Sensory deprivation vs. Nostalgia
July 16, 2007 8:06 PM   Subscribe

I feel that there is a huge difference in the intensity of smell (fruits, vegetables, flowers) and taste (most fruits and vegetables) compared to here in the U.S. and in India where I grew up. Is it just nostalgia?

Almost every flower I smell, I have to try very hard and there is very little scent for me to discern. Same with taste: all fruits and vegetables taste comparatively bland to me (some more than others). Is this really so? (Other options are that I am losing my sensory faculties and that I have a terrible case of positive nostalgia). I have been here about half a decade.

(someone offered that it maybe because of the overuse of chemicals (fertilizers) in U.S. but organic food tastes about the same to me, and Indians are pretty chemical-happy too).
posted by raheel to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about india, but I traveled in the middle east and I noticed the same thing when I came back. It also seemed to me like all the vegetables in american stores were inflated with bicycle pumps.

The vegetables in the middle east mostly LOOKED like crap but tasted great.

I don't think this is an organic vs. non-organic issue. I have noticed similar differences with backyard-produce vs. grocery store produce.

* vegetables are sold to grocery stores by weight, so I think they are optimized to have more water in them (weight more)
* fruits and vegetables are picked and shipped to stores before they're ripe. They're either forcibly ripened, dyed, or engineered to look perfect even though they don't taste good
* often fruit I buy at farmer's markets tastes better than grocery store food. It also rots 3 times as fast - you better eat those peaches TODAY.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:18 PM on July 16, 2007

Well, I do not have a childhood in India as a comparison point, but I do agree that many flowers & fruits do not have as potent a smell / taste as they should. I have heard that with fruits, part of it is because however they breed them to look uniform and "right" and not spoil during transport and shelf time in the supermarkets destroys a lot of the taste.

A good example of tasteless fruit is the tomato. Store bought tomatoes are almost always mealy and bland, but the ones you can grow yourself are often wonderful smelling and much more flavorful. I don't even think I knew what tomatoes were supposed to taste like until my husband started growing them.
posted by tastybrains at 8:19 PM on July 16, 2007

Yeah, I never liked tomatoes until a year ago, when I found a local farm that sells community-supported agriculture shares to people in the community. Now I get real tomatoes, the day after they were picked. Same for strawberries, I like them for the first time ever.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:24 PM on July 16, 2007

I noticed the same thing when I came back from Brazil. Consider the banana, shipped while green and forced to ripen in warehouse rooms full of ethylene gas.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:28 PM on July 16, 2007

One time when I was a kid my grandparents came up and visited us from southern California, and brought a big box of tree-ripened citrus fruits. It was amazing.

For me, the biggest surprise was that tree-ripened grapefruits were sweet. I was used to putting sugar on grapefruits because they were so tart.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:34 PM on July 16, 2007

I don't know how old you are or what your medical history is, but it's not at all unreasonable to believe that your senses of taste and smell may have dulled over time or been damaged by illness.
posted by Partial Law at 8:35 PM on July 16, 2007

The stuff you buy in North American grocery stores is markably different from both home-grown vegetables/fruits and those I ate when I lived in Eastern Europe. I'm fairly certain the fruit here is engineered for weight, appearance and shelf life - and not taste.

As proof, I once let half a head of cabbage sit in my fridge for a year. It looked just the same the day I finally took it out as the day I put it in. It creeped me out a bit.
posted by wsp at 8:38 PM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have you tried produce from a farmers' market or organic store? I note a much different experience with those less engineered fruits and veggies.
posted by acoutu at 9:01 PM on July 16, 2007

Here's a blog entry on the red delicious apple, quoting from a Washington Post article that is now inaccessible. There are some good links in the comments on this topic of breeding for shipping qualities rather than taste/smell.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:02 PM on July 16, 2007

Farmers who sell their own produce and home growers have the luxury of choosing the variety of plant that tastes the best. Farmers whose produce goes into the mass distribution system don't have that luxury - they HAVE to choose fruit that is sturdy and has a long shelf life. If their produce doesn't last long enough to make the stores 2,000 miles down the line a profit, they'll lose their contract. If their produce is ugly, they lose the contract (and likely have to sell to canners, which pay much less than fresh produce distributors). If their produce is delicate and thin-skinned (and likely more fragrant) it'll be more likely to be damaged in transit, and again the farmer will lose his contract.
posted by watsondog at 9:04 PM on July 16, 2007

No, I take it back - the Washington Post article about the decline of the red delicious apple is still available! Huzzah!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:13 PM on July 16, 2007

I grew up in a very small farm community in California, and things just don't taste the same here on the east coast. Often i go to the greenmarkets, or directly to farms but i still feel something is missing.

Emotional? Possibly. I think the most beautiful perfume I ever smelled and the sweetest, juciest nectarines I have ever eaten were in Paris. I bought one or two every day that I was there...for six weeks. Every single one was the most perfect piece of fruit I have ever eaten.

I was told they were imported from Israel, where many nectarines you find in America are also imported from, it seems. So who knows...

