Vegetables: Never Good Enough
The CDC issued a report last week with the gripping title of "Eating Patterns in America" and the news for vegetables is dire, as reported by the New York Times. Basically, on the subject of vegetables - Americans don't like 'em. Only 23% of meals eaten in the US of A include a vegetable, only 17% of at-home meals include a salad and only 5% of lunches and dinners eaten out were salads. So for all the press hoo-hah about celebrity chefs suddenly praising vegetables, and for all the super-expensive vegetable auctions, and for all the Meatless Mondays and all the farm-to-table blah blah blah, vegetables still don't have a toehold in the hearts and minds of diners.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think it all boils down to one simple fact: most chefs treat vegetables as second-class citizens.
Chefs just don't find vegetables that exciting and this has a trickle down effect on the entire business. Recently I was invited, and then uninvited from cooking for a table at a charity dinner because, as the person organizing it told me on the phone, their donors would be "disappointed" to get my table since I "won't be serving meat." This is hardly a new attitude, and I've encountered it plenty of times before so by now I've got a pretty thick skin about it. But coupled with the CDC report it does make me wonder if there's a bigger problem than me and my precious feelings of acceptance and rejection.
"Nothing is bigger than my precious feelings."
The NY Times article about the CDC report was a strange thing to read because it was so full of bizarre statements and quotes. A food industry analyst named Harry Balzer first strikes an inspirational note, saying, “There is nothing you can say that will get people to eat more veggies," and then goes on to say that people don't eat vegetables because, “Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost." Since when did vegetables become an ingredient that's expensive? Most people complain about them being served in upscale restaurants because the perception is that vegetables are cheap. And I understand that the CDC is coming from a health perspective when they talk about American eating habits, but it's bizarre to me that a pork loin is perceived as being about taste but a vegetable is thought of primarily as having to do with health. And why on earth are vegetables placed in opposition to taste? Maybe it's because of sentences like this one from the author of the NY Times piece, "In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly."
So vegetables are expensive and they have no taste and you only eat them if you want to be healthy. That sounds like fun! More, please!
I went to Eataly over the weekend to see Mario Batali's giant Italian food court for myself and while I was there I sat at two of the counters to eat. One was a counter that shall not be named and one was the vegetable counter. I've been leery of the vegetable counter ever since I heard all the publicity about their "vegetable butcher" who will prep and wash your produce for you since it sounds to me like the kind of stunt that an overworked publicist comes up with. But, despite my initial misgivings, the food at the vegetable counter was less expensive, the tastes were cleaner and more aggressive and the food was just way better than over at the other counter. The dishes were simpler in their conception and more successful in their execution. I was, despite my initial reluctance to admit than anyone can cook vegetables as well as I can, really impressed.
But next to the vegetable counter was a sign that gave me a hint of what the problem might be. It was a big printed list containing the "8 Rules of Eating Vegetables" and several of them were about how you had to know what farm they came from, and how you had to eat seasonal vegetables and you had to eat the freshest vegetables. There's nothing wrong with any of that advice, in fact I feel the same way. But by associating eating vegetables with the tenets of locavorism and seasonal eating (neither of which is a bad thing) maybe we're making eating vegetables seem more complicated than it needs to be. And what also might be off-putting to the home cook about vegetables is that in an attempt to get big, celebrity chefs to embrace them as an ingredient they've had to be puffed up into something "important." You can't just serve carrots at your restaurant, you must serve "Hill Country Blue Ribbon Rainbow Carrots." If you just serve carrots people are going to complain about paying money for them. If you just serve carrots the chef is going to feel like an underachiever. But give them an exotic pedigree, brag about how seasonal and local they are, and suddenly those same carrots seem worthy of a $20 price tag.
"I am not a carrot. I am a Northern
Meadows Orange Majestic Carrot.
That will be $20, please."
Most people cooking vegetables at home see this trend, which is reflected in magazines and on TV, and they think to themselves, "Vegetables are boring when I cook them, but when Thomas Keller cooks them they're amazing. But he doesn't cook normal vegetables. He cooks Ligurian Beets and Upper Smokey Mountain Chippy Creek Esoterica Lettuce. Those are magical vegetables and the farmer he uses sings to them every night which is why they taste so good." The result is an attitude towards vegetables that encompasses the worst of both worlds: vegetables are boring and taste horrible, unless they're done well in which case they are expensive and inaccessible.
At Dirt Candy I'm a victim of this, too. I find that some customers respond better to a dish called "Rainbow Carrot Buns" rather than "Carrot Buns" and I've seen my press and my profile get bigger and better when I play into this esoteric, heirloom vegetable game. It's frustrating because at heart I deeply believe in just serving normal vegetables. I want to be cooking with the same celery, the same cucumbers and the same lettuce that you get at the supermarket. Obviously, I get my produce from a supplier, but when some magazines show up for a photo shoot they are already committed to this idea that chefs wander around the farmer's market inhaling the scents of fresh herbs and piling up their baskets with whatever strikes their fancy that day and I've done these photo shoots myself - they're staged. But if this is what the press likes how do you talk them out of it? I love fancy menu descriptions as much as the next person, I like pretending that the fact that the potato I'm eating comes from Eleven Empire Farms imbues it with some kind of special magic, too. It's fun, and it's part of the whole smoke and mirrors of dining out in a fancy restaurant. But I wonder if I'm doing the cause of vegetables a disservice by participating in this game?
"I do not think I'm being served."
On the one hand, if you just serve normal vegetables then charities tell you that you'll "disappoint" their sponsors, the press is less excited and people tend to look down on you a little. On the other hand, if you serve heirloom vegetables from Rustic Soil Orchards then you alienate normal folks and make them feel like there's no way they can enjoy the vegetables they find at the grocery store because they're the "wrong" kind of vegetables. It's a lose-lose proposition, and I'm not sure what the answer is.