• Ali Tadlaoui

A light-hearted take on a less serious topic, for a change. Apples. Cherries. It's the beginning of the season for one and just past season for the other, so they're top-of-mind.

I just read a piece featuring on the longstanding, successful apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota. We owe the Honeycrisp variety to this program. The article offers an overview of the process of inventing a new apple hybrid that everyone in the value chain, from grower to consumer, values. It's an arduous process. Finding the next Honeycrisp (first marketed in 1991) requires patience and perseverance. It took 24 years for daughter of Honeycrisp, SweeTango, to hit the produce aisle. I admire this commitment to a long-term objective. But I also wonder if they're working on what I think most of us really want from an apple. Another apple variety is not on my list.

I'm already overwhelmed by the number of choices when I shop for apples at our local, upscale supermarket. Do I really need another option? The president of the U.S. Apple Association claims that they need new varieties to keep the apple category fresh and exciting. But for whom? Really, it's for the supermarket chains. Apples are competing for space in the fresh section of the store with other fruit, and other produce. Finding the next great apple variety seems to be more about market share than about meeting a consumer need.

What I really want is to be able to bite into any apple and expect a crunch most of the time, not half the time or less. I don't care about the color, or the shape, or how thick the skin. But I want my apple to be crisp, and to not get mealy within a few days either. It's hit or miss with fruit as much hit or miss with breeding the next, great apple variety.

I had a similar reaction to a story about Pairwise, a biotech start-up, that, among other things, is working on developing a cherry without a pit. Pairwise is banking on using CRISPR to edit the genetic sequence of some variety of cherry to render it pit-less. I'm not averse to editing fruit genes per se - we've been creating genetic hybrids since wild apples were first domesticated in what is now Kazakhstan - but the pit is not my primary problem with cherries.

First of all, the cherry season is too short. I bought them twice this crazy summer before they were gone. Even when I'm top of things, I buy them infrequently because they're too expensive except for maybe two weeks in the year (on sale one week in one store and on sale the next week in another store). They were $7.99/lb at the more upscale store in our area for most of the season this year. There's a reason cherries are called the "beloved of kings" (rough translation) in Arabic. I'll take a perfectly ripe, dark cherry over any other piece of fruit, pit or no pit. But, I wish for cherries to be affordable enough to be in our fridge all summer.

The quest for the next, glorious apple variety and the work to remove pits from cherries are not misguided, but they could be a bit more focused on more salient gaps in MY needs, wants, and desires. The initiatives are not as consumer-centric as they could be.

Growing up, what made summer vacations in Morocco particularly memorable was the communal meal. Especially dinner. Four homes took turns hosting a family gathering just about every day for weeks. There could easily be twenty mouths to feed, between the uncles and aunts and cousins, distant relatives, out-of-town relatives from another germosphere, or a cousin’s free-loading best friend. There were two sittings when there were that many of us; one for the adults and one for the kids. It wasn’t fancy food. Most of it was hearty and tasty. Tajines laden with fatty lamb chunks and a rotating cast of in season veggies, swimming in broth. There was always plenty of bread so we could sop it all up. Simple salads. Carrots, shredded with lemon juice and sugar, or diced with olive oil and cilantro. Salted cucumber rounds. Sweet pepper and eggplant salads too. Humble stuff most of the time. But a lot of it. I learned later that my dad helped bankroll these dinners. He had the means, and we were the visitors from overseas who imposed on the clan every other July or August. It was an imposition. But I think we all relished these mini family reunions, crowded around the table, struggling to eat and laugh and impress and retort all at the same time.

My thoughts traveled back to one such rowdy dinner after reading a series of micro-essays at The Counter, a nonprofit, independent, nonpartisan newsroom investigating the forces shaping how and what America eats. They asked folks to contribute stories about how food is figuring into the changes foisted on us by Covid-19. I read one, then another, and another. Each one made me wince with empathy, joy, or sadness. A grandmother writes about creating a ritual out of making oatmeal every day for her grandchild, born the third day of quarantine, and sheltering with her...Instead of focusing on how the pandemic is creating food-related memories for me and my family, my mind wanted to remember food gatherings of social un-distancing.

