Our town sponsored a pre-Thanksgiving “Farmer’s Market” at which we loaded up on just-picked home-grown vegetables. In cutting up the carrots we naturally snacked on them … what an amazing taste … a taste I remember from my childhood, from my grandmother’s garden … a taste unmatched by even the organic carrots we usually buy at the store. What gives? Flavor, that’s what gives!
We have already talked about one of my major food complaints, the lack of flavor in tomatoes. What about other foods? The reality is virtually all present-day foods have less flavor, even the organic ones. Why and so what; is flavor that important?
On the other hand, today a majority of foods taste like we want them to taste because the underlying bland food has been seasoned, usually synthetically to a particular taste we embrace. Think Doritos … a corn chip that tastes like a taco. Unfortunately, synthetically flavored bland food is not the same as natural food, for either flavor or nutrition.
Think about shopping for chicken in the grocery store. Chicken is today our largest source of animal protein, and in today’s world it is also one of the least flavorful foods. You bring it home and what do you do with it? You add …
I went on to the Food & Wine Website and found the quintessential description of today’s state of chicken:
“Truth: A chicken from the farmers’ market is more flavorful that your average supermarket bird. Still, a roast chicken’s personality can change drastically depending on how you season it. Here are 11 ways to flavor your next roast chicken. … herbs and lemon, tangerine-glazed, maple-glazed, smoky, mustard, miso butter, Moroccan-inspired, curried, Chinese-inspired, Southeast Asian-inspired, and ‘the works,’ … butter that’s been blended with garlic, cilantro, mint, ginger, serrano chile, cumin, cloves, black pepper and lime juice.”(https://www.foodandwine.com/lifestyle/11-ways-flavor-roast-chicken)
That’s advice for the whole bird. What about the pieces-is-pieces in the plastic tray? Same flavor enhancers, or just reach for the barbeque sauce?
In the 1940s for you could pick from broiler chickens that were young, small and tender; fryers, slightly larger and slightly less tender but still small; roasters, larger and less tender; and, finally, a category simply called “fowl,” chicken that was too tough to use other than in stews or soups. All of these chickens laid eggs.
Chicken’s descent into blandness commenced in 1948 during the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest. The sponsors thought that what the country needed after World War II was a large, steady supply of tender large-breasted chickens, industrialized chicken. The winning Chickens of Tomorrow were larger, grew to commercial weight faster, took less feed to get there, and could be sold cheaper. As with so many industrialized foods, taste was not a considered or measured criterion.
The Chicken of Tomorrow contest was just the beginning. More research showed there is a genetic trade-off between body weight and egg laying, resulting today in a chicken industry in which there are two fundamental different types of chickens, those that lay eggs and those that are grown for meat.
“Modern poultry raising has done wonders in making it possible to grow a fine-looking chicken in record time and to sell it at a most reasonable price, but rarely does anyone in the country discuss flavor. If you are interested in price alone, you will often end up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear and needs strong dousing of herbs, wines, and spices to make it at all palatable.” Words from Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published thirteen years after the Chicken of Tomorrow.
Chickens of yesteryear ate grass, seeds, bugs, leaves, mice, frogs, meat scraps, dead carcasses, whatever they found on the ground. Unless you are willing to purchase organic, non-GMO fed chicken, what you get today are chickens fed Field Corn No. 2, industrial, genetically modified corn sprayed with pesticides. Of course, there’s also how industrial chickens are raised.
We could not leave the subject of chickens without talking about the ubiquitous “chicken nugget,” some of which have achieved marketing fame. What makes a “nugget,” a nugget? It’s not chicken. It’s the breading and water; the more breading and the more water, the higher the profit margin. As they say, chicken is very often “further processed,” meaning more and more artificial flavoring and other “stuff.”
Whence cometh taste? Our tongues sense the five “basic tastes”: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, also known as savory. There is a huge industry focused on triggering our basic tastes, on making industrially processed flavorless food tasty. The food chemists have worked to identify the chemicals that give natural foods their flavor. Able to synthesize these chemicals, the food chemists can make any edible substance (I cannot in good faith use the word “food”) taste like the real thing … cheap vinegar can become “balsamic,” lemon juice not from lemons, “strawberry flavor” without touching a strawberry, … you get the picture.
Why all this focus on our taste receptors? Because today’s “food” needs all the help it can get. All of our food today is not what our grandparents ate, it is all diluted; it has no natural flavor. All of the natural flavor has been industrialized out to make it easier, faster and cheaper to grow.
What about nutrition? Does flavor have anything to do with nutrition? Bland, synthetically flavored food is not the same as naturally flavorful food.
