According to National Geographic, about one-third of all global food production goes to waste. Even more staggering, nearly two-thirds of that waste is caused neither by drought, poor refrigeration nor insects, but rather results from the way the food looks. That means that “an estimated six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are wasted every year in the U.S. because they are ugly” (Huffington Post).
While many restaurants repurpose so-called ugly food in order to cut cost and minimize waste in the kitchen and while certain grocery stores and organizations have programs to sell and promote ugly food, the solution to the problem lies primarily with the consumer (Think Progress).
According to the produce manager at my local Whole Foods Market, team members can’t display ugly items, a common practice among nearly all grocery stores. Any fruit or vegetable with a bruise, a scratch or a discoloration on its skin remains in the back, away from the sight of the customer. Whole Foods reuses almost all of its ugly produce by either juicing it or sending it to the kitchen, yet individual stores almost never receive deformed or irregular items because they get sorted out by the producers. While forward-thinking stores can change how they repurpose discarded produce, they are still at the mercy of what they receive from farmers and suppliers.
If the average person were willing to buy misshapen fruits and vegetables, then producers wouldn’t need to hide these items or throw them away. The question is, how can we change these dangerous ideas and convince people to quit looking for platonically ideal food?
I think examining what ugly foods we already buy makes a great place to start. If by ugly we mean irregularly shaped and strange looking, then a few foods immediately come to my mind: ginger, heirloom tomatoes and oysters.
Because it’s a rhizome, ginger looks quite bizarre. Its nodes jut out haphazardly, and no two roots look the same. Regardless of its odd looks, you still see photos and prints of the root on containers of ground ginger, and I’ve never heard anyone call it gross. Ginger seems to be loved for its quirkiness. Since people only eat it ground or finely diced, they never see an oddly shaped root of ginger sitting on the plate in front of them. As a result, they can appreciate its ugliness from afar.
The heirloom tomato also seems cherished for its irregularity. Whereas most consumers hesitate to purchase an oblong or multicolored beefsteak or cherry tomato, no one hesitates to buy an heirloom. The vibrant spectrum of colors and the array of shapes and sizes make the heirloom tomato endearing, not reviled. I recently saw a commercial for Blue Apron that used the heirloom tomato’s diversity and beauty to market its ingredients as “fresh” and “incredible.” The heirloom’s idiosyncrasies make it charming despite its ugliness.
Although oysters might not be everyone’s favorite food, they are commonly eaten and well respected throughout the country. Not only are their shells misshapen and covered in gnarled calcifications, but they also look quite bizarre on the inside. These mollusks are so ugly that as a child I was told never to look inside of a fried oyster because it would make me sick. Nevertheless, millions of people enjoy shucking and sucking down these ugly creatures, and they are even honored here in Cincinnati at Washington Platform’s annual Oyster Fest.
No one would ever call a wood-fired pizza ugly, but its asymmetry and imperfection are telltale features of ugly food. Instead of being seen as less-than-ideal, people spend more money on irregularly shaped pizzas because of their handmade and rustic charm. Delivery and frozen pizzas may strive for homogeneity, but unique air bubbles, oblong circumferences and inconsistently placed toppings give handcrafted and wood-fired pizzas the stamp of authenticity. When I attended a summer study abroad program to Rome as a college student, I was struck by how the Italians topped their pizzas with blatant disregard for uniformity: basil, cheese and meat were all arranged haphazardly and often in separate piles. While this irregularity is prized in pizza, no one wants to buy a bunch of misproportioned bananas or a carton of malformed strawberries. Asymmetrical food from a restaurant gets labeled as rustic, but when it comes from nature it’s regarded as ugly.
When it comes to food, ugly simply means that it doesn’t live up to the culturally imposed standard of what a proper item should look like. We can combat these harmful and ridiculous standards by enjoying the array of misshapen fruits, vegetables and foodstuffs that we see everyday, and take a sense of pride and comfort in the diversity of Mother Nature’s bounty. Moreover, as the food industry attempts to reinvent itself as being homegrown, farm fresh and all natural, nothing screams natural more than being irregular.
Instead of beginning the conversation about how to alter society’s perception of ugly food with a discussion of why these items shouldn’t be wasted, it might make the transition smoother for most people if they come to terms with the fact that they already buy and enjoy certain ugly foods. How much easier is it to accept misshapen fruits and vegetables when you realize that delicious heirloom tomatoes and delightfully aromatic ginger are both quintessentially ugly? And how much easier is it to sink your teeth into a strange-looking cut of meat – like neck or tongue – when you accept that it’s no uglier than an oyster?
Another option for combatting our society’s phobia of ugly food lies with cooking. If people eat ugly food prepared in a dish – like dicing oft-misshapen carrots and potatoes – it’s impossible to tell what it looked like before it was cooked. Just like with ginger, preparing ugly foods so as to disguise their original form allows eaters to enjoy their meal without being distracted by a food item with a strange appearance. Several restaurants and organizations, in fact, are already doing this (National Geographic).
It’s also important to recognize the role that food photographers, cookbook writers, advertisers and television companies play in shaping society’s image of perfect-looking food. On how many cookbook covers or food blogs will you see an image of an ugly squash? On how many cooking shows will you see hosts or contestants zest a misshapen lemon? And on how many menus will you find images of dishes with strange-looking potatoes? Those who are trying to sell food – whether for a book, a blog, a restaurant or a television show – strive to make it look ideal. If food exudes perfection in the way it looks, we are led to believe that it must taste delicious as well.
While I’m not advocating for anyone, myself included, to start taking terrible photos of food or filming low-quality cooking videos – after all, they’re professionals and that’s what you’re paying them to do – we need to accept that the cumulative effects of seeing only perfect food makes the average person believe that is the only way food should look. I think we should all strive to show people outside of the industry what real food looks like. Don’t shy away from misshapen fruits and vegetables because you’re worried their ugliness will ruin the perfect shot; rather, see it as an opportunity to share that truth with the world.
If average Americans begin to abandon society’s stereotypes about food by accepting that odd appearances and irregular shapes don’t mean that an item is bad – that it’s not moldy or being eaten by worms – then they will be more likely to buy a wider selection of foods at the grocery store. And if consumer trends change, companies won’t have to hide or discard ugly food, allowing more produce and products to be sold, which minimizes waste and lowers production demands. It’s a win-win for everyone – the farmers, the corporations and the consumers – and that’s something we should all strive towards.
So the next time you’re at the supermarket, don’t turn away from ugly food. Instead, revel in its individuality, accept its value and make the conscious decision to do your part to change the way we all think about food.