Produce Perfectionism: An American Obscession


These days TV chefs have a good chance at becoming celebrities with with"brand identity". Hollywood notables visit their food shows to share in the kitchen glow. Leveraging decades of pesticide use and plant breeding, these celebrity-cultivating broadcasts amplify the notion of perfect produce. Ingredients too must be fabulous for the camera.

Reinforcement is everywhere. Grocery produce aisles are lit like art galleries, with white-aproned department managers on hand to weed out the blemishes and offer apologies for Mr Wormy's presence. There's been so much techno-sifting and hard-labor winnowing to achieve this perfection, the embodied energy of produce probably doubled over the last few decades.

By the end of August, the leaves of my red-stemmed Swiss Chard and Perennial Spinach, as pictured above, are made holy by descending hordes of Japanese Beetles. No amount of spraying or bagging could possibly subdue them. Resigned to their predations, I simply ignore the chew holes, wash the leaves three times, and chop in preparation for cooking, as shown below.Were these leafy greens offered for sale in even the raunchiest of farmers markets, they would be disdained. I can't even imagine what a mainstream produce distributor would say if I offered to supply him with such. But I can imagine the thought he'd keep to himself: Dirty hippies and their wormy produce.

Check out my chopped-up chard and spinach leaves. Can you tell the difference from pre-bagged and washed grocery chard? Nope. They're thoroughly washed, and carry no more beetle or worm poop than any other organic vegetable leaf does. Cooking them makes any imperfections indiscernible. Not celebrity leaves, I agree. But they taste fine.


Thinking on this contrast while at the grocery the other day, I approached a pallet load of "locally produced sweet corn.". People were obsessively pawing through the lot, bent on finding only the ultimate in celebrity corn ears to cart home. Time for an experiment and some fun.

When it comes to sweet corn shoppers, there are the risk takers who, like me, just grab a dozen and go; and then there are the "peek-a-boo shuckers" who peel back the top of every ear and nose around under the covers for the ultimate in quality control. I think the latter type are more common.

When the crowd thinned, I moved in across from a lady who was rejecting at about a 3 to 1 ratio. Running my experiment on instinct, I set about picking up the very ears she was rejecting. She got her dozen and walked away shaking her head quietly at what a dope I was. When I got home and shucked the rejected dozen: guess what? There was only one slightly bad ear and I fixed it by cutting off a brown section at the base. At dinner, my dirty hippie Silurian brain kicked up a thought I kept to myself- "I bet she drives a big SUV" - as I bit into that wonderful ear.

What does this obsessive sorting and picking behavior have to do with evolutionary success? Is it something ingrained in our brains from a dim hunter gatherer past, or is it just a useless relict of a long dysfunctional instinct, sticking around like a bad appendix, as unconsciously obnoxious as slowing down to stare at a traffic accident in the other lane?

Who knows. But if we seriously want our supply chains to get as green as we can make them, this demon will be confronted. And it won't be pretty.