Monday, March 27, 2006

Magritte would not be pleased, and neither is neo-neocon: the apple transformed

The apple--and most particularly that tart green variety known as the Granny Smith (and there really was a Granny Smith, by the way)--is an especially beautiful fruit. With color, shape, healthfulness, and taste, the apple has it all.

Just ask Magritte, whose work "The Son of Man" I've quoted in my own portrait.

The apple is rich in subtext as well as health value. The Garden of Eden story may represent a mistranslation of the original (was it actually an orange? or fig?), but artists had a field day with the eminently paintable apple:

But alas, the apple may be going the way of the--carrot.

Yes, the carrot. Remember back when carrots were those lengthy things that a person peeled and then ate (originally, they even came with green tops), rather than small bite-sized precut modules?

When the bagged mini-carrot first came into vogue, I assumed they represented wastefulness--that part of an ordinary and otherwise usable carrot had to be discarded to make those neat little shapes. But it turns out I was wrong; mini-carrots actually reduce waste. Baby-cut carrots (which are not baby carrots at all, but large ones trimmed into small bits) originated with California farmer Mike Yurosek's observation that a great many ugly carrots were being rejected:

It all began about 16 years ago when Mike Yurosek of Newhall, Calif, got tired of seeing 400 tons of carrots a day drop down the cull shoot at his packing plant in Bakersfield. Culls are carrots that are too twisted, knobby, bent or broken to sell. In some loads, as many as 70% of carrots were tossed. And there are only so many discarded carrots you can feed to a pig or a steer, says Yurosek, now 82 and retired. "After that, their fat turns orange," he says.

Well, I guess we just can't have ugly carrots or orange-fatted pork, can we? Thus the baby-cut carrot--which has come to represent a large portion of the carrot market and has led to a surge in carrot consumption--was born.

And now the same is being done for the apple, according to an article in the Feb. 12 New York Times Sunday Magazine.

It turns out that whole apples, despite their good rep as an especially healthful food--after all, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"--are now considered just too difficult for most people to even contemplate eating:

"You look at the number of meals being eaten in automobiles," Steve Lutz says (research by John Nihoff, a Culinary Institute of America food historian, estimates that 19 percent of all meals or snacks in this country are eaten there), "and you'd think the apple is convenient already. But when you finish it, you have a core to deal with. You have waste. Plus, once you've started an apple, you're sort of committed to eating the whole thing."

"I don't think consumers are very comfortable leaving a half-eaten apple lying around their car or their house," Lutz adds.

In addition, people seem to have become more sensitive--actually, extraordinarily sensitive--to the disgust value of certain foods. It's hard to believe that there could be anything offensive about an apple, but apparently that core-in-the-making has become a big turnoff:

Paul Rozin is a cultural psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and, though he may not introduce himself this way at parties, an authority on disgust. "As the world gets more and more cleaned up of these things, and as you get highly sensitive to disgust, a bitten piece of food in your hand is not too nice," he posited. An eater of the whole apple must, with each bite, readdress his mouth to "the unsavoriness of the bitten edge in front of you." But eating apple slices means treating yourself to a clean, unspoiled, appealingly geometric shape every few seconds.

Enter Tony Freytag, the Mike Yurosek of the apple world. Freytag has found a way to meet the special challenge apples present to the snack-food industry--their tendency to turn to brown mush when cut into pieces:

Crunch Pak was one of the first companies that labored to bring the new apple on line. Each found early on that what can be done casually at home — slicing an apple and squeezing lemon juice on it — is maddeningly difficult to pull off in a factory. The anti-browning bath is only one movement in a grand symphony of technologies at work. For nearly two decades, teams of food scientists, engineers and can-do businessmen struggled to pin down the apple, while the apple skirted and ducked them at every turn. They zigged, the apple zagged. Clearing one hurdle only brought more into view, and even now the particulars of production must be reassessed and rejiggered daily. The apple, Freytag told me when we first met, "is a moving target."

...NatureSeal is the product of a decade of U.S.D.A. and private research. It's a flavorless white powder that, mixed with water, penetrates a few millimeters beneath the surface of a cut apple...The ascorbic acid in NatureSeal searches out and bonds to the loose phenols, blocking them off from the polyphenol oxidase enzyme and interrupting the browning reaction. The calcium salts work like cement to stiffen the fruit's softening cell walls. All of this happens inside the apple, so the solution leaves no perceptible layer or shell on the surface.

Making apples into sanitized snack food bits seems--as with carrots--to increase their desirability as food. It may be paradoxical, but cutting a food into small pieces encourages people to eat more of it, not less:

Industry insiders now talk about elevating a food's "snackability," which, in short, means engineering it with enough convenience that picking up a piece and putting it in your mouth becomes an almost perfunctory transaction. A snackable food is crumbless and fussless. It is most likely broken into bite-size pieces, encouraging us to eat more. If the food's form itself doesn't imply a portion size — the way, say, one apple or one cupcake does — there's no obvious signal to stop. This triggers what one marketer, Barb Stuckey, calls "mindless munching" — the hand's almost hypnotic back and forth between bag and mouth.

