Monday, October 15, 2007
The Decline and Fall of the Tomato, and other food tragedies
I’ve got to stop getting involved in political discussions with vendors at my local open-air market. Sooner or later, I’m going to get bopped on the head by an impatient customer behind me in line, waiting anxiously for their épaule d’agneau. It doesn’t take much. All I have to do is say, for example, how much I like a certain rather raggedy-looking cut of steak (araignée) that the butcher offers. “It’s not particularly beautiful, but it sure tastes good,” I say. That gets him started. “Exactly,” he says, "you won’t see this one in the supermarkets. You see, madame, customers are being trained by the supermarkets to buy according to what looks good. They offer nice, neat packages of pretty meat. But what about the taste?” Then we’re off and running. I nod my head vigorously and he goes on about how fruits and vegetables are getting more and more perfect-looking, and losing more and more flavor (“when something looks that perfect,” he confides, “you know something is wrong”) and I chime in about how in my country you go into a supermarket and see mountains of gorgeous, but tasteless fruit. Soon we are both bemoaning the rise of the perfectly round, utterly beautiful tomato that has a skin so tough you have to poke it with an ice pick and flesh so firm you could use it as a baseball. Before you know it, the butcher is providing me with arcane information on European Union regulations that the big industrial food groups are using to force the little guys’ hands. I look behind me sheepishly and apologize to the man behind me, who far from being annoyed, looks amused and says “I love it!”
I think they like talking to me about this stuff because a) it’s a subject dear to them, and b) they are tickled to find out that there are Americans who like food (from what I’ve gathered, most French people think we all greedily gulp down MacDonald’s and Tastee Freez seven nights a week). What they don’t realize is how distressing it is for food-loving Americans to come to France and find that even here, in the El Dorado of gourmet cuisine, modern living is threatening the ability to eat well. Supermarkets are everywhere, fast food is invading, but mostly, no one seems to have the time or energy to cook anymore. It’s enough to curdle one’s béchamel. It’s not all doom and gloom, mind you—there are still lots of open-air markets, local farmers, and eager shoppers, but it is a little scary to see that people here are starting to eat like…well, Americans.
I could go on and on about this subject, but fortunately, a lot of other people have already done so, like the folks at Slow Food, and the radio host Jean-Pierre Coffe, so I won’t—at least not here. But that probably won’t keep me from talking tomatoes with the vegetable vendor at the open-air market, I’m afraid….