Gerard Manley Hopkins, Greengrocer

The UK supermarket giant Tesco has announced it will start selling “wonky” vegetables as “perfectly imperfect” in an effort to reduce food waste. I think they might have better luck if they just piled up a bunch of odd looking parsnips and potatoes (that’s what they are starting with) and labeled them “Traditional.” It has interested me how quickly consumers at farmers’ markets first and then more permanent shops, accepted the irregular as the mark of authenticity in tomatoes labeled “heirloom.” Of course “heirloom” has a technical meaning having to do with the provenance of seeds (or grafts in the case of apples), but the term seems to carry meaning beyond that. It seems to say to consumers, “once upon a time and not so long ago folks did not care much what their vegetables looked like and, not coincidentally, those vegetables had more flavor than the ones you can buy in supermarkets today.” This oversimplifies all kinds of truths, including that heirloom tomatoes can be as mealy and flavorless as factory-farmed ones. The main idea is that food was once bred for flavor not looks and that a return to the past in this case would be a good move. And that is where I see an intriguing aesthetic shift whereby “ugly” now signals “beauty” of a moral and intellectual kind. While Tesco may be able to activate the customer’s wish to be responsible as a consumer, they may have even more success by simply declaring the “ugly” parsnip a “traditional beauty.” If I were opening a vegetable market today, I’d call it Dappled Things.