France Wants You to Eat Ugly Vegetables
Intermarché, one of France's largest grocery chains, has begun selling less-than-perfect produce at steep discounts in its stores. We're talking knobby lemons, three-legged carrots, and eggplants ugly enough to make onions cry. Why haven't we been...
Photo courtesy of Intermarché.
It doesn't matter if it's crooked. It's no problem if it's a little thick at the tip or fat and stunted at the base. There could be an errant hair here, the odd knot there, but the French don't care.
Ugly fruits and vegetables need love too, and it all tastes the same in the dark.
That's the message of a new push by French supermarket chain Intermarché, one of the largest in the nation. Its "Les Fruits & Légumes Moches" campaign, which Intermarché waggishly translates as "The Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables," aims to highlight food waste and the amazingly unnecessary practice of keeping less-then-symmetrical produce out of retail markets.
The campaign positions these as novelties—or maybe "unconventional beauties," to borrow a fashion magazine term—with "grotesque" apples, "ridiculous" potatoes, "hideous" oranges, and "failed" lemons. But these aren't just the misshapen heirloom cultivars that appear in freakish, Jabba-the-Hutt-like piles each summer at the farmer's market. These are just your typical workaday oranges, eggplants, and potatoes that happen to be aesthetically challenged.
Because garden goods that don't hew to strict guidelines of vegetal beauty are often chucked into the trash, left unpicked, or fed to farm animals, Intermarché is selling its homely produce for up to 30 percent cheaper than its more comely cousins. It even has their own aisle, right next to the prettier ones. Some even get pulverized into soups and juices, to demonstrate to consumers that an ass-ugly orange is just as tasty as a picture-perfect one.
Intermarché isn't the first grocer to offer ugly produce at a discount. In fact, it's happening all over Europe. The Austrian chain Billa has itsWunderlinge "private label" of in-season fruits and vegetables that look a little bit gnarly. In Britain, Waitrose and Tesco also sell imperfect and sometimes freakishly overlarge specimens.
US grocers, however, have not followed suit—which means that our domestically produced ugly vegetables continue to end up in the garbage. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of food in the US goes uneaten. While only a portion of that is due to unattractive produce—our unfailing fear of the expiration date does plenty of damage on its own—large American chains haven't committed the same kinds of resources to promoting food that might not look like something that artfully tumbled out cornucopia in Tuscany.
Of course, fresh food that looks like a foot doesn't necessarily taste any worse, as any cook knows. Derek Dammann of Montreal's Maison Publique told the Globe and Mail last year that he prefers farmers' abnormal vegetables because they're cheaper—and they don't end up on the plate in their natural form anyway. "I want to buy their overgrown, ugly vegetables, their twisted peppers that are half green, half red, overgrown swiss chard, because in a restaurant situation it's more economical," he said. Meanwhile, the farmers can sell the more conventionally attractive produce elsewhere.
Why should it even matter? Through advertising and the compliance of grocers, consumers have grown accustomed to their carrots looking a certain way. They look askance at ones with an extra protuberance or three, as though a wrinkled root were more likely to poison you than a perfectly smooth one. (It's definitely not a one-to-one analogy, but studies have shown that people are more mistrustful of and hostile toward ugly people, too.) But grocers like Intermarché need to do the work of reversing this bad psychology and offering produce that we've been conditioned to dislike simply because it's a little off-looking. And consumers need to just embrace the natural oddity of the natural world in all its many gangly, three-legged, humpbacked forms.
Give me a failed lemon any day.
- food politics