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Flavor vs. Fancy

April 11, 2009

One of the things that has always turned me off to so-called “gourmet” food is the need to impress through unheard-of flavor combinations, complicated cooking techniques, and unnecessarily expensive ingredients.

In browsing through the recipes of Gourmet magazine offered gratis (back to 2001) on, I’ve noticed that the food gets simpler and less pretentious as the years wear on (I started at the back and am working my way forward). Gourmet also has a lovely collection of articles regarding local food and pointing out the flaws of our current global food system. It is utterly heartening to see the pretensions of “good” food being abandoned as people learn the things that are more important: freshness, quality, and flavor. It’s also become taboo (instead of fashionable) to trumpet from the mountaintops about that rare yak yoghurt you imported from Tibet to have every morning for breakfast, or that the caviar you serve with crackers at your cocktail party is from the increasingly-rare Russian sturgeon. Why? Because your wealth not only doesn’t matter as much as it used to (economic downturns can do that to societies) but the ridiculous expense in energy and environmental resources used to get that yak butter or sturgeon caviar from halfway across the world to your exquisitely set table is not only a complete waste, it borders on the criminal.

Most of us are not even remotely old enough to remember when oranges were a rare winter treat (Laura Ingalls Wilder, anyone?) that had to be imported from Spain, and later Florida. Nor are we old enough to remember that there used to be a time when one could only get strawberries if one grew them in one’s garden or foraged them wild.

There used to be a season for everything. And there still is, to some extent, but these seasons are easily overcome if extra money is willing to be spent (peonies and lily of the valley in December? No problem! They’ll just be twenty times more expensive than if you bought them in May!). One of the main arguements against eating local – besides the arguement against the “inefficiencies” of it – is that there are many things to which we are accustomed to consuming on a daily basis (coffee, sugar, citrus fruits, salt, etc.) are completely unavailable to most parts of the country. I would argue that religiously adhering to the famous 100-Mile Diet is not feasible for the majority of Americans. However, I would suggest that we return to the food system of the late 1910s-40s; that is, most of our diet should come from local and regional sources: local produce, dairy, and meats and regional grains. More exotic items, like tropical fruits for we Northerners, could be had as an more expensive treat when they are in season, and at no other time.

I think our problem with out-of-season food comes from a culture of instant gratification that has been cultivated since the 1950s and has increased exponentially since the 1990s. The internet is partially to blame, as is television. But in our greed for instant gratification, and the accompanying lust for cheap thrills, we’ve forgotten that waiting for something makes it more gratifying. It also helps that the instant-gratification of strawberries in January pales in comparison to the taste of tiny wild strawberries foraged in June or July.

Gourmets, gourmands, and foodies have understood this for a while (although they are annoyingly prone to advocating recipes and dishes with fresh tomatoes when tomatoes are hideously out of season), as their main focus is on taste. But even they are guilty of the instant-gratification meal, when more money can produce out-of-season, but still “organic” exotic produce at the local Whole Foods.

To me, it is not only more economical, but also more flavorful to shop locally and in season. Even better to grow the produce or raise the eggs yourself! A good rule of thumb: if you can’t grow it, get it from a friend/relative/neighbor. If you can’t get it from them, buy it from a local farmer. If you can’t get it from them, support a local business. If you can’t get it from them, it’s not worth having.

I like to support local and regional businesses when buying things such as grain products (Dakota Growers makes excellent pasta out of local hard red durum wheat) or finished-products like bread (Country Hearth, baked right in town!). In the summer especially I like to get much of my fresh produce from my mom’s garden (particularly tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers, and green beans). I am guilty of buying bagged greens and out on the prairie the supermarket is almost the only place you can find apples (though I try to buy Minnesota-grown) or pears or peaches. But again, I don’t buy peaches in November; not only are they way more expensive, they also taste like crap. Why would I pay more money for crap when I can wait a few months and enjoy cheap, absolutely delicious peaches by the bagful?

Of course, in order to buy in season, you have to like a lot of different fruits and vegetables, which I do. But I know many a person my age (24, if you’re asking) who refuses to eat most vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, and sometimes broccoli being the general exceptions) and whose favorite fruits are invariably banannas, apples, or oranges. Can we say BORING?

Variety is the spice of life, people! Stop settling and start eating real food for a change, eh?

Okay, a long and sometimes incoherent ramble, yes, but the basic gist: expensive food is not always better (mostly isn’t, actually), fresh local seasonal food is going to be the best damn stuff on the planet, besides being relatively cheap, and the wider variety of foods you eat, the better you’ll eat (and feel! Did I mention eating a wide variety of foods is probably going to boots your vitamin and nutrient intake?).

So yes. Flavor always wins over fancy.

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