Taste the Difference
On Tuesday night, I put on an event called “Taste the Difference,” in which I gathered the same varieties of fresh produce from Rising Sand and the grocery store or Sysco, and held a comparison tasting between local and conventional vegetables. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, as you so often hear “Fresh food tastes better” without ever actually experiencing a side-by-side comparison.
So I set it up. I’ll be honest and say that I had high hopes for the event. Driven by my own personal enthusiasm, I planned it, made and posted a legitimate video on both the Mission Coffee and Rising Sand Facebook pages, included some promotion in a CSA newsletter, partnered with Farmshed for website promotion, displayed posters, and put out Facebook reminders – basically everything I could think of to garner some community interest. There were about 10 people signed up on the online list, and I hoped for more. My anxiety festered, however, as I chopped vegetables madly and watched the clock tick closer to the 5:30 start time over an empty dining room. Just me, myself and Kinsey from Farmshed. Finally, at 5:25, a couple walked in. Yes, they said, we’re here for “Taste the Difference.”
And that was it, with the exception of my wife, a random front desk guy, and Corrina, who had to return to pick up CSA boxes. At 5:35, I gave up hope on any larger crowd, and got started with the people who had shown. They were all pleasant, interesting and interested, and our intimate group sat down and shared some background information about ourselves before starting in on the veggies.
We opened with the tomato. Compared to the juicy, lively, colorful and fragrant Damsel tomato from the Rising Sand fields, the Sysco tomato was less than nothing. In fact, as one of the participants remarked, if you had blindfolded one of us and fed us the Sysco tomato, it would have been unidentifiable but for a vague textural resemblance and tomatoish acidity. From my research ahead of time, I learned that there are 35 pesticides whose residue make their way to conventional tomatoes, with the most common, Endosulfan II, found on 17.2% of these tomatoes. This may seem extreme, but not when compared to conventional lettuce, which has 52 potential pesticide residues, with Imidacloprid, the most prevalent, present 36.5% of the time (information from USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, cross referenced with EPA data, and gathered on whatsonmyfood.org). So, though possessing little in the way of texture, flavor, or fragrance, these tomatoes likely packed at least a bit of a pesticide punch. Maybe this is a step towards becoming the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle I’ve always wanted to be.
What surprised me the most in my brief research was not so much the information I found, but that which I could not find. Why do these conventional cherry tomatoes look, taste, and feel pretty much the same after 3 weeks as they did when they first arrived from Canada? What is it that makes these giant California carrots so uniform and sweet? How is the lettuce washed and processed to maintain its structure after such a journey? It was tough to find information, and while I came across an NPR interview about slavery in Florida’s tomato economy (https://www.npr.org/2011/08/26/139972669/the-unsavory-story-of-industrially-grown-tomatoes ), and a Fox News story about baby carrots bathing in chlorine (http://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/2014/01/07/truth-behind-baby-carrots.html ), it was difficult to find much more on how these vegetables are remain so indestructible after the thousands of miles journeys they undertake.
Regarding taste, however, we had all the information we needed. Across the board, the Rising Sand produce had better texture and moisture, as most of the conventional crops were dry and lacking in structure. However, the conventional carrots and green beans had a much simpler and sweeter flavor, whereas ours had more complex and dynamic flavors including bitterness and spice. I’m not sure whether the conventional sweetness came from the strains and breeding of the crops themselves, or processing practices, but either way it was a bit surprising.
Also surprisingly, each of the 6 tasters found the most striking difference to be among a different vegetable. For Fanni, it was the cherry tomato; for myself, the pepper; and Corrina, the zucchini. Each was vastly different, however, and the general consensus across the board was that our food tasted more like, well, food. Personally, though, now that this is done, I’ve got more questions than answers. In a country of sugar fiends, how can real food keep up with the ever-sweetening strains of big box produce, and, for that matter, why is it so sweet? Who is determining the safety of the numerous pesticides found on these foods, and how do large corporate interests play into that research? How are conventional vegetables processed to last as unnaturally long as they do? Finally, how do you get people to show up and care?
Though sparcely attended, I’m happy with how “Taste the Difference” turned out. If nothing else, I’ve always wanted to experience this comparison, and it was valuable to do so. Plus, some fruitful conversation flourished from the intimate group, and we all gained some valuable insight. Finally, it just feels good to actually do something from time to time, instead of just talking about it. If you’re curious about the taste of local versus conventional produce, I would highly recommend getting some friends together and giving this a try. It’s a good season for it.