Why it’s good to cry when you chop onions

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In his 2015 book The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker argues that for almost 100 years, industrialised food production and intensive farming methods have focused on yield, pest resistance and appearance, at the expense of flavour. In part, he traces this back to the Chicken of Tomorrow contest in the US in the 1940s, sponsored by a leading grocery chain. Chicken farmers competed to breed large birds with breast meat “so thick you can carve it into steaks”, which were also fast-growing and efficient to feed. The taste was overlooked. The competition led to the kinds of chicken we see stocked in supermarket chiller cabinets today: mass-produced, big-breasted and flavourless. “The food we eat today still seems like food, but it tastes very different than it used to,” noted Schatzker. 

Bitterness, in particular, is one flavour disappearing from our dinner tables. “It’s being bred out of many foods like grapefruit and aubergine,” says Jennifer McLagan, the award-winning author of Bitter. “I grew up on white, bitter grapefruit, but they are almost impossible to find, replaced by sweet pink ones, which are much less interesting to eat. Most lettuces began life as bitter weeds and celery was once the bitter plant called smallage.”

Chefs love cooking with strong robust flavours; bitterness, acidity, sourness, and other pungent notes deployed in the right balance can make your taste buds dance. Even fruit that’s supposed to be sweet – tomatoes, for example – are best when they have some sharpness and acidity, too. Foods without bitterness, pungency or acidity lack depth and complexity.

It is true that such flavours don’t appeal to everyone. One leading British supermarket has stopped stocking radicchio – the bitter leaves from northern Italy – because consumers weren’t buying them. In this respect, our national palate trails behind some other countries. In Italy, vegetable markets heave with bitter leaves, including biting chicory, juicy fat shoots of puntarelle and harsh bunches of dandelion leaves.  

Although humans are naturally wired to love sweet flavours – breast milk is sweet after all – the rise of ultra-processed foods, often laden with added sugar, has contributed to our ever-growing cravings. Fruit and vegetable growers have responded to meet demand. Marks and Spencer’s Candy Floss Seedless Grapes have been deliberately bred to taste like the fun fair confection. Red delicious apples, one of the most popular in the UK, are widely acknowledged to be bland. And aubergines no longer need salting and draining prior to cooking because the bitterness this process is intended to eliminate has been completely bred out of them.

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