Coming to our senses

In the 2013 Slate article Going Against the Grain about whether small-scale regional grain growers can be profitable, they concluded that flavor difference in local wheat from industrial wheat wasn’t strong enough to convince the masses. “While those of us willing to shell out $10 for a bag of flour or $5 for a loaf of bread may understand intellectually the virtues of buying locally grown, small-farm grain products—our taste buds can’t deny the obvious: Bread made from local grains will never taste as revelatory as a garden-grown strawberry, a tree-ripe organic peach, or a freshly picked heirloom tomato.”

This assertion is the opposite of my love story. I was totally won over by whole wheat when I first tried fresh red fife flour. It was clearly different than anything I’ve had before! And while running the California Grain Campaign for four years and nearly a hundred events, I’ve witnessed thousands of people sample side-by-side comparisons and instantly tell the difference between industrial all-purpose flour and single-origin, identity-preserved truly whole wheat (aka natural wheat). People who consider themselves un-discerning immediately remark on the flavor, the surprise, the delight in whole wheat.

Also counter to the 2013 article, this week’s Slate article The Pandemic Brought More Flavorful Flours into America’s Kitchens was all about giving readers an idea of what wheat can offer. Quoting Cecilia Gunther on Janie’s Red Fife wheat: “The scent of this flour will transport you to a still, deep, and loamy forest in the early autumn as the leaves begin to fall,“ and Olivia Watson, chef, consultant, and organizer of Bakers Against Racism in Richmond, Virginia, “I can smell the difference. … Sometimes I’ll pick up floral or herbal notes, or nutty earthy vibes, and then I can build flavors around them.” About a month earlier Epicurious also published The Power of Fresh Flour extols the many benefits of regionally produced grain, principally among them the noticeable difference in taste between wheat varieties.

Are we finally coming to our senses?

Modern food marketing pushes us to rely on images, keywords, trends, and fear to determine what to eat. Algorithms to align market interests with recent emails, color filters to draw in the eye, catchphrases that signal you’re in our you’re out. This removes our personal agency to determine what we want based on our sense of self.

When I take my mom to a new, hip restaurant, she quickly discerns whether the establishment uses quality ingredients. However long the line, shiny the vintage relief ceiling, ornate the cocktails, my mom knows if it’s just a show. She taught me to assess quality by color, texture, smell, and taste and ignore whatever you’re hearing.

Checking in with our senses and bodies isn’t part of food marketing, otherwise we’d reject all these packaged permutations of gluten, salt, fat, and sugar. The climate controlled nuclear family home with climate controlled personal car to get to a grocery store with the world’s goods readily available after centuries of colonialism and genocide to ensure all things go to us ensures that we do not need to rely on our senses and are desensitized to the world’s ailments for our benefit.

But if we are coming to our senses, let’s use them to discern not only what to eat but also what world we want to live in.

Do you remember last year when everyone was forced to stay home, so few cars spewed their exhaust? Do you remember how clear and beautiful the skies were, how clearly you could see your surroundings? Do you remember hearing bird songs and leaves rustling?

Do you remember what the world smelled like when you took off your mask? Remember the intoxicating flowers and sunshine-scented fabrics?

I want to live in a sensible world.