We humans like the wrong foods. We form preferences based on taste. We like bacon … bacon goes with everything … we like a more sugar taste more than a less sugar taste. Which fruits do we like the best? The ripe fruit, of course, because it has more natural sugar than unripe fruit. When was the last time you had a truly ripe piece of fruit from the supermarket? Apples, for example, can be harvested a year in advance, stored and then sprayed with a chemical (diphenylamine, toxic to human health) to make them look fresher than they are. Taste, not a consideration.
Sugar content, however, is not the whole story. The more natural flavor there is in fruits and vegetables, the higher their nutrient content. Think about how you feel after eating a locally-grown ripe peach versus biting into a somewhat green one. Your taste buds know the difference. You are much more satisfied with the ripe peach than the not-so-ripe one. Not only do your taste buds know the difference, so does the rest of your digestive system … more flavor is better for you.
Mark Schatzker, in his book entitled The Dorito Effect (Simon & Schuster, 2015), lays out his Rules of Flavor:
1. Humans are flavor-seeking animals. The pleasure provided by food, which we experience as flavor, is so powerful that only the most strong willed among us can resist it.
2. In nature, there is an intimate connection between flavor and nutrition.
3. Synthetic flavor technology not only breaks the connection, it also confounds it.
We have a major problem of obesity in the world today, which is fueled by the lack of natural flavors and the overwhelmingness of synthetic flavors. It has been shown that those diet drinks actually lead to weight gain. The diet drinks are synthetically flavored and sweetness is provided by artificial sweeteners, neither of which contribute to satiation. Rather, they just encourage more consumption. There is nothing real in the diet drink, no real flavor and no real nutrition and consequently no satisfaction.
How do you tell if the food you want to eat is full of synthetic flavoring? Here are some clues. Look at the ingredient label, if it says “natural flavor(s), natural flavoring(s), artificial flavor(s), flavoring, or flavor” you can be assured there is no natural flavor in it. Going further, does the food contain chemicals designed to fool your tongue (and give you headaches) … monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, autolyzed yeast and yeast extract, hydrolyzed protein, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, advantame or stevia?
It’s a very interesting experiment to drink a diet soda, then a soda sweetened with cane sugar, and then another diet soda. What bitter taste is left on your tongue … definitely not good for you?
There are things you can do. Start by asking whence cometh the flavor, is it a food’s natural flavor or is it synthetic? If it came from a natural plant or animal, keep eating; if not, stop. Eat for flavor, real flavor.
Eat meat from pasture-raised animals … grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork. Look at Desert Mountain 100% Grass-fed Beef (https://desertmountaingrassfed.com), Nourished by Nature (https://nourishedbynature.us), Keller Crafted (https://kellercrafted.com), and Pitman Family Farms (https://www.pitmanfamilyfarms.com) for heirloom chickens. If you can find them, look for Buckeye chickens, chickens bred the old-fashioned way … pecking on the ground.
Don’t eat yellow egg yolks, eat only orange yolks. Unsurprisingly, yellow yolks come from chickens fed corn, industrial corn. Orange egg yolks come from chickens that peck the ground and are more flavorful and contain more vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, some of the priciest eggs in the supermarket (labels that scream free-range and organic) yield yellow yolks.
Look for “mobile pasture-raised,” like Wilcox Family Farms (https://wilcoxfarms.com).
For a nominal donation to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Klee Lab (https://hos.ifas.ufl.edu/kleelab/new-garden-cultivars/) you can get seeds for R Hybrid, BC Hybrid, Improved Garden Gem, Improved Garden Ruby and Better Boy Hybrid tomatoes … tomatoes that actually have taste.
The Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences has developed a lettuce with two and a half times the polyphenol density of blueberries, Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce.
You may have to grow your own, but you can find Garden Gems, Garden Ruby and Better Boy tomatoes and Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce in some specialty food stores.
Of course, being skiers there is no need to remind you to drink quality red wine and eat dark (high cocoa content) chocolate (organic and fair-trade), flavors at their best.
You have undoubtedly heard the ancient adage, “you are what you eat.” It is even more true that “you are what you taste!” Human being crave flavor. We seemingly endlessly quest flavor. “Flavor is the original craving.” Treat your taste buds and your gut to real flavor, not synthetic flavor.
I had hoped to post this right after Thanksgiving, but life happens. It’s almost Christmas now. Two weeks ago there was no snow on the ground; today there’s two feet and much more up on the mountain. The ski season has commenced in spectacular fashion.
The holidays are a foodie delight. Savor the food, the real food; enjoy family and friends; make more turns.