"Mindless munching" is indeed a concept with which I'm all too familiar, although I didn't know it had a name.

I'll leave the last word to Freytag:

A bowl of apples is like a piece of art...It's display. People won't touch it. But you put out a tray of cut-up apples — that's food."


At 1:39 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Arthur Parry said...

I think the apple has already been transformed. Most of what they offer are Red Delicious, which look all perfect and red, but are mealy and bland when you bite into them. I think the flavor of Red Delicious has gone down noticibly in my life time. Maybe if they bred for flavor instead of appearance they wouldn't have to blame declining sales on 'snackability.'

Granny Smith is still a pretty good apple, though.

At 1:45 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

To Arthur Parry: Actually, if you read the Times article (which, granted, is rather long), they address that issue. One of the reasons people have turned away from apples is previously bad experiences with them, especially Red Delicious ones--mealy, tasteless, etc.. Apparently, after such a bad experience, people tend to reject apples because they can't trust that the ones that look good in fact are good.

The developers of the sliced apple snacks do all sorts of things (described in the article) to standardize and improve the taste of their apples, and thus to avoid that problem.

It's quite mind-boggling.

At 2:13 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...


It's just a pavlovian response. I suppose the economics favor a counter-pavolovian strategy.

At 2:53 PM, March 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

T'were it not really you
behind the apple peeking through
but some mystery woman in lieu
t'is probable I would'st bid this blog adieu
The Lonely Donut Man (LDM)

At 3:14 PM, March 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: produce flavor vs. appearance- We've taken to getting our produce at a local chain that caters more to local immigrants. The produce is much less 'perfect', and is MUCH cheaper, and tastes a little better, at least to me. In Europe, it's still about flavor- tomatoes come on the vine, and everything in the produce dept. tastes better.

At 3:48 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger The probligo said...

Red Delicious, and Cox Orange, are not good "keepers". The only way I know of getting good ones is the traditional orchard night raid.

That raises two other things -

First, the latest apple "breed" in NZ is a red fleshed variety that is being made available to orchardists this year so the first fruit should be on the market in about 5 years.

Second, not far from my little dacha at Opononi (about an hours drive) there is a couple who are collecting and reproducing a large number of fruit and vegetable "breeds" from around the north. Included in that are two varieties of pear from the mid 1800's that had been thought lost forever.

Anyone wanting gnarly carrots - go to the small seed sellers... and be prepared to dig deep.

As for flavour there is nothing that beats freshness. That means out of the ground fresh...

At 8:09 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger benning said...

I always liked the smaller, crispy, tart apples. Red Delicious are definitely mealy.

Beyond that, I don't get too excited with apples, and I cannot imagine why I would buy slices. Seems silly. "Disgust" factor seems silly, too. How squeemish are we becoming? I scrub public toilets five days a week. I don't see a half-eaten apple as being disgusting. Not when I have to clean .......

At 9:23 PM, March 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I noticed the bags of sliced apples in the stores for some time before I bought one, but when I did it kind of took me back to my childhood.

My boyhood was spent, for some years, in a small town that revolved around apple orchards and there were several adjacent to our land. Some of my most persistent memories center on those orchards and the afternoons spent up in the trees snacking on Golden Delicious and Red Delicious. I think it was Mark Twain who said that the only thing that improves the taste of a perfect watermelon is hooking it out of the patch.

I became, forever after, an apple snob and although I would continue to actually buy them frequently, I became, over the years, more and more disappointed in them. In time I noticed that they didn't satisfy my basic requirements and pretty much took them off my list of prefered foods.

I require both flavor and snapping crispness from an apple. Absent either one, I'll toss an apple after the first bite, and I am now almost consistently disappointed by whole apples purchased in grocery stores.

The Neo Apple, a Granny Smith, is dependably crisp but is, frankly, a shade too much towards a pie apple for repeated snacking. The Red Delicious is simply a write-off and I don't even notice them in the stores any longer. Every so often I'm in the country when apples come in and then I'll indulge myself at a drive-by fruit stand with a decent red delicious, but only if they have sample slices set out.

The most perfect apples remain those of my childhood, the golden delicious, stolen from the branch while high up in the tree with a stash of comic books from the Feed Store at the end of the road. It is predominantly pale green with smooth areas of pale yellow shading to gold and sometimes just a hint of red. It is not cold from the icebox but warm from the sun. It is eaten in quantities of six or more easily. The cores are dropped down below to the foot of the tree.

Absent that apple lost as the snows of yesteryear, I've found that for flavor and crispness the snack pack sliced apples are the only dependable urban alternative. Especially if you leave them in the bag in the afternoon sun to warm up just a bit.

It's not often that technology, especially food technology, improves food, but the apple snack pack gets my vote.

At 9:39 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Bezuhov said...

Yeah, I've had the problem with the mealy/tasteless Red Delicious. My local Wal-Mart of all places (yeah, I know - no, I'm not employed there!) has actually had a nice run of big juicy ones.

I do the bite-sized carrots, but I'm too attached to the snap of biting into the apple skin to give that up.

