Well, I didn’t get to spend as much time at the Texas Book Festival as I would have liked. I made it to the festival on Saturday afternoon and caught a bit of Scott Westerfeld‘s panel before running over to the cooking tent to meet up with a friend for Deborah Madison’s presentation. For those that are interested in such things, Deborah Madison is the author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Seasonal Fruit Desserts, the latter of which I picked up at the festival after Madison said she wanted to write a dessert cookbook that anyone could use. I’m an easy sell like that. Besides, after staring at that gorgeous tart on the cover for an hour, I was completely under its spell.
The panel also included several local organic growers who spoke about the challenges of organic farming. Perhaps the most interesting (for me anyway) was the fact that the mass production of food has changed the collective palete. Madison cited research that revealed that to the majority of people under 35, the idea of a soft, juicy peach is repulsive. That blows my mind. Even more mind blowing is the fact that this is the new standard for commercial peaches. If the consumer wants a firm, dry peach, the industry will give it to them. (And apologies for being all vaguey about this, but I wasn’t taking notes and now I’m paraphrasing and my GoogleFu is not strong today.) And makes me very sad, but you know what?I think there’s hope.
My mom, bless her, was (and still is not) a fan of cooking. As such, my childhood palate was pretty much defined by Hamburger Helper and canned green beans. For years I thought green beans were disgusting. But when I got interested in food and cooking my own, I began to acquire a more diverse palate. I wanted to learn more about what food was supposed to taste like. I’m in my thirties now and, while I can’t shop at the farmer’s market as much