I'm going to India in the fall. I'll have to do some research for you!
posted by metasav at 9:32 PM on July 16, 2007

Flowers and produce from the American supermarkets I shop at bear only a passing resemblance in flavor and texture to the roses and fruits that my dad used to grow and that I grow now. They look great, though.

Advances in science, artificial ripening methods and the necessity of product that's sturdy for transport and attractive for display are to blame, no doubt. If it weren't for farmer's market and community-supported agriculture I'd be a very unhappy consumer.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:34 PM on July 16, 2007

Thanks everyone.

One more pointed Q.: is there any info on plants or soil itself being the factor for the better smell/taste in the Indian context?
posted by raheel at 9:46 PM on July 16, 2007

I've noticed the same thing from the other direction.. having moved to central america several years ago, fruits and vegetables (and even poultry) have far more flavor and smell than they do back in Canada.
posted by TravellingDen at 9:46 PM on July 16, 2007

It's not just nostalgia, raheel. I travel back and forth from Canada to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and the less industrial the location, the more natural the production, the tastier the fruits and vegetables.

It's kind of funny. People in the developing world are free range, and people in North America are factory fed. I bet Central Asians would be tastier to cannibals, even if the Americans look so plump and juicy!
posted by Meatbomb at 10:41 PM on July 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think it's four things:

1. As you age, your sense of smell becomes less sensitive;

2. Your memory plays up the intensity of the smells that you remember;

3. You only remember the intense smells, and don't remember all the fruits/vegetables/flowers that weren't particularly strong-smelling;

4. Modern shelf-life-extending processing and storage techniques do pluck quite a bit of life out of the fruits/vegetables/flowers that we consume as products (versus home-grown.)
posted by davejay at 11:40 PM on July 16, 2007

American fruits and veggies are grown for display purposes in a store. Who doesn't get excited walking into your local grocery and seeing an entire display of shiny, red apples, crisp, green lettuce, or bright yellow bananas? Their looks make you think they'll taste great, overriding the fact that their bland imitations of their natural versions. Grow your own or go a farmer's market or visit those road-side tables or just buy a watermelon out of the back of a pickup truck. They might look lumpy, dirty, or rough, but they'll taste a lot better than what you can buy in the store.
posted by lychee at 11:57 PM on July 16, 2007

The best tasting food ripens close to home. You can find farmers markets, food co-ops, etc. on this page; put in your zip code and a descriptive list of the ones closest to you will show up under the map.
posted by taz at 12:35 AM on July 17, 2007

is there any info on plants or soil itself being the factor for the better smell/taste in the Indian context?

Much to the chagrin of wine snobs, plants don't really work that way. As long as there are sufficient nutrients, the plant will pick up what it requires and use it. As far as objective tasters and scientists can tell, "terroir" is a myth. Think of the plant as a nanotech filter and assembler, and not a conveyor belt for whatever is in the soil; they are very very picky about what they integrate.
posted by cmiller at 2:50 AM on July 17, 2007

I don't have any out-of-country experience to compare to, but a few months ago we started buying all our meat and produce at a local farmer's market. I was struck dumb by the intense smells of fresh fruits, veggies and meat when we brought the first load home. I had been buying just as much produce and meat at the grocery store as I did at the market, and never, not once, had I even noticed any smells at all while unpacking the groceries.

Now my kitchen and fridge smell of fresh produce quite strongly all week long ... and everything tastes better too. Or rather, every has flavors, which was what drove me to buying at the market in the first place, tomatoes and other fresh goods with no flavor at all.
posted by Orb at 4:03 AM on July 17, 2007

I don't really like any fruits, they all taste tart to me. A few years ago my wife and I were in Kauaii and bought an assortment of locally-grown fruit. I loved almost all of them.

I thought I'd found a new interest in fruit, but when I came home everything here tasted as bad as ever.

Buy local, if you live somewhere where that's possible.
posted by mmoncur at 4:35 AM on July 17, 2007

All I know is that the fruit in Thailand is tons better than here in the US. Ah, the watermelon! Oh, the pineapple!
posted by konolia at 6:19 AM on July 17, 2007

How to Pick a Peach by Russ Parsons talks a lot about how ripening makes a big difference. Here in the US, due to shipping concerns, a lot of fruits are picked while they are firm, but not completely ripe. Most of them never develop full flavor. Also, varieties here have been chosen for their hardiness during shipping rather than taste.

It's possible in India that you were eating heritage varieties, plant types selected for taste.

Buying local, from farmers you know, is the best way to get good fruit. Picking fruit yourself is even better.

I know for me, the aroma of some strawberries at the farmer's market changed my outlook on fruit...they were unlike anything I'd ever tasted. However, not all fruit at the market is like that. You really have to hunt it down.
posted by melissam at 7:29 AM on July 17, 2007

What everyone said about the American fruit shipping market. Also, generally fruit is more fragrant the higher the temperature. A sun-warmed peach is far more fragrant than the same peach in an air-conditioned supermarket.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:20 PM on July 17, 2007

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