American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Water, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury, 2010)
Score one more for my sister-in-law's library book sale sense, though why the public library in Simsbury, Connecticut saw fit to discard this excellent book is unfathomable. The author of the Fruitless Fall and Chocolate Unwrapped has produced another beautiful book about food, reminiscent of both John McPhee's Oranges and Michael Pollan's Cooked.
My generation grew up on standardized food. Living in Upstate New York, I knew that apple cider was a living drink of complex and unmatched flavor, bearing zero resemblance to the apple juice on grocery store shelves. I knew that the flavors in the blueberries I picked from a friend's farm were so far from those available in the mass market that they ought not to be sharing the same name. It was years, however, before I realized that the same was true of milk, orange juice, bread, oil, lettuce, and other dietary staples. We have not entirely sold our birthright for a mess of pottage—making inexpensive foods available to those who live away from the source is a good thing—but the loss of flavor and variety may bear some responsibility for the rise of obesity: we are eating more and enjoying it less.
Searching for the role of place—soil, climate, altitude, farming practices, and other environmental factors—on iconic North American foods, Jacobsen's essays cover maple syrup, coffee, apples and apple cider, honey, potatoes, mussels, wild forest foods, oysters, avocados, salmon, wines, cheese, and chocolate.
American Terroir is good all through, but the first sip was the best: the chapter on maple syrup.
Anybody can make the late-season treacle, but pulling off a batch of super-delicate Fancy requires skill, experience, and luck. You have to use the first sap runs of the year, which are higher in sugar content and thus require less boiling, because the longer you boil syrup, the darker it gets. And you have to boil right away, because if sap sits, microorganisms flourish in it, and these "impurities" are what make the syrup dark and strong....
Of course, nobody really cares except the handful of remaining maple sugar manufacturers and the old-time New Englanders who continue to go to great lengths to keep flavor out of their syrup. Until recently, they even charged more for it—a really bizarre situation, since most everyone who didn't grow up in a sugaring family prefers the rich, chewy, darker grades....
Fancy is the color of vegetable oil, Medium Amber the color of honey, Dark Amber the color of Amontillado sherry, and B the color of iced tea. Commercial, which has the color and flavor of motor oil, can't be sold retail and is shipped by the barrel to the packaged-food industry for products "made with real Vermont maple syrup."
The chapter on apples is fascinating, but also disappointing. Jacobsen correctly makes the point that pasteurization and the loss of heirloom apple varieties have ruined what the grocery stores call "apple cider," but he errs in insisting that the only brew worthy of that name is alcoholic. Of the apple's ambrosial nectar—cider that is unpasteurized, unfiltered, and made from small, old-fashioned apples with unfamiliar names—he makes no mention at all.
Reading what Jacobsen learned about coffee almost made me want to start drinking the stuff. Reading about wine, on the other hand, nearly had me taking the pledge.
Few wines make it through the chop shop untouched. Yet none of this is revealed by the label. Wine is not, according to the U.S. government, a food, so the Food and Drug Administration has no jurisdiction over it. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which has never been big on ingredients lists, does. The only thing a wine label need reveal is the presence of sulfites, which are added to all but organic wines....
