It was spring and I’d just planted my garden. Every day I watched as the little shoots grew into unruly plants. I put supports into the ground to help them stand up while the flowers turned into vegetables, or in this case, fruit.
I am especially proud of my tomatoes. I love watching them grow, feeding them, watering them, talking to them as much as I talk to my other plants. One day I noticed one of my tomatoes was stuck growing between two vines and against the supporting stake. I couldn’t pry it loose without crushing it so I left it. When the fruit was forming it grew around the vine into a shape that looked more like an hourglass than a tomato. When it was ripe enough, I picked it and set it down on my kitchen counter. Here it looked more like a tomato in a fetal position than a happy globe of redness.
My usual way to eat tomatoes at this time of year is a simple sandwich with garlic, sea salt and basil so I sliced my deformed tomato and made my sandwich, then I walked onto the porch to eat my lunch. Holy cow! It was the perfect garden tomato, sweet and robust and screaming of fresh summer sunshine.
“There’s a problem that exists out there – consumers demand perfection with their food. They expect a tomato to be round and perfect, and if it’s not, they assume there’s something wrong with it,” says Andy Sampogna, Chair of the Aurora Farmer’s Market. “That’s not the case.”
Ugly food is part of agriculture; it’s natural, is equally nutritious and tastes great. Ugly food rejected by supermarkets also costs farmers a portion of their annual income. Sampogna explains that for certain fruit and veggies, half the crop yield is ranked “number two,” meaning it didn’t grow straight, or is too small, or slightly discoloured. A lot of grocery stores won’t sell this produce, so it ends up on the shelves at the farmer’s market. You’ve probably seen it – the twisted carrot with two legs, the tomato with a large growth, the sweet potato folded like a pita bun or a pumpkin that looks like butt cheeks. If it’s not purchased, it goes to waste.
In Canada, recent studies claim we waste over $31 billion worth of food a year and of that amount, approximately 15% of farm produce
ends up on the compost heap because it doesn’t meet regulated (cosmetic) standards acceptable for retail. That’s huge!
The quality control forces prices to increase. Consumers are paying more for pristine produce. And at what cost? Perhaps it’s too small, the wrong colour, it may have a rain scar; it could be sunburnt, deformed or disfigured. Yet, it still tastes delicious! “There’s something to be said for ugly food,” says Sampogna. “We as a population need to be telling farmers and even grocers that we’re OK eating imperfect fruit and vegetables.”
I remember the days when my family preserved peaches and pears so we’d have something sweet to eat in the winter months. We would go to the farm and buy the fruit that wasn’t cosmetically perfect. Some of it would be deformed, some with bruises – they were called “seconds.” We could buy all the seconds we wanted for less than half price and it tasted every bit as delicious as the perfect looking food.
We don’t have a National Ugly Food Day in Canada but I’m all for it. I smile down at the crumbs on my plate, completely satisfied with the deformed tomato sandwich and I’m thinking I could eat ugly food all the time. Eating ugly food sends a message that all good tasting food counts. The results are that we reduce food waste and support farmers. Ugly food just makes sense.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to Look Local Magazine. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.ca.