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Heavy Meddle: Bad Apples, Rotten Tomatoes, Sour Grapes: What's A Shopper To Do?

It’s okay to bring rotten produce back for a refund. What about fruits and vegetables that just don’t taste like they should? (Ian/flckr)MoreCloseclosemore
It’s okay to bring rotten produce back for a refund. What about fruits and vegetables that just don’t taste like they should? (Ian/flckr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I'm moderately savvy about choosing produce, but sometimes stuff gets past my scrutiny at the supermarket. If I end up with an avocado that's all brown inside, or peaches or apples that are mealy and dry, I know I can take them back and get a refund. It's a small hassle, and usually I have to sign something — perhaps because they keep track of frequent returners? Anyway, I get my money back without a big problem. But here's my question: what if I just don't think something tastes good? Is that an okay reason to take it back? For example, a cantaloupe with no flavor. It's not sweet. It's not bad tasting, but it's not good. First of all: now I know why it was on sale. But still. Am I expecting too much? I have also bought tasteless carrots (fed them to the dog); potatoes with a high percentage of black areas (I only buy them individually now, not in packages); and have made many other regrettable produce choices. Each item is fairly cheap, but it doesn't take long for the purchases to add up to big bucks. And now that I'm on a roll, how about the strawberries that mostly look great but always have several un-ripe ones at the bottom of the container? These do not continue to ripen once they're picked. I'm tempted to re-distribute between containers before I buy so I get what I'm paying for. I know the distributors pack them this way on purpose. Where do we draw the line?

Thank you,

Superflylady

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Dear Superflylady,

Or, as I prefer to think of you, Superfruitflylady.

So. Seinfeld’s take on this issue is pretty clear-cut: “I don’t return fruit. Fruit is a gamble. I know that going in.”

My own philosophy is closer to yours. A cantaloupe that doesn’t taste sweet (even when appropriately ripened) is basically false advertising. What I do, much to the horror of my wife and children, is try the fruit whenever possible. Grapes, for instance. I’m not going to buy a whole bag until I make sure they’re firm and sweet. And I do as much advance inspection as I can. I examine those plastic crates of strawberries from all angles. I fondle those sacks of tangerines to see if I’m getting any with mushy ones. And I’m especially diligent when it comes to the bags of mixed greens that my wife loves. Those tend to develop internal condensation, which rots the leaves.

...the truth is, most of the bad produce in our grocery stores is a result of consumers who want to buy fruits and vegetables that are either out of season or not native to the region where we live.

Okay, so maybe I’m going into too much detail here. But my larger point is that you, as the buyer, need to do some due diligence. It is the alleged job of store management to make sure everything in stock is fresh. But the real job of the modern supermarket is to get you to buy as much stuff as possible and to get you out of there, because, let’s be honest, most people don’t bother returning products, especially produce.

There’s a more fundamental problem here, though, which has to do with the vicissitudes of our agricultural system and, more fundamentally, with American entitlement. Because the truth is, most of the bad produce in our grocery stores is a result of consumers who want to buy fruits and vegetables that are either out of season or not native to the region where we live. The result is a new breed of fruits and vegetables that are engineered not to taste good, but to make it to market looking as if they might taste good. Anyone who has enjoyed a red juicy strawberry straight from a summer patch will tell you that it’s a world apart from the firm tasteless ones we get in winter. And don’t get me started on February tomatoes. (For further detail on all of this, see Michael Pollan’s books, or Frederick Kaufman’s provocative "Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food."

The bottom line is pretty simple: You can’t expect to live in a climate as cold as New England and have the same fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables year-round as folks enjoy in, say, California. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try. If it’s important to you, by all means stand up for yourself as a customer.

My advice, though, would be to consider some other options, so you don’t have to rely on a grocery store whose vendors are multi-national companies. The first would be to grow your own fruits and veggies, if you can. The Almond back 40 is a pretty big mess at this point. But we did get a banner crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, raspberries and herbs this year. And we’re doing as much canning and saucing as we can. Even if you don’t have land of your own to grow on, you can (and should) join a community garden.

You can’t expect to live in a climate as cold as New England and have the same fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables year-round as folks enjoy in, say, California.

The world would be a better place, on about a thousand different levels, if Americans lived more like the elderly Italian ladies in my old neighborhood in Somerville. They all had gardens, lovingly tended and lush with produce. They all canned the spring and summer and fall crops so as to enjoy great fruits and veggies in winter. You might also consider buying a share, or membership, in a local CSA, Community Supported Agriculture. And there are farmer’s markets, too, though in my experience those tend to be pricey.

The larger point I’m making here, Superflylady, is that the best solution to the substandard produce in markets is to grow your own, to the extent possible. I’m not suggesting that New Englanders should be stuck solely with root vegetables through the long winters. But any gourmand will tell you that the best produce is the stuff that comes directly from local farms and gardens. You know, the way human beings have lived for 99 percent of our history.

Something tells me readers will have even more suggestions.

Onward, together,

Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."

Attention readers in the Boston area! Don't miss Steve L I V E at the Brookline Booksmith on Thursday, September 18 at 7:00 p.m. for a reading from and talk about his new book, "Against Football." See you there!

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