Here's the label I'd really like to see: "At Wacky Wallaby Wines, our lifeblood is selling wines in the United States at 5.99 a bottle. A couple of years ago we tried raising our price to $6.99, but we lost market share to Chile, so $5.99 it is. To survive at that price point, we scour Australia for the cheapest grapes we can find, and we buy them in massive quantities, which allows us to really shaft the growers for every nickel. All those grapes come from vineyards that maximize yield, meaning there isn't a whole lot in them other than sugar and water. Unsurprisingly, these grapes tend to make wine that tastes like Hi-C with grain alcohol sprinkled over the top. But here's where we at Wacky Wallaby go the extra mile so that you, the consumer, can have drinkable wine for the price of a Double Whopper meal deal. We start by dusting the juice with powdered acid, the better to approximate the fresh juiciness of Hi-C, plus a quick shot of Ultra Red to give it the inky blackness that usually only comes from low-yielding, expensive vines. Next we order a yeast, developed in Australia's finest lab, that gives the aromas of jam and chocolate to red wines. (Taste tests have shown that you, the consumer, really, really like anything that tastes like chocolate.) We use sulfites to kill any indigenous yeasts in the juice (indigenous yeasts can be so unpredictable), then add the choco-yeast and ferment the juice. The resulting wine is wildly alcoholic because the sugar content of the grapes is so high (hey, that's what happens when you grow vines in a dessert!), so we throw it in the ol' reverse-ossy [reverse osmosis] and remove enough alcohol to drop it to a drinkable 14 percent. We could go further, but you, the consumer, have shown that you like to get hammered. Independent studies have also shown that you actually prefer the taste of Hi-C to that of wine, so our next move is to push the flavor profile in that direction. To soften that rough, tannic taste of red wine skins, we micro-oxygenate. The same thing would happen naturally if we stuck the wine in our cellar and let it age for six years, but we at Wacky Wallaby have to service our debt long before then, so micro-oxygenate it is. Next, we shovel mountains of wood chips into the vat to give a vanilla flavor. And you, the consumer, have shown that the only flavor you like even more than chocolate is vanilla. You like it in everything, and, much to even our shock, you like more than we ever could have imagined. So on those rare occasions when we suffer an attack of standards and consider stopping, we remind ourselves that wineries are going under right and left, and we start shoveling wood chips again. Our commitment to you, the consumer, is that we will follow you to the vanilla-candle-scented ends of the earth if it makes you happy!"
Maybe I won't take the pledge after all. On another front, the Prohibitionists have a lot to answer for.
From a riotous diversity of form, color, and flavor, reflecting the multitude of ends we asked the apple to meet—food, dessert, refreshing drink, inebriator—the apple tree suffered a biodiversity crash in the nineteenth century, brought down by the temperance movement. The campaign to chop down every cider tree drove cider underground and impoverished the drink in a way it is only now recovering from. The apples that survived the purge were the ones that could legitimately claim to be for eating, not drinking. Most of the tannic, astringent apples disappeared, replaced by apples with abundant sugars and enough acid to keep things interesting.
American consumers are not without fault.
It turns out that, given a choice, people overwhelmingly go for the reddest apples. So growers kept selecting for the reddest. They were not, however, selecting for the tastiest. Eventually, Red Delicious apples eclipsed fire-engine red and reached a color imaginatively described by the industry as "midnight red." And most are virtually inedible, with dry flesh and thick skin. Good-tasting apples have small, tightly packed cells that break apart at first bite, spilling their juice in all directions. Red Delicious have cottony, dry cells with too much air in between. This has not been lost on the industry, but until recently, it didn't care. The mealiest Red Delicious outsold the tastiest McIntosh. Why not give the people what they want?
Did you know this?
Today China dominates the apple business, with more than 60 percent of world production. The second-place United States is a speck in China's rearview mirror, with 6 percent, two thirds of which comes from Eastern Washington.
I had the sense to birth Heather during apple season; why is it that her family celebrates half of their birthdays in February? We seem to have developed a pattern of visiting New Hampshire in either the hottest part of the summer or the coldest part of the winter. It's high time we broke the pattern, because New Hampshire has some of the most wonderful apples ever, no matter what Eastern Washington might think.
For my taste, American Terroir's finish is not as strong as its beginning, probably because he is unkind to dark chocolate. That's a pattern throughout the book: the best and most interesting flavors are found in the lighter versions of food: Fancy grade maple syrup, lightly roasted coffee, and chocolate without the compounds that give dark chocolate its signature flavor (and its health benefits).
Two other patterns stand out, repeated over foods as diverse as the book:
- Consistently, the best-tasking food is produced under stress. Altitude, temperature, climate—an easy life leads to bland fruit. Struggle produces character. What doesn't kill you makes you—or at least your children—interesting.
- Yuppies, rich people, capitalists, and food snobs: we love to hate 'em. But it is their tastes, their interest, their efforts, and their money that are rescuing and promoting low-volume farmers and businesses, heirloom (read: flavorful) food varieties, and healthy, sustainable practices. The rest of us only perpetuate our factory-farmed, monoculture-crop system, because—well, because who in his right mind would pay that kind of money for a cup of coffee, a bar of chocolate, a piece of cheese, or an apple?