I don’t know the whole truth about what happened that night. The story is that one of my aunts laced a small section of the tajine with "h'shisha." My mother swears she got a little high because she was sitting next to the man for whom this narcotic was meant. It didn’t matter whether there was or wasn’t hashish in the food. The mere suggestion that the food might have been tampered with set the man off. I happened to be at the adult sitting that night. The guy has been a family friend for decades and a willing target of teasing and pranks.

He pushed away from the table when the fruit was brought out, and started hooting. He tried to tickle each of us under our arms as he rounded the table. My uncles egged him on. He yelled and spoke incomprehensible words. It was as if he was in a trance. Then, he leapt on the table. Someone swiftly removed the large bowl of sliced, ripe honeydew and cantaloupe just in time. Mr. Honey, as I like to call him because of his disdain for honey (and okra), started pounding the wooden table with his heels. Needless to say, it was side-splitting, pee-in-your-pants entertainment.

  • Ali Tadlaoui

The more things change, the more things stay the same. The other day I read a fun piece on an IRI blog reflecting on twenty-five years of their New Product Pacesetters reports. Every year IRI puts a spotlight on those foods and beverages that sold the most during their first year on the shelf.

Remember SnackWell's? "Non-Fat" was a watchword in 1995. Not so much now, or not in the same way. In fact, we've been helping folks better understand how to market high fat yogurts recently. How about 5% fat!

The early 2000's brought a wave of low or no carb foods to capitalize on our newly-rediscovered object of abstention. I was at Unilever at the time the entire company seemed mobilized to launch CarbSmart. My team contributed two Wish-Bone formulas to the effort; I don't recall there were too many carbs in any of our salad dressings... We Americans are still worried about sugar intake. Interestingly, we are also helping a different yogurt client with low sugar, high protein consumer research.

But really, nothing has changed that much when it comes to what manufactured food products, especially well-marketed, branded food products, do for us beyond the concoction of ingredients declared on the packaging, and the convenient container itself that protects what's inside. Diet recommendations around macronutrients have pointed in different directions over the past twenty-five years. True north has been about removing fat, then removing carbohydrates, and more recently, boosting protein. Food companies respond (or initiate), and consumers respond. The specifics of what we eat and drink have changed for many, somewhat based on these diet recommendations, but the motivation driven by our emotional needs hasn't, and doesn't.

What doesn't change is the need to try to solve problems; problems of our own making which we believe eating right can fix, or challenges created by trying to conform to cultural norms. What seems important to our emotional well-being is to constantly try to address these problems. That makes us feel good about ourselves. Eating a high protein, low sugar yogurt appears to be the right thing to do these days, so it is, whether or not you really need the extra protein. It's a "sensible," or a "smart" choice in the minds of some of us. For others, it can give you a measure or control or power, or make you feel like you're ahead of the curve, even if that container of yogurt doesn't provide sustained energy better than lots of other foods, as promised, or really help you lose weight, or improve your longer term physical well-being in a tangible way.

Our physiological health, collectively, as measured by obesity levels, cardiovascular fitness, and rates of diabetes has deteriorated over the past twenty-five years despite the growing knowledge base that should be informing diet trends and guidelines. Even at an individual level, I wonder how many of us over 40 feel like our short-term health improved if/when we followed a low-fat regimen, or consumed mostly low carb food products. I don't think my long term health has been impacted either by how I've changed up my diet over all these years.

On some level, for most of us who are generally healthy, maybe that doesn't matter as much because we are constantly attempting to improve our health, and it's the steps we take - consuming products with good fats, less sugar, more whole grains, going to bed a bit earlier, and walking a few thousand steps a day (if not ten thousand) - that make us feel better about ourselves in discrete bursts over the course of weeks, months, and years.

My next Talk to Me About Food podcast will focus on personalized nutrition, yet another diet direction, and maybe a logical next step in the evolution of our understanding of the role of genetic pre-dispositions. One of the first threads I followed in researching the upcoming episode led me to a company that places you in one of 20 profiles based on your genetic signature. Gene Food provides recommended diet strategies for each profile. Are you a California Keto? A Pegan? An Okinawan? A Hunter Gatherer? I can see how this approach appeals to our taste for belonging to a tribe. One more tribe to identify with, for better or for worse, in our endless quest to find a better, or maybe the ultimate diet.

Image by MOs810 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22412609


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