Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mass Man

There was a time when the activity of picking and buying fruits was a gamble. There was a 30% chance of the fruit being rotten, 40% chance of it being bland and tasteless, 20% chance of it tasting good and 10% chance of it being very good. The outcome would be known only after you brought it home and tasted it. So, it was an activity fraught with tension and thrill.

Enter these supermarkets and the age of standardization. Now you have the Washington apples, Fiji Pears, Malta oranges, you-name-it. Apples sold all over the globe look alike, feel alike, smell alike and taste alike. So do all the oranges and all the pears. And, the taste is uniformly bland. We have been robbed of all the satisfaction of celebrating on a lucky day when we have drawn the tastier fruit from the lot. To what purpose?

In an essay “Science has spoiled my supper”, the writer Philip Wylie laments the fact that, though modern food is handsomely packaged and is excellently preserved, it is getting less good to eat. It appeals increasingly to the eye. But, who eats with his eyes?

What happened? Science-or what is called science- stepped in. The old-fashioned cheese (or fruits) didn’t ship well enough or store long enough. Scientific tests showed that a great majority of people will buy a less-good-tasting item if that’s all they can get. The motto of “scientific marketing” is “Give the people the least quality they’ll settle for, and trade it off for durability and shippability”.

It is not possible to cultivate vast quantities of a food item at a low average cost. “Scientific sampling” got in its statistically nasty work. It was found that the largest number of people will buy something that is rather bland and tasteless. Nobody is absolutely delighted by bland foodstuff; but nobody is violently put off.. The result is that a reason has been found for turning out zillions of packages of something that will ‘do’ for nearly all and isn’t even imagined to be superlatively good by a single soul. Standardisation became the mantra.

Wylie bemoans, “ Agronomists have taken to breeding all kinds of vegetables and fruits- changing their original nature. They have developed improved stains for every purpose but eating. They work out, say, peas that will ripen all at once. It is extremely efficient and profitable to the farmer. What matter if such peas taste like boiler paper wads? String beans are straight instead of curved, and all of one length, to make them easier to pack in cans. But, when eating them, you can’t tell them from tender string. Ripening time and identity of size and shape are more important for carrots than the fact that they taste like carrots. Onions are hybridized till they are as big as your head, but only vaguely remind you of onions. If people don’t eat onions because they taste like onions, why do they add them at all to the recipe?”

As sociologists and psychologists point out. Mass Man is on the increase. Conformity, standardization, similarity- all on a cheap and vulgar level- are replacing the ideals of colourful liberty and dignified individualism. Wylie ends the essay with a clarion call for rebellion.

And he wrote this in 1954.


A Motley Tunic said...

We recently bought grapes from one of the organic markets here.Grapes in different branches/bunches tasted different! I hadn't had grapes like that since I was 10 or 11.

Unknown said...

a friend of mine has a tree in his backyard here in california. it is a cocktail tree.. it has five different citrus fruits grafted onto one stem. so part of the tree has oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, etc.. and another tree with pears, nectarines, apples, etc.

I have asked for some fruit samples this year from that tree ...


Usha said...

I totally agree - I am taking a print out of this for the next time a certain someone in the house complains how the Vendaikai curry doesn't taste like how his mom used to make!
As for the last paragraph, isn't it a sad fact that we are all so media created?

Raj said...

sowmya, ha, you like sour grapes once in a while>

sundar : hey, send me some of that.

usha, don't find external reasons for the sub-quality sambar. Raise your standard of cooking!