Environment

'How to Pick a Peach': A Lesson in Food Science and Commercial Food Marketing

These days we are used to getting whatever food we want, whenever we want it. But with produce, that can be a recipe for disaster. Here's a book that will help you navigate the shopping and cooking maze.
A few years ago, I visited my mother in Germany, and we went grocery shopping. I watched in horror as she stuck her tomatoes in the refrigerator.

She had bought the fruits on an American military base. They had come from Canada, perhaps, or Mexico, or even from Holland, though they had been shipped to the U.S. before heading to Germany. So when she said, "The tomatoes don't seem to taste any different after I refrigerate them," perhaps she was telling the truth.

Bred to survive all that transport, her tomatoes didn't have very much taste at all. No doubt the same would have been true of peaches she bought at the military grocery store, picked as rock-hard as they could get, bred to an appealing-but-tasteless red blush.

So I long to make Russ Parsons' How to Pick a Peach required reading for everyone in that chain of military procurement, including my mom. In Peach, Parsons (the food columnist of the Los Angeles Times) leads readers with humor and clarity through the gastronomical ins and outs of dealing with the fickle, fragile, three-to-five-a-day-for-good-health plant products piled in ever-increasing array on the shelves and tables of our supermarkets and farmers' markets.

Using a smart design in which Parsons progresses seasonally through our most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables, the book nudges readers toward an awareness of when those products (beginning with artichokes in the spring and ending with oranges in the winter) will be at their best -- and when buying them is a lost cause, no matter how many brown-paper-bag ripening tricks we might try.

Parsons' expertise in food science, so evident in his earlier How to Read a French Fry, also comes in handy as he writes about why we call some onions that have less sugar than others "sweet" onions (and why cooking them isn't the best use of their sweetness), or why dried beans take so incredibly long to cook.

But How to Pick a Peach teaches more than food science, as Parsons also explains the nitty-gritty of commercial food marketing. Tomatoes, as anyone who has grown his own knows, taste a lot better when allowed to mature and ripen (two different processes, as Parsons explains) on the vine. But the "vine-ripened" tomatoes in the store, Parsons says, "are picked at a stage that most of us would consider green, when only the very first traces of a tan, yellow or pink 'blush' appear." So many choices.

As for the nectarine, that fuzzless cousin of peaches, red doesn't equal ripe; as a matter of fact, a high-red color hides the golden tones that denote ripeness. But humans like the color red. We like it so much that, in a marketing study Parsons cites, volunteer tasters all agreed that golden nectarines tasted better than red -- but when study organizers offered a case of nectarines at the door as a thank-you gift, every volunteer picked a case of red nectarines over the tastier golden fruit.

Parsons also points out that you'll purchase more of a familiar item -- Granny Smith apples, say -- if many varieties surround it. As a result, supermarket produce aisles brim with choices simply to encourage more buying.

At the end of each chapter, Parsons includes a handy list of bulleted details. He writes about where the produce is grown and how to choose, store, and prepare it; he also adds, before several pages of other recipes, "One Simple Dish."

Parsons obviously loves to cook with wine; many of the simple dishes call for a bottle (or more) of the fermented grape. His simple strawberry dish makes enough tipsy ice-cream topping to last long after strawberry season ends, and when plum season comes on a month or two later, Parsons offers a recipe for a spiced plum-and-wine reduction sauce. Other delectable recipes help the vegetable- and fruit-challenged cook create a seasonally smart cornucopia of abundance and give hardcore vegetarian foodies new ideas.

Parsons also tosses in a few miscellaneous chapters covering such topics as breeding new strains of tomatoes or lists of what to refrigerate. One of the best of these random little chapters is "Preserves," where Parsons reminds readers that making jam not only isn't a big challenge, it's downright simple to do in small batches. He's right: There's nothing like the taste of strawberry jam in the winter, and using his proportions with a few pints of fruit from the farmers' market, readers will be free forever of the Smuckers tyranny.

Parsons deals at a slant with Big Agriculture and the food industry. Unlike Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon's Plenty, How to Pick a Peach doesn't speak much about the ecological costs of shipping a peach from Chile to New York in the dead of winter. Parsons focuses on the consumer, although he does include discussions about farmers' markets and ways small farmers can survive. Perhaps his book resonates best with those who simply want to eat better without suffering pangs of guilt or anxiety in the produce aisle.

What Parsons does do is write compellingly about the cost to consumers in taste, not to mention the price of off-season produce. He advocates patience for both purposes: "When you buy [peaches] at the right time of year, however, when the local farmers have filled the markets with them, these fragrant treasures go for pennies. They'll even be cheap enough that you can afford to buy the very best. And that's the time you want to pick a peach."

Though How to Pick a Peach ends abruptly, its effects linger. That's why I plan to send copies to the produce-challenged in my family for the winter holidays; even if they don't change their shopping habits, I hope they'll prepare a holiday meal of Cream of Parsnip Soup and add Lemon and Pistachio Panna Cotta for dessert.
Suzi Steffen is a freelance writer in Eugene, Oregon and an arts editor at the Eugene (Ore.) Weekly.
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