At 9:50 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I'm fortunate to live not far from an orchard that hasn't been paved over yet; once in awhile, usually fall, I go there with my family and we get bags of apples (must be like 10 varieties), pears, etc.

Price is cheap because you pick them yourself. It's fun to work with your kids picking fruit.

Nice lyric posts today.

At 10:22 PM, March 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just apples, but much of our produce in general.

I like hot peppers, have since I first ate one in the early 90's. Back then it was difficult to find fresh outside of large markets and the only pickled ones were jalapeno's. You could get a jalapeno that would burn pretty good, even to those of us who ate truly hot foods.

Nowadays jalapenos are pretty much like bell peppers, don't even need gloves to cut up. If I purchase american made chipotle peppers (smoked jalapeno's in adobo sauce) I can eat it by the spoonfull. If I buy chipotle's imported from mexico - back like they used to be. Heck, I can eat store bought habanero's raw - no way I should be able to do so.

The fact that habanero salsa variants and sauces are served in wendy's and sonic shows how much it's been breed down. For many it's like a badge of honor (and thus a market for not so hot ones so they can say they eat them) - though it's amusing when they get a hold of a real one.

Even as late as 98-99 my hot sauce needed no more than 10 habaneros - usually around 5, now my last I made that was just them used over 30 and became more "paste" than sauce (and thus, not really acceptable). I either have to grow my own from specilised seed producers or use capsaicin extracts to get hot enough (which I also make myself).

The best part of the summer is the little garden I grow. A few hot peppers, cucumbers, and various other vegetables that are of poor quality in the anything but specialy grocery stores.

At 10:52 PM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Ed onWestSlope said...

I live in a small town, near a lot of small and older orchards. The best fruit, from the first cherries, cotts, peaches, pears to the last apples are the varieties which do not ship well. Too tender to ship, but OOOOH so good.

Your post remineded me of an ad I saw in a bus, during my R & R in Austrailia, 1971.

An apple a day keeps the Doctor away.
And the picture shows a man throwing an apple at a Doctor, who is attempting to duck.

At 12:01 AM, March 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are plenty of apple varieties between Delicious and Granny Smith: Jonathan comes to mind, and when I was at Cornell, they had dozens of new types that they were breeding all the time. Made a great apple juice blend.

Delicious is most decidedly not. And Granny Smith's become more palatable with a dash of salt.

At 12:35 AM, March 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone recall the time I stole "The son of Man"? Sent those bobbies on a bit of a goose chase, eh chaps.

At 12:37 AM, March 28, 2006, Blogger jlbussey said...

I like both Fuji and Gala apples for flavor and crispness. Luckily, they carry them year around where I'm at. I haven't eaten a Red or Golden Delicous in decades they're so yucky. Granny Smiths make perfect apple sauce however, no sugar necessary, a lot of sweetness come out of the peel if you leave it on.

At 3:49 AM, March 28, 2006, Blogger camojack said...

Coincidentally, I just ate an apple...a gala.

At 10:48 AM, March 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father studies agriculture and food production and has been obsessed with baby carrots for some time. A baby carrot is made from two cuts in a 9" carrot, so three parts of maybe 2.5" (after they're shaved down) each. You can reassemble "ghost carrots" from baby carrots, with the thick top, the regular middle, and the tapering end. My father loves to do this. He's a hit at parties.

Currently there is a race on to develop the 12" carrot, one that can take three cuts and produce four baby carrots from each mama carrot. The problem is making a 12" carrot consistently straight enough for current machinery. So the baby carrot, born as a solution to Crooked Carrot Syndrome, has re-created the problem on a longer scale.

The other vital piece of carrot information is that the modern carrot has far more beta carotene than the carrots of a century ago. Consumers generally prefer orange carrots, so farmers have bred carrots that are more and more orange, and the orange is beta carotene. This is pretty unusual, in that modern consumer-driven engineering has generally produced fruits and vegetables that are less nutritious than their 19th century predecessors.

once you've started an apple, you're sort of committed to eating the whole thing

It's delightfully ironic that, after we've spent decades engineering them to be larger, the behemoth grocery store apple is suddenly too big to eat.

At 2:20 PM, March 28, 2006, Blogger Charlottesvillain said...

Agree with the many comments about they decline in apple taste. Growers have moved towards appearance and shelf life at the expense of flavor.

Just last Friday I executed my own plan to bring flavorful apples back into my life. I planted ten young apple trees, of six different varieties, all heirloom strains that used to be widely cultivated here in central Virginia. Winesap, black twig, winter banana, crispin, and Virginia gold. Perhaps in 4 to 5 years I will be enjoying flavorful apples once again.

In the meantime, I'll struggle along with farmstand apples. No precut slices for me.

At 4:11 PM, March 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take the apple, for example. In nineteenth-century America, frontier dwellers far from the trading posts of the East lacked a source of sweetness in their diet -- and sugar with which to make alcohol. So when a man named John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) floated down the Ohio River with bushels of apple seeds in his canoe, the settlers seized on the opportunity to grow the fruit on their new land. The pioneers' desire for sweetness was satisfied -- and the apple was given a whole new continent on which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?
--From publisher's notes for Pollan's BOTANY OF DESIRE


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