People say New York City has great food, some of the best in the world. On this trip I’ve visited Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston. People keep taking me to places they describe as great.
No place I’ve sampled in the past month features delicious vegetables unassaulted by copious amounts of salt, sugar, or fat.
Brussels sprouts are sweet enough to eat raw, but restaurants exclusively roast them in a syrupy sauce. A salad may have some shredded lettuce, but unless you force them, they’ll always include a lot of cheese, sugar-coated nuts, sugar-coated cranberries, or the like. They don’t believe the vegetables can taste good, as far as I can tell.
To someone who loves Brussels sprouts, glazing them with syrupy sugar sauce insults the food, covering all the flavor of the vegetable and rendering its texture totally derived from the oil-based cooking process. I can only conclude the restaurant hates Brussels sprouts, as do the customers, but both will tolerate them after hiding any flavor, texture, or appearance specific to the vegetable. The result is more brown than green, softer than crispy.
Most of the food on any American plate will be rice, pasta, or some filler. The dish may have some flavor, often coming from spices, but the main pleasure they offer comes from oil, both as a topping and to make it crispy from being fried.
I’ve eaten at people’s homes too. Some have no tools for preparing food from scratch—not one sharp knife or even a chopping board larger than a slice of bread. They haven’t chopped a vegetable in recent memory.
In fairness, many friends filled their fridges with fresh fruits and vegetables. I just didn’t get to eat much that they prepared.
At Thanksgiving dinner, nearly every dish was mainly meat or saucy. If you eat meat, that’s your business, but liking meat doesn’t mean you don’t eat vegetables. Why not enjoy something about them?
The cabbage salad that everyone liked was well-oiled and filled with sugar-covered cranberries. Of course everyone liked it. They felt like they were eating healthy, but by calorie it wasn’t a cabbage salad. It was a sugar-covered, oil-covered fruit salad.
The other dishes were overwhelmingly desserts by calorie, which featured no fresh fruit, even, except apples cut to dip into a nearly pure sugar caramel sauce topped with crumbled mass-produced candy bars. The curry dish was more sauce than vegetables, none of which could you taste through the sauce.
It’s barely different in the “natural” foods places I visit. I guess they don’t serve big steaks, but when I asked the server for no rice at a place in Houston the person who brought me told me was one of Houston’s top natural food places. The spinach in the dish was a small fraction of everything and barely recognizable as a former proud, crisp, leafy vegetable.
I asked for no rice and the dish was still about a third rice. You can attribute bringing rice when I asked for none to poor service, but the amount—one third!—was the restaurant’s choice.
They had steamed vegetables on the menu, which I guess I could have ordered. Even with someone treating me, I didn’t have it in me to pay over $15 for someone the trivial preparation of steaming vegetables, especially when they touted everything on the menu as delicious and natural.
The “natural” place a friend chose in Chicago featured no discernible vegetables.
They’re still all comfort food that makes you feel good through salt, sugar, and fat.
None of the places I’ve visited in Houston—all places locals touted as top, several offering vegan menus—could stop themselves from putting oil on the dish, even when I asked for none and it was just a salad, where you can normally put the oil on the side.
One place seems rated one of Houston’s top restaurants. It featured the most vegetables, but still sauced, the salads sweetened, the chef not trusting that Americans would eat it. My host treating me probably expensed it, making money no object, and this place cost plenty, but no amount of money could have brought me a dish honoring vegetables. And I ordered the only items on the menu without meat.
When I cook for people, which I’ve done maybe ten times on the trip, people seem surprised at how much more delicious the food tastes compared to their expectations for seeing only healthy ingredients going in. Before eating it, they often ask what spices I’m going to flavor it with, I guess not understanding that vegetables have flavors themselves that aren’t horrible. To imagine that the flavors would make you want to taste and eat more seems beyond consideration.
I brought a few people to farmers markets with me. Even in their home cities, several had never visited the farmers markets even near their homes. Several people, I’m glad to say, bought vegetables for their homes, but most couldn’t figure out what to buy or how to navigate the markets. They enjoyed my lessons in how to find and buy fruit and vegetables. A couple described the farmers market visits as life changing and have since told me they returned after I left.
Nearly every farmers market I visit also has stands selling prepared things like tacos, cheeses, and locally made alcohols. Those prepared foods always have more crowds around them and do more business than the places selling just vegetables, however fresh.
The foot traffic and spending at farmers markets is maybe a tenth of what a supermarket nearby, whose baskets and carts will carry mostly packaged foods with few vegetables. The produce near the entrance looks beautiful as most people pass them buy. I suspect they lose money on them, just using them for show to make people feel good about shopping—“This time I didn’t get vegetables, but at least I’m here. Buying frozen pizzas at a place that also sells kale must mean the pizza is healthier. I wonder which flavors of ice cream I’ll get.”
