What’s cooking? This was not a terribly difficult question for our grandparents or great-grandparents to answer. Yet somewhere along the way in the great prosperity that came over most of North America in the post-World War II era, the question became more complicated.
We didn’t know what we were eating.
Oh sure, we could name the items that were on our tables. But chicken didn’t taste like chicken. Many fruits and vegetables didn’t taste like themselves, either. This was a result of the industrialization and subsequent dilution of our food supply, done in the name of big is better: greater yields, less waste, heftier profits. If the supermarkets were going to be overflowing — and when is the last time you were in one that wasn’t? — then bland was the price of progress.
This, of course, assumes that you were even cooking for your family. Around the same time that food was becoming blander, fast foods were also making great inroads into the American stomach. Nothing to eat? Well, pop a frozen dinner into the microwave. Or better yet, head for the nearest drive-through and pick up burgers and fries, or maybe a bucket of fried chicken, and then pig out.
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In journalist Mark Schatzker’s delightful The Dorito Effect — the book takes its name from the tortilla chip that became a nationwide sensation once it was flavored to have a taco taste — we see time and again just what this revolution has wrought. We have flavored junk foods to taste like things they are not while diluting the flavors that allow real food to be the treat we should expect. Consider the tomato. “As breeders selected moneymaking traits like yield, disease resistance, and a thick skin for easier transportation, they ignored the genes that determine good flavor,” Schatzker writes. “There are a lot of those genes, and with each generation, some aspect of flavor can be lost. Over uncountable generations, the loss is substantial. And when the flavor genes are gone, there’s only one thing that can make a tomato taste good: a bottle of ranch dressing.”
What makes The Dorito Effect so delicious (sorry, couldn’t help myself) is not Schatzker’s evangelizing for better food choices but his examination of the reasons science took us in this direction and his hope that science can pull us back. And he offers up valuable skepticism that throws cold water on the idea that you can put the genie back in the bottle by shopping at farmers’ markets or eating meals at $300-a-head restaurants.
He does all of this with a dash of humor, although one joke about Alzheimer’s disease comes across as insensitive. Nevertheless, in the category of food for thought, Schatzker has dished up a five-star serving.
James Hill reviewed this book for The Washington Post.