It was spring and I’d just planted my garden. Every day I watched as the little shoots grew into unruly plants. I put supports into the ground to help them stand up while the flowers turned into vegetables, or in this case, fruit. I am especially proud of my tomatoes. I grow sweet cherry tomatoes and giant beefsteak. I was watching them grow, feeding them, watering them, talking to them as much as I talk to my other plants. That’s when I noticed one of the tomatoes was stuck growing between two vines and against the supporting stake. I couldn’t pry it loose without crushing it so I left it. When the fruit was forming it grew around the vine into a shape that looked more like an hourglass than a tomato. When it was ripe enough, I picked it and set it down on my kitchen counter. Here it looked more like a tomato in a fetal position than a happy globe of redness.
My usual way to eat tomatoes at this time of year is a simple sandwich with garlic, sea salt and basil so I sliced my deformed tomato and made my sandwich, and walked onto the porch to eat my lunch. Holy cow! It was the perfect garden tomato, sweet and robust and screaming of fresh summer sunshine. It got me thinking about the perfect food in grocery stores and yes, even on seed packages. Consumers have an unreasonable obsession with perfect looking food and because of this, grocers reject produce solely for cosmetic reasons. Perhaps it’s too small, the wrong colour, it may have a blemish or rain scar; it could be sunburnt, deformed or disfigured. Yet, it still tastes great! Two years ago the French supermarket chain Intermarché launched a campaign aimed at reducing food waste. They stocked an isle in the produce section with fruit and vegetables that were deformed, disfigured and just plain ugly. They marked them down by a third of the price and everything sold out. So what would happen to that ugly food if it weren’t sold at the grocers?
In Canada, recent studies claim we waste over $31 billion worth of food a year and of that amount, approximately 15% of farm produce, ends up on the compost heap because it doesn’t meet regulated (cosmetic) standards acceptable for retail. That’s huge!
It reminds me of the time when our family preserved peaches and pears so we’d have something sweet to eat in the winter months. We would go to the farm and buy the fruit that wasn’t cosmetically perfect. Some of it would be deformed, some with bruises. They were called seconds. We could buy all the seconds we wanted for less than half price and it tasted every bit as delicious as the perfect looking food.
You’ve probably seen ugly food at the farmers’ market. The twisted carrot with two legs, the tomato with a large growth, the sweet potato folded like a pita bun or a pumpkin that looks like butt cheeks. Ugly food is part of agriculture; it’s natural, is equally nutritious and tastes great. Ugly food rejected by supermarkets also costs farmers a portion of their annual income.
We don’t have a National Ugly Food Day in Canada but I’m all for it. I smile down at the crumbs on my plate, completely satisfied with the deformed tomato sandwich and I’m thinking we could follow the lead of Intermarché and eat ugly food all the time. Eating ugly food sends a message that all good tasting food counts, and there is no reason why we cannot reduce food waste and support farmers. Ugly food just makes sense.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to Look Local Magazine. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.ca.