In praise of ugly, misshapen produce

When two days ago Félix brought in a large container of tomatoes from our garden, few qualified for the cover of a food or gardening magazine. Several grape tomatoes looked pretty natty alright, sassy and red, and one baseball-sized Brandywine turned out almost perfect, except for a small insect nip. But they were the minority.

As usual. the tomato crop this year is delicious but hardly pretty.

The ugliest specimens, and fortunately the most numerous, were a half-dozen heirloom Black Krims, whose dark skins, particularly at the top, had cracked open probably from too much rain.
Most grocery stores would summarily toss most of our imperfect produce, on the assumption that buyers also would snub it, even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Our homely Black Krims are the most delicious of the five or six varieties we plant.

Indeed, as much as half of the food produced in developed countries, including the U.S., is sent to landfills, in a vicious cycle of waste—wasted water to raise those crops, wasted fuel to transport them to market, and finally, unnecessary creation of methane gas at the landfills where the less-that-perfect produce goes to rot. Methane is one of the most noxious components of the climate-warming gas mix.

Worse, while this good food is discarded, a growing population of Americans falls under the category of “food insecure” or people who do not earn enough to ensure an adequate and healthy diet. At Republican country clubs this group may sometimes be referred to as “lazy sons-of-bitches” or “forty-seven percenters.”
Fact is that even in perfect years—just the right amount of rain and not too many bugs—very little of our produce grows up perfect.

Many of the four or five types of lettuce we plant end up with holes or nibbles; carrots develop double and triple roots, and zucchinis acquire strange and, hmm, suggestive shapes and lengths. It’s a trade-off for not using pesticides.

Still, the peas this year performed splendidly. If you’ve never had just-shucked peas from a nearby vegetable garden, put it on your bucket list. They’re sensational.
Unfortunately, this year’s conditions have been less than ideal. At the beginning of May we greedily celebrated the daily afternoon downpours of rain but by now they have become almost a curse.

Our 130,000-liter rain collection cistern is filled. Félix had to dig a small drainage ditch at the foot of a magnolia so it wouldn’t rot, along the neighboring cow’s foot. Some trees on the ranch seemed to be stressed from too much rain and as a result are shedding their leaves.

What looked like a bumper crop of green beans two months ago succumbed to rot, mold or who-knows-what, the latter being the biggest menace of all for home gardeners.
In France and Canada, some grocery chains have begun offering “ugly” and “misshapen” produce and fruit at reduced prices. The campaign sounds particularly curious for a grocery store in France, where the pursuit of perfect food is guaranteed by the constitution. In the U.S., some community groups also are taking some of this “inglorious” food production and giving it to people who can use it.

Ugh-la-la: An ad campaign by Intermarché, France’s largest grocery chain. 

Stew may have the best solution yet to unsightly tomatoes. This morning, just after I photographed them, he corralled a bunch of tomatoes and led them to a large pot, to become tomato soup.

We also have had scads of shallots coming up somewhere in the back of one of our vegetable beds. I gently suggested a shallot flan, from Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Vegetables” (p. 261).

Stew says that, no offense to Alice, he needs to meditate on that idea.


9 thoughts on “In praise of ugly, misshapen produce

  1. Anonymous

    In Canada, one of our national chains is starting a new line of “ugly” food, it will be discounted and promo'd as ugly ~ it's a start


  2. I would commit an act against nature to have just one heirloom tomato. Or maybe I could just grow it. I brought seeds down, but I have not got around to my gardening mentality.


  3. Pátzcuaro is one of my favorite cities in Mexico, in some respects far more beautiful and culturally interesting than San Miguel. What I can't figure out is the climate. It seems very heavily forested and lush, so why wouldn't you be able to grow tomatoes?


  4. There are short season tomatoes that should grow there provided there is enough sun. Hard if not totally impossible to grow tomatoes in the forest. I tried in California and it didn't work unless I was willing to buy grow lights. I just saw something on TV about ugly produce and the fact that people NOB throw away 25% of the food they buy! A lot of the problem is sell by dates on food. regards,Theresa


  5. After 10 years of trying to get tomatoes I finally invested 100 bucks into a Miracle Gro AeroGarden, which you can plant tomatoes and herbs that need the heat to grow. The lights come on automatically and when the plants get about 2ft tall you can move the thing next to a window and save on the lights. Both Amazon and Walmart have them on their mailorder, I have had many people envious of how well the plants do. We are not lucky like Steve where tomatoes show be the size of bowling balls from the heat and humidity.


  6. Lucky you…….who cares if it is misshapen or ugly? Fresh grown produce is the best. When my husband and I had three small children and very very little money, we had a 10 x 10 garden that provided us with so many fresh veggies that we shared with neighbors! Enjoy!


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