Is truck produce getting better?
Local produce has a limited season in some places. I'm all over farm stands and markets when they're up and running. But come May, I'm not above buying grocery store strawberries. I know what to expect.
This year, I thought, hmm...the California-trucked strawberries seemed a little better than usual. They tasted kind of like strawberries. Or at least something resembling strawberries. A few even had "actual strawberry flavor."
Today I bought cob corn shipped from Georgia. It's been years since I have tried supermarket corn. When I have, it's been tasteless and hard, like something a cow would eat. (No offense to any cows reading this.) We do have wonderful fresh local corn -- delicate, tender, sweet -- but not this early in the year. Something irrational came over me seeing the Georgia corn piled up and it seemed cheap enough to try out.
You know, it was not terrible. It was veritably corn-like. I'm sure it is a high-sugar variety, and yes, the taste of sweet comes through more strongly than the corn. Clearly the fresh local stuff has a better balance. But still, this corn could be eaten and produce a corn-like experience.
I won't pretend this is a scientific sample. Nor am I trying to overstate the case. I know, you prefer local produce. Yes, yes. But do you think that mass-market produce has improved at all, perhaps due to pressure from the foodie movement? Changes in growing practices or breeding?
Can't speak for the corn, but they're definitely breeding strawberries for taste in California. Basically, I think for years they bred for things like harvest cycles, shape, color and longevity until they got those perfect-looking strawberries that hold up well to transport but are tasteless. Now they're trying to maintain those characteristics and breed the flavor back in. Some of the newer varieties (Ventana and Albion are my favorites) are a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, strawberries are rarely labeled by varietal, so it's hard to know what you're getting. It's not that they don't want flavorful strawberries, just that flavor is less important to growers than marketability.
"But do you think that mass-market produce has improved at all, perhaps due to pressure from the foodie movement? Changes in growing practices or breeding?"
I don't think, or rather, I hope, technology is not involved.
Bottom line is: the faster produce moves from production to consumer, the freshest.
a) farmers market, produce goes from field to market in no more than 24 hrs.
b) typical of stone fruits, many variations on that theme available:
b1) cut produce while green,
b2) store in near-freezing refrigeration chambers to slow down maturity
b3) induce fast maturity in ethylene chambers just hours prior to market.
If you buy, say, stone fruits in season, chances are b1) above has been done closer to maturity, b2) has been minimal, b3 or equivalent probably nonexistent.
On the other hand, if you buy Chilean peaches in January, then all of the above applies to the full extent technology will allow. With a corresponding effect on taste and texture. Now, if you never experienced the real thing, probably b1) thru b3) doesn't seem so odd. But if you've ever eaten a peach just plucked ripe from the tree, then you'll know the difference for sure. Experience ( and good marketing...) prove the bulk of consumers just won't care much.