By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST
We say we are tolerant. We say we are accepting of those that are different from us, that looks aren’t important, it’s what’s on the inside that’s important. But do we really believe that?
Consider one tomato in particular that regularly finds itself advancing deep in the flavor bracket. It is grown in abundance, reasonably priced and not at all expensive—which would make it seem as if this tomato checks all the boxes.
But there’s just one problem: this tomato is not visually appealing. In fact, it’s downright ugly: Florida’s UglyRipe tomato, one of the most flavorful tomatoes on the market and also one of the least expensive.
Because these tomatoes have deep grooves and crevices, they are deemed not attractive enough for commercial sale. Therefore, they are hard to get outside of Florida.
So on one coast, we routinely experience shortages with items like tomatoes. Too much rain in the Salinas Valley, they say. Too dry in Mexico. It’s always some type of weather challenge that compromises the produce, which inevitably creates a price increase for the consumer.
Yet on the opposite coast, we grow a tomato with superior flavor and lower price, yet simply due to its appearance, the Florida Tomato Committee, which is a collection of growers of “beautiful tomatoes,” has banded together to prevent the sale of the Ugly Ripe outside the state. Simultaneously, we talk of the perils of starvation, food waste and world hunger.
It seems our hypocritical vanity has no bounds. But it’s not just tomatoes. A variety of produce doesn’t pass the beauty test.
A study conducted earlier this year by the Journal of Marketing found a fascinating conclusion. The number one reason consumers avoid unattractive but perfectly edible fruits and vegetables was that purchasing unattractive produce negatively affected their perception of themselves and lowered their self-esteem.
You can’t be serious, I thought. Are we really this fragile?
Farmers leave as much as 30 percent of their produce in the field because it would be perceived as unsightly to the consumer. I have been on tour with farmers and walked endless fields of strawberry (yes, strawberry fields forever). And walking the rows, I had beautiful strawberries at my feet in the dirt that were vibrant red and delicious. Why on the ground? Because they would be spoiled by the time they reached the grocery store. Instead, they pick and package under-ripe fruit so that they turn red by the time you see it in your local market.
And groceries trash over 15 billion dollars in produce annually that is still quite edible. Restaurants do their fair share of discarding produce as well. We can utilize less than stellar fruits and vegetables, depending on the dish or preparation, but the challenge is that we are the end user, which means once we even receive these items, the spoilage clock has already been ticking for days.
Thankfully, there are companies popping up that, much like a meal kit, will sell weekly and monthly boxes of produce that is categorized as “too visually unappealing for consumer sales.”
Let’s go America. What would Lady Liberty say about such unloved produce?
“Give me your wrinkled, your twisted, your huddled bunches yearning to be picked, the discarded produce of America’s salad bowl. Send these, your tempest under soil, I lift my cutting board and knife to you.”
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.