Buy it Today - Eat it by Tomorrow

Published on 22 March 2024 at 13:16

“They discovered feelings they didn’t think they were supposed to have.”  This line was delivered by Tom Hanks in the recent film “Elvis,” in which his character refers to the reaction of teenage girls to first hearing and seeing the famous performer. They could not help but squeal with unrestrained delight.


We often have this same reaction when we first bite into an item of food purchased from a local merchant or truck vendor. Whether its peaches, nectarines, peppers, fish, or meat, the sudden sensation in the mouth generates a loud exclamation. In the case of fruit, there is an explosion of juiciness and flavor that starts on the tongue but ends up often covering the face and part of one’s torso. It is quite extraordinary. I dare say I have some of those same sensations as the girls experiencing Elvis in the flesh.

The owner of one of our small local food markets sends me a text whenever a fresh delivery of a certain type is made. She knows it will go fast and she knows I would likely want it. So, I drop what I’m doing and walk quickly to her little shop. She is almost always right in her assessment. I snatch my prized whatever and slip back home, clutching the bag like I just pulled off a jewel heist.


It has taken us years to shed off an attitude acquired over decades of living in the U.S. That you can buy fresh fruit and let it sit for a week. Here, by contrast, after the second day, it’s starting to mold. So, you buy just enough to eat for two days and then go out again for more. It the absence of preservatives and chemicals in the growing process that give the produce a short shelf life.


But what a difference in the flavor. I suspect that this is part of the reason that visitors remark on the food in Italy. It is unadulterated; you taste the real thing. We simply grew up with the notion of supermarket food – packaged and preserved in perfect condition like from photogenic bowl. We were actually eating a pale facsimile of the real thing. Hence, the increasingly popularity of weekly farmers markets; many people are just tired of the ersatz products of corporate agribusiness.

There are other elements of the American food supply chain that effectively block the path between the source and the taste buds. Produce often arrives at the point of sale some time before its ripe or it sits in the display counter too long. Not enough to be dangerous but just enough to prevent or degrade the flavor. We look at the sea which supplies the biweekly fish truck. We watch the wheat and greens grow on the hilly slopes surrounding our village. There is a flour mill a few minutes’ drive from here that still grinds fine flours using an ancient stone wheel. There is a winery that produces wines so fresh they go by a different name and are dispensed by pumps with hoses – not unlike a roadside gas station.


But perhaps worse is the American obsession with fruit and vegetables that are visually perfect. I have no idea where this came from – perhaps a centuries old distrust of street vendors – but many fruits only acquire full rich taste when they are ripe enough to show bruises, scuffs, and discoloration. It simply part of the process that does not lessen the flavor. Indeed, it enhances it.


With my apologies to my wife, and my vegetarian and vegan friends, meats exhibit a similar condition. Consistently, the various cuts we have bought at the market in our small village have greatly exceeded anything we have purchased in the U.S. And that includes the Midwest and Texas. (sorry folks) Ironically, the best hamburgers I’ve ever had, I have had here. 

All this points to the tragedy of corporations taking over the American food production system, sometimes with dire consequences as has happened with salmonella being found in chicken processing plants in recent years. Thankfully, Italy has also rapidly embraced “best practices” such as offering customers pizza made without gluten.  


This expectation of perfection seems to be a peculiarly American trait. Kurt Andersen, in his book Fantasy Land, suggest that this fetishistic obsession with an idealized state has its origins stretching back to the Puritans. Any departure from the ideal is not just unacceptable but evil. Whatever its cause, the rest of the world is grateful to have things to eat that are healthy, safe, and without the need to conform to a photogenically beautiful advertisement at the cost of quality.


Sadly, this collective zeal for the perfectly beautiful comestible stands in the way of both nutrition and pleasure for a true taste. It seems that a century of advancements in agricultural technology and food supply, however, innovative they might be, has led to a denial of basic sensory pleasure.


And that is a truly unfortunate byproduct of American commerce.  

To my mind, this fruit consumption comparison is an apt metaphor for the two cultures. A hallmark of North American culture is banking on the future and thinking of purchases as readily disposable. By contrast, Italian culture is about enjoying each moment to its fullest, with all its associated sensations and not wasting food (or anything else).


Perhaps the later originated in various periods of famine over the long history of the peninsula. Whatever the origins, this cultural viewpoint has been ad adjustment for us, while we learned to savor experiences as they randomly occur rather than try to plan everything in advance. Living like an Italian, has an infinite number of nuances, but enjoying my fresh fruit is one I’m glad to embrace!

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