Thin-skinned, glowing, red strawberries, freckled with a multitude of seeds; deep indigo blueberries, glazed with a frosty bloom; juicy, deep pink raspberries; sparkling, claret-colored wineberries; inky, fragrant elderberries; blackcurrants, black caps and blackberries with incredibly complex flavors—these are just a few of the fantastic variety of berries that grow in abundance in our corner of the world. Berries are among the favorite flavors of most of us humans—have you ever wondered why?
I’ve always taken berry-love for granted—why wouldn’t you adore a sweet, juicy, fragrant mouthful of joy? Now, Mark Schatzker’s book, The Dorito Effect, explains the surprising reasons we desire the food that we do and how our innate good taste can be simultaneously hijacked and left high and dry by processed food that promises gustatory bliss.
Turns out that scientists and nutritionists have pondered the question of food attraction for a long time, and marketers have, too. Animal studies are fascinating—goats, left on their own in a meadow with a great variety of plants, will choose their menu as carefully as the most discriminating gourmet, eating very specific amounts of particular plants in a certain order, and varying their menu depending on the season and their state of health. When analyzed for nutrition, it turns out that the goats’ diets meet the exact needs of their biology, and that even the order that the greens are eaten affects things like nutrient absorption rates. Further studies have discovered that the goats are guided by flavor, because in nature, flavors always signify specific nutrients.
Although everyone thinks that humans have lousy noses compared to other animals, that’s only partly true. Schatzker explains that humans have “a cavernous nasal cavity, with ten million smell receptors, like a sensory echo chamber.” A dog’s nose, for example, senses incoming air, but human noses sense incoming and outgoing air, plus aromas wafting up nasal cavities from our mouths. Additionally, a disproportionately large part of our brain tells us what we’re tasting and exactly how it makes us feel. This amazing system is much more accurate than the most advanced aroma-sensing equipment available, even better than chromatograms costing over $350,000. And, like other animals, all that sensory information is there to guide us in eating the most healthful diet.
Meanwhile, animal scientists striving to grow livestock as efficiently and cheaply as possible get cattle, chickens and other animals to eat corn, soybeans and other inappropriate feed by flavoring it to taste like the nutrients the animals naturally crave. They’ve developed all kinds of chemical additives to give the feed enticing flavors and variety. Commercial chicken feed is now so tasty that chickens will keep eating it even if they have the opportunity to go outdoors and peck around for their original favorite grubs, insects, seeds and grasses (so much for “free range”). They’ll eat it until they get so fat they can’t stand up. The added flavors, called “palatants” (because they make the feed palatable) are cheap because flavor chemists synthesize aromas and flavors from widely available chemicals extracted from unrelated plants and other sources. The animals will keep eating, and eating, and eating the phony food because their needs for missing nutrients are never sated.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. Turns out that food scientists have been using the same strategy on our food. It’s no secret that much of the processed food that fills the middle aisles of the supermarket is also made from corn and soybeans, either directly, or indirectly in the form of animals fed the same. Now, virtually all processed food contains human palatants—additional flavoring—usually listed among ingredients as “natural flavors.” (Since the 1980s, it’s been legal to call synthesized flavors, like chemicals extracted from pine trees to make fake vanilla, “natural,” as long as the chemicals don’t come from petrochemicals.)
So when our bodies and souls crave the myriad nutrients found in strawberries and we turn to strawberry Vitamin Water, we’re getting refined sugar, artificial color, “natural” flavors, and a small handful of vitamins, paltry compared with the numbers and balance of phytonutrients in real strawberries. We keep drinking it because it tastes so right. The same thing happens with Buffalo-chicken-wing-with-blue-cheese-flavored corn chips—our exquisitely sensitive taste receptors tell us we’re getting a big variety of foods—chicken, cheese, tomato bbq sauce, and celery with their attendant protein, vitamins, and micronutrients, because in nature, flavor always signifies nutrients, but what we’re being fed is corn starch, high fructose corn syrup and corn oil, with lots of salt, too.
Because food manufacturers have gotten so good at making substances that masquerade as real food, eons of evolution are subverted. Our big beautiful brains are no match for power of deceitful marketers and we keep eating and eating, just like the poor chicken who eats until she can’t stand up.
The good news is, we have a choice! We’ve got real berries here in the Hudson Valley, kick-ass berries that you can grow in your yard, can pick in the wild, or get from your local farmer. I like to use them to make delightful drinks that are ever-so-much more delicious than anything concocted by chemists.
Not long ago, I picked up a bottle of Hudson Valley Standard Strawberry-Rhubarb Shrub at Duo Pantry in Kingston. Shrub is an antique drink that’s been recently revived by creative foodies. It’s outrageously delicious—packed with flavor, sweet, tart, and colorful. Basically, it’s a concentrated syrup made of fruit, sugar, and vinegar. After tasting it, I remembered a shrub recipe in an old cookbook dozing on a back shelf. When I read the recipe years ago, I was curious, but since it was described as being a good drink “in case of emergencies” I passed it by. I made a black currant shrub and it knocked my socks off—this is a very sophisticated drink that is instinctively likeable at the same time. And it’s easy to make a rustic version of shrub from almost any fruit.
Make your own Rustic Fruit Shrub
Take 1 quart of ripe, juicy, fruit, put it into a large mason jar and smash it with the back of a spoon or whatever tool works. Pour 1 cup of vinegar over it and mix. Cap it loosely and put it in the fridge for at least a few days. Stir and smash some more, then strain through a fine metal strainer. Measure the juice and add the same amount of sweetener: sugar, honey or maple syrup. Stir until completely mixed and dissolved. Taste and adjust vinegar and sweetener.
Serve a couple of tablespoons mixed with water or seltzer ice, or use in mixed drinks. Experiment with vinegars (like the classic strawberry and balsamic pairing), add herbs or spices, or try shrubs made with vegetables like celery or beets.
Marianne Courville, co-founder of the Hudson Standard, shared a few tips with me. She said that her company began making shrubs because it’s great made with locally sourced ingredients—they make Concord grape, peach-lavender, apple-coriander-maple, and pear-honey-ginger shrubs, among others. Her only caution was to be aware that vinegar is a fermented liquid and when you introduce additional sugar it may kick off a wave of biological activity. The gas that is generated can explode a tightly capped bottle. So either keep your homemade shrub in the fridge or freezer, or boil it when finished to deactivate any fermentation. The Hudson Standard website has some great drink recipes and serving suggestions. If you’d like to try some of their shrubs, there’s a list of stores online, and they’re served at the People’s Cauldron on Main Street in Rosendale.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.