Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Taste be Damned
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, September 5, 2006 --
Products in American supermarkets have become more convenient and more humane. Too bad these changes have come at the expense of taste.
If you were to rank the worst culinary inventions of all time, this summer's new convenience product from Kraft foods would have to make the list. Kraft's latest atrocity is the "Oscar Mayer Fast Frank" -- a convenience food marketed toward today's busy American eight-year-old.
In the old days, kids would have to spend literally minutes boiling a hot dog in water or nuking it in the microwave before proceeding to the second step of putting it in a separately-purchased bun. By "leveraging proprietary dough technology," Kraft says in a press release, science has cut out this inconvenient and time-consuming second step of putting the hot dog on the bun.1 "[I]magine only having to wait thirty-five seconds for that first delicious bite," Kraft says. This invention will undoubtedly be a great boon to busy kids with little time to consume obesity-inducing meat by-products between scheduled play dates.
Full disclosure: I haven't actually tried the Oscar Mayer Fast Frank. Honestly, I have no intention of ever doing so. My chief reason is taste. I strongly disagree with Kraft's assertion that "it's mouthwatering to imagine."
Unfortunately, the Oscar Mayer Fast Frank is not the only product in its class. Ever since the first TV dinners appeared on the scene in the 1950s, American markets have been increasingly filled with ready-to-eat convenience items. Typically, the flavor and texture of these microwaveable items have been abysmal. No matter how advanced Kraft gets with its "proprietary dough technology," microwaved bread will never taste as good as fresh oven-baked bread. Buying fresh bread, however, requires a daily trip to the market -- something that time-pressed Americans are simply not prepared to do.
The backlash against over-processed convenience foods led to the rise of the organic food movement in the past decade. This trend originally focused on eliminating chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in produce. More recently, it has branched out to animal products with free-range chickens and grass-fed beef. The popularity of organic products led to the explosive growth of specialty food sellers in America such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's. Today, even mainstream supermarkets devote significant shelf space to nominally organic products.
Sadly, however, the growth of these specialty retailers has not necessarily improved the flavor of America's food. Organic products sold by high-end producers are often shipped from far-away locations and are no fresher or more flavorful than conventional products in conventional stores. This is hardly surprising, because upscale food retailing in America become more about politics than taste.
While marketing themselves to gourmet-oriented consumers, high-end food outlets have commonly refused to sell gourmet-oriented products for political reasons. Trader Joe's, for example, has for years refused to sell duck meat because the company believes ducks are not raised in humane conditions. This summer, Whole Foods Market stopped selling live lobsters to customers because of similar concerns about animal welfare.2 The retailer has also refused to sell foie gras for nearly 10 years, long before the recent citywide ban on the gourmet duck liver in Chicago.3
These developments mark two longer term trends in American food retailing. The first is toward convenience-oriented food products, especially at mass market stores. The second is a trend toward politically-correct food products, most commonly at stores catering to a more upscale market. In both cases, flavor takes a back-seat to more pressing corporate concerns.
For food buyers concerned about taste, the rules have changed little for thousands of years. The best-tasting foods tend to be in-season products that are produced locally. The most delicious seafood choice is often an obscure type of fish that was caught within the past day in a nearby body of water. A week-old farm-raised salmon fillet that passed through the Safeway distributor will simply not taste as good. Nor will two-week-old wild-caught tuna flown in from half a world away.
Fruits and vegetables are best if they come from a local farmer's market when the products are in season. Local apples in the autumn have far better flavor than Washington state apples designed for long-term cold-storage. And don't even think about eating the so-called tomatoes found in most American supermarkets. If they didn't come from a nearby vine in summer or early fall, they simply aren't worth eating.
Americans have gotten so used to getting produce and seafood from far-away places, they often have no idea what products come from local sources, or when they are in season. Consumers have traded a sporadic bounty of tasty seasonal foods for a consistently available stock of mediocre foods. America's food retailers, both mainstream and upscale alike, have bought into this locale and season-independent approach. Unable to deliver locally-produced food with their national distribution systems, America's food retailers have instead focused on goals like convenience and political correctness. The consequences to taste be damned.
1. Kraft, Press Release: READY, SET, HOT DOG! May 31, 2006
2. Whole Foods Market, Press Release: Whole Foods Market Stops Selling Live Lobsters, June 16, 2006
3. USA Today, Foes See Foie Gras as a Fat Target, June 5, 2006