Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Taste of Place - WIll U.S. consumers care about terroir?

Amy Trubek's Taste of Place explores the roles of geography and culture in creating local food flavors. The appreciation for unique, local tastes concerns the French concept terroir. Its difficult to provide a universal definition of terroir as Trubek notes, "terroir is to the French as Freedom of speech is to Americans: meanings are multiple, interpretations vary and consequences shift accordingly" (pg 94). I interpret terroir as sort of a precursor to cuisine: before the cooking style and other food preparation that characterizes a culture, there are, potentially, methods of food production (farming, tree tapping, livestock feeding etc) that reflect the terrain and traditions in which a culture is grounded. In France, terroir bears strong ties to local histories and social identity (pg 72) especially farmers efforts preserve local agrarian traditions in the face of globalization. 

Trubek goes beyond France to show the application of terroir in American contexts, particularly California wine country, a variety of local foods in Wisconsin and maple syrup in Vermont. American terroir differs from the French concept primarily because we are a relatively young country. French knowledge of local flavors developed over generations of experience growing food in particular areas. By contrast, American farmers are in the process of grasping the full potential of terrior by experimenting with different growing methods. For instance, some California farmers use biodynamic methods to bring out the fullest expression of their soils' mineral composition (pg 141). As terroir novices, American food producers who are interested in learning about the flavors of their geographic locales must gain this knowledge retroactively. This is the case for Vermont syrup producers hoping to identify the unique flavors owed to the region supporting their maple trees. Trubek extols these (and other) examples of American food-producers embracing terroir, but her case for a more taste-discerning American consumer is somewhat lacking. 

The first issue is that Trubek's only informants are farmers, chefs, and other taste-makers. She briefly addresses the fact that the vast majority of Americans know little about where their food comes from (231), especially those living in urban areas who's knowlege comes from recommendations, magaizines and cook books but rarely from personal experience or relationships. Given this remote understanding their foods source (and any superior qualities that might result therefrom) the bottom line for many American food shoppers deciding between the same food is price. To have a stronger understanding of the practical implications of terrior in America, it would be helpful to know what might incentivize consumers to consider terroir when buying groceries. 

My second source of skepticism about terroir influencing US consumers is the undeniable difference between the American palate and the (dare I say superior?) French palate. The French palate is fine-tuned to identify regional tastes from an early age. Their government makes large scale efforts to instill this knowledge by funding taste testings in public schools, where they ask young students to identify subtle flavors in different juices (67). This national effort to instill an appreciation for unique and subtle flavors contrasts with the American priority when it comes to food: consistent quality, and the subsequent tendency to choose familiar foods.  In one section, Trubek describes a taste testing of Vermont syrups. Presented with number of syrups, the testers attempted to pick out hints of terrain which add to a local flavor (250). While reading this description I thought of an interview I'd seen with Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat. He discusses this extensive, highly scientific process the Dr. Pepper company went through to identify the perfect soda flavor - just. one. flavor. And they aren't the only ones - many companies pour a gross amount of research and efforts into creating optimal artificial flavors. The juxtaposition between these multimillion dollar companies and their efforts in the way of standardization and the vermont syrup companies taste tests for the sake of differentiation is disheartening at best. Thus while terroir might be a consideration for upscale consumers who can afford locally sourced foods (and would likely pride themselves on being able to discern nuances in flavor), this concept is unlikely to influence the Average American when it comes to food purchases because most people are looking for cheap food with a familiar, pleasurable taste. This is obviously not the case for all American consumers, but the overwhelming success of companies like Doctor Pepper, Cheetos and other snack giants is hard to contest. Given the predominant food-views of US consumers, will terroir ever be truly relevant? 

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