Reclaiming flavor and nutrition

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Peaches, nectarines, pluots, plums — I tried one of each at a sampling station at Sunday’s farmers’ market in the DMV parking lot, and they tasted like peaches, nectarines, pluots and plums, respectively. Now, initially, this may not seem surprising, because they tasted like what they are. But the same cannot always be said for the food that many of us eat today.

We often say, “This tastes like chicken,” and that so often rings true because a large portion of the food we today has become bland and flavorless, much like many modern broiler chickens. There is a reason that over the last 100 years, recipes for chicken have gone from calling for only salt and pepper to calling for spice, rubs, brines and sauces.

To your grandparents, chicken does not taste like it used to because that chicken does not exist anymore.

I began writing this piece while nestled at a table in Nabolom Bakery. I had just finished a spiral cheese galaxy, and while my pastry did not taste like a galaxy, it did taste of cheese. I looked at the ingredients card, on which Nabolom listed three things: challah, cheddar and spinach — all three of which the pastry tasted like.

While I do not pretend to know every ingredient that goes into a savory, flaky spiral cheese galaxy, I would be willing to bet that there are a good deal fewer ingredients than the 75 or so found in a Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco Supreme. Do we really need chips that taste like buffalo wings — which do not actually exist, anatomically speaking — dipped in hot sauce dipped in ranch? Probably not.

The paradox of our food becoming both blander and more seasoned at the same time is pointed out and expanded upon by Mark Schatzker in his book “The Dorito Effect.” He traces examples of how the chicken and the tomato, among other foods, have been bred in the pursuit of factors such as yield, appearance and transportability in place of such banal qualities as flavor and nutrition. Food, it seems, is continuing down a path of becoming food that it is not, and Schatzker expresses this at the onset of his book by providing a new definition of junk food: food that tastes like something it is not.

I know people who insist that tomatoes are disgusting, flavorless and bland. Although I think a ripe heirloom in season is one of the best things I have eaten, I would have to agree with those people, because most tomatoes have become flavorless and bland. They are picked green and sprayed so that they can transport well and become “perfectly ripe” at the store. Nature’s tomatoes can be yellow, orange or green, and the skin can have cracks and bumps in it, all the while being completely edible, nutritious and delicious.

Living in Berkeley, we are privileged to be surrounded by a bounty of options. Upon a quick Googling, there is a plethora of farmers’ markets on most days of the week — or you can shimmy on over to Berkeley Bowl or Monterey Market.

But Berkeley is not infallible. Not all customers demand to eat with regards to seasonality, and when you visit La Burrita at 1:56 a.m., your primary concern is probably not the sourcing of the ingredients or their authenticity. Jokes aside, it is of the utmost importance that we pay attention to what we eat and, as Michael Pollan would suggest, to what you eat eats.

Your best bet for reclaiming flavor — and, in turn, nutrition — is at your local farmers’ market. It is at these farmers’ markets that you can (shocker) talk to the farmers. If their food is bland or flavorless, you can tell them. Despite what many commercial supermarkets provide, not all food is in season at all times. At a farmers’ market, if a particular food is not in season, you’ll be hard pressed to find it.

I encourage you to eat food that tastes like what it should taste like. It doesn’t take too much effort. Just ask yourself if what you ate tasted like what you put into your mouth. If your chip tastes like bacon instead of a potato, then it’s likely not intrinsically healthy and also likely lacks the health benefits of either bacon or potatoes. I am not trying to outline every option you have at your disposal or tell you exactly what to do. I am providing a suggestion on where to begin.

If you are of unsure where to begin, let me help. Before you put something into your mouth, ask yourself, “Will this taste like what it actually is?” If what you’re eating tastes like what it should be, it may not immediately change the world, but it will be a darn good place to start.

Contact Aaron Kitchin at [email protected].