No American freezer lacks ice cream. Many lack raw vegetables. I keep hearing people talk about buying fresh vegetables, then having to throw them out when they go bad since, despite having them in the fridge, people order out or buy reheatable prepared packaged food.
Why can’t Americans feature vegetables, their flavors, and their textures?
Why do we have to cover every vegetable, never featuring it for what it is? Why do we treat them like we begrudgingly have to include them, but cover them so the eater doesn’t reject it?
Eaters no doubt blame restaurants and chefs for only offering at best covered-up vegetables.
Restaurants and chefs no doubt blame eaters, saying they’ll never order enough such dishes to warrant putting them on the menu.
People at home claim they’re too tired to cook. Too ignorant, I’d say, including myself until a few years ago. Nothing is stopping them from chopping some celery or cabbage that tastes delicious with nothing added. They think you need plastic containers filled with hummus where you can’t taste the chickpeas.
They’re all complicit. The chefs won’t put unassaulted vegetables on the menu and people won’t order them.
In other words, Americans hate vegetables.
Nobody will feature vegetables as something someone would want for itself as it is.
Yet most times when I cook I’m nearly full by the time the dish is ready from eating so much fresh vegetables while preparing them. I pop some broccoli stalk in my mouth while chopping it. If I’m cutting red peppers, I won’t resist eating several slices, passing them to everyone around to sample, usually commenting on how much it tastes like candy. Brussels sprouts I’ll chop a few and eat raw while cooking. Beets, carrots, squash, . . . every vegetable I can think of tastes delicious in small bites while chopping.
Can you imagine a restaurant serving just vegetable bites? Forget it.The opposite of privilege
People who will claim empathy and understanding will ignorantly and knee-jerkingly claim that fresh vegetables are a privilege requiring money or time. Some have the gall to call fresh vegetables “unsustainable,” “impossible,” and “privileged.”
You will find few foods as cheap and available as vegetables in season that farmers nearly give away. In fact, a short few words with a farmer at the Houston farmers market Saturday led him to give me more free vegetables than I had paid for, meaning the huge bundle of kale I paid $3 for and provided plenty of vegetables for multiple meals for multiple people, made up less food than the free leafy greens he happily gave me. The limit on what he gave me was the size of my bag, which my friend brought, for some reason expecting to get small amounts of vegetables.
Whatever size bag we brought, that farmer would have filled with free fresh vegetables. While he can’t give free to everyone, he wants people to taste what he grows. He does everything he can to make it available. Even without the free stuff, the in-season farmers market vegetables cost less on a nutrient per dollar basis than any prepared food.
I don’t doubt that people can do the mental gymnastics to convince themselves that free is still too expensive or that people can’t resist buying the cheapest calories available, as if after eating enough empty calories to make them obese, they can’t figure out that more empty calories hurt their health and cost more money.
People make plenty of excuses to blame anyone but the people choosing not to buy or eat the cheap, plentiful, healthy vegetables farmers are dying to get to them and that are plentifully available beyond the pittances people allow themselves to buy, but none hold water.
People trip over themselves to lecture about food deserts and how poor communities suffer. You show me a vendor who won’t sell something people will buy.
Meanwhile, fast food places whose disdain for fresh vegetables might outshine my love for them profit more every year. Low cost per calorie doesn’t make them an economical choice, yet they abound in poor neighborhoods that won’t buy any vegetables any store offers. Such foods cost more. The neighborhoods supporting them support them out of choice and drive vegetable vendors out of business through choice too.
As for the paternalistic claim that people never learned nutrition, which I’ll accept for people up to 16 years without question and even to 18 or 20 years to give the benefit of the doubt, the internet blows that claim out of the water. Everyone has access. You show me someone who has to commute far for various jobs and I’ll show you someone who has more than enough time to find out about nutrition and how to cook.
One caveat to my message
I only sampled a few home-cooked meals. I hold out hope that many people are preparing foods at home that showcase vegetables for themselves, unbattered by batter, salt, sugar, fat, frying, and covering up.
Anyone can look at the shopping patterns with farmers markets compared to supermarkets and prepared foods compared to fresh produce at supermarkets or within farmers markets for that matter.
So to those whose home diets comprise plenty of vegetables, I apologize if my inexperience and ignorance sounded like I lumped you in. Respect to you and I accept the accusations of unfair judgment for you, though not for others who disdain vegetables and drive their vendors out of business, especially in poor neighborhoods.
The two shining lights
The farmers markets shine like a beacon of hope. Their continued existence proves that people are buying from them, I hope not throwing out too much of the vegetables they buy there.
I saw one other place that offered chances to taste the vegetables for themselves—the cafeteria at Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura. Needless to say, they don’t serve the public.
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.