Saturday, February 6, 2016

Why Doesn’t It Taste Good?                   
I’ve been thinking a lot about pie, lately. Not so unusual after the holidays when we seem to be wearing every extra piece we ate. But pie isn’t only for celebrations. It’s an everyday event in our community. Dining reputations are made on it. Supermarkets sell it by the stack. Some of us buy frozen pie crust and make our own pies. And a few people--I know they’re still around--make theirs from scratch. That is, make the pie crust themselves, too. How radical is that?

I  think pie crust is an excellent example of what has happened to American food.

What does it take to make a crust? Flour, water, salt and fat. Simple. But not easy, hence the appeal of “shortening.” Shortening comes in a tin and is the color of nursery school paste. It makes a sturdy crust that can be crimped attractively and mass produced, if desired. But it has no taste. Add to it the current habit of omitting salt from the crust and you have what I think of as throw-back pie. Back to the middle ages, when crust was a “coffin” intended to keep its contents together long enough to serve. Gentry got the filling (usually meat and gravy) and the servants ate the coffin crust. But I’ll bet that tasted better than most crusts today because the fat, over there in England, was likely to be lard.

The best pie crust I ever ate was, actually, in England. Fresh gooseberries baked without sweetening in a light and flavorful crust. You passed the sugar in a caster, for dusting across the top—before you dolloped on the heavy cream. The crust brought all those flavors together and elevated them because it was made with lard. And the right amount of salt.

Have you had a pie, lately, where the crust enhanced the flavor of the pie? I haven’t.

Butter makes a delicious crust, too, although not as sturdy as shortening, of course, so you don’t often see it in a store. A butter crust, however, will surprise anyone who is accustomed to shortening only, or to shortening and the list of preservatives that you find in the supermarket.

Convenience is a large part of the reason for diminished flavor. And it’s not just pie crust, is it?

Have you noticed in the supermarket how much of the produce is wrapped in plastic? Over the holidays, I even bought some haricot verts, the skinny green beans that when fresh (and properly cooked, not raw) will burst with green bean flavor. These came from Guatemala. They looked beautiful inside their plastic wrapping, all grouped in the same direction, ready for the pot. And they were terrible. They had maintained their fresh appearance, that appealing green, but lost every trace of flavor.

Why buy something shipped “fresh” from abroad, you will ask. And you’re right. Quality inevitably deteriorates. A better question, though, may be: why stock it? At Thanksgiving several years ago the same supermarket had bins of young green beans that were outstanding. Unprocessed. Truly fresh and they tasted that way. I’d been hoping to find those this year, but maybe bad weather ruined the crop.

The question of flavor in food brings me to the annual New Year’s diet. Why do I overeat when the food is nothing special?

Can it be that I’m remembering how the dish is supposed to taste? And I keep eating in the hope of finding that satisfaction in the next bite?

Or, more generally, can it be that deeply satisfying food has become more difficult to find? What I’m talking about is a meal when what we eat feels good throughout our being. When it satisfies a hunger of the body for real nutrition combined with flavor. (A little like that “deep down body thirst” we hear about in commercials.)

Instead, we seem to be training our palates, if not our bodies, to desire processed fakery like chips embedded with flavor enhancers.

Here’s a choice we’re asked to make all too often: On one hand, a packaged snack that explodes with carefully tested lab-created flavors developed to make us want more; on the other, a plate of tasteless vegetables from far away whose colors have been preserved to withstand shipping.

I know which one I’d choose, doggone it.

1 comment:

  1. Good one, Babette. I can identify with so much of which you write. And, as for those "fresh" fruits and veggies - I know, I know. I finally found a brand of raspberries that actually has a taste. I buy when I can find them and pass up the rest.