties of bananas. Not just a dozen varieties. Dozens. And here, stateside, I’m stuck with the insufferable Cavendish.
I kind of hope the fucking thing does go extinct just so I can have different bananas.
I mean Thailand has an advantage in banana production, given it’s geographic location and tropical climate, but that’s not the only factor at play here.
When I was a kid, the navel orange wasn’t the norm. I remember seedy but flavorful oranges, with navels being an oddity. And I’ll tell you, the oranges I have access to today, with the exception of novelty citrus available in season, are dry, sugary, flavorless, and thick skinned. They are a poor quality orange. But they ship well and are seedless, with each of the navel orange trees producing them being clones of one another. Easy, uniform, and cheap.
This is slowly changing, as mandarins have been a regular year round feature of the produce aisle the last few years instead of just around christmas, but it’s all the same mandarin.
There are farmers and retailers who are trying to reverse this trend of homogenization, but it’s tough; the benefits of homogenization already favor large companies with access to huge distribution networks and giant stores. The oddball fruits and vegetables are often thought of as specialty items, and may have difficulty attracting buyers who are suspicious of change. And perhaps most importantly, with limited distribution and a limited audience, these gems often find themselves relegated to Whole Foods and Farmer’s Markets, places where people like me struggle to afford weekly groceries.
There are some success stories. When I was a kid, Red and Yellow Delicious apples were the staple of grocery stores, and thankfully in recent years consumers got fed up enough with flavorless, mushy, mealy, terrible Delicious apples to demand something different, and here in Washington State at least there’s a wide and rotating variety of apples to choose from in most grocery stores.
But that doesn’t help with the “safe-for-everyone” deluge of mild fucking enchilada sauce that I face each weekend.
I’ve been somewhat insulated from this trend as prior to going back to school I had the time and the interest in making my own jams and salsas and pickles and enchilada sauces. I’m lucky if I have time to make dinner these days, what with all the homework and business things and so on.
I can’t demand that Kroger Inc make a commitment to stocking food that has flavor. Even if I had enough people behind me, there’s no profit motive.
I just want interesting, delicious food! In a prosperous nation where we don’t lack for food (we don’t; hunger in America is more about distribution of both wealth and food than it is about having enough bulk calories), shouldn’t our focus move to quality instead of quantity? When did we stop caring about how our food tastes? I can’t understand it.