Ugly Food

A collection of ideas, thoughts and recent developments related to our environment.

The European Commission declared 2014 to be the year against food waste. Intermarche, the third largest supermarket chain in France, responded to this call with “Les Fruits et Légumes Moches” (“Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables”), a program to sell aesthetically imperfect produce that would otherwise be deemed unfit for their shelves. Loblaw’s, a Canadian chain, followed suit with their “Naturally Imperfect” potatoes and apples, which were sold at a 30% discount. A UK campaign implored shoppers to #GiveUglyAGo; Imperfect, a startup, offers subscription-based home delivery of produce unfit for supermarkets in the Bay Area; and Bon Appétit Management Co. makes “Imperfectly Delicious Produce” available to their nationwide network of cafes by providing a means of coordination with growers and distributors.

The success of these programs is based upon the systemic case for ugly produce—synthesizing factors of economic, ethical, and environmental concern—which is more compelling to people than the one-dimensional energy-centric environmental measures that are more commonly recommended to individuals (like changing from incandescent to fluorescent bulbs).

The rigid cosmetic standards that are otherwise enforced for supermarket produce demand an unnatural degree of uniformity that suggests industrial production. Imperfect produce campaigns offer shoppers the satisfaction of resisting this apparently unreasonable corporate machinery, while requiring nothing but a tolerance for slight irregularities. Another aesthetic of artificiality that has since been resisted was apparent in the heyday of Betty Crocker recipe books, during the Cold War (“Betty Crocker’s Absurd, Gorgeous Atomic-Age Creations” by Tamar Adler forThe New York Times Magazine):

It was the age of technocratic make-believe and the early days of the anthropocene. Gastronomically, it was an age that today — from a perspective admiring of the natural and authentic — looks shockingly artificial.

Rachel Laudan, a food historian and author of the 2013 book ‘‘Cuisine and Empire,’’ thinks that behind the Betty Crocker recipe box lurks the Cold War — that these glossy cards were another theater for the standoff between socialism and capitalism, a version of the message that ‘‘abundance was something to be celebrated.’’ Surely the lush profusions on each card stand in diametric opposition to the Soviet aesthetic of the day, with its homemade loaves of dark bread, its communes and caps and kvass.

While ornate Jell-O moulds may have lost popular favor, there remains a significant visual component to the social significance of food. When a restaurant-goer performs the ritual of sharing images of their meal on social media, they force restaurants to pay particular attention to plating, as any dish could be captured, shared, and found through geotags and hashtags. These posts have superseded reviews from critics, and even crowd-sourced rating sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon, in terms of generating interest and positioning restaurants in their communities.

But the cultural and social significance of food runs much deeper than the marketing implications of well-framed and filtered Instagram posts affixed with branded hashtags. Such faddish behaviors are rapidly woven into daily habits and our instinct to connect, to nourish each other, is laid bare. “The Instafam’s Table” by Erica Berry, for Guernica Mag:

These photos strip food of sensuality—taste, smell, nutrition, texture—but they bring us some satiation. We have a hunger, and it is more than belly-deep.


On that birthday night, I thought of the iPhone photo as a culinary postcard, a virtual wish-you-were-here to the family I once shared my birthdays with. When I see people doing the same thing in restaurants, I try to forgive them. I think of my father, whistling as he adjusts the camera flash screen at our kitchen table. I think of my grandmother, thousands of miles away, photographing drumsticks of her Taj Mahal Chicken against a soundtrack of televised Jeopardy.

Rediscovering the paella photo, I consider all this. But I also think of the boy I was with, which makes me realize that I was consistently too shy to turn the glassy eye of the lens up to him. I have records of the pastas and the pastries that we shared and not even the hands of the person I had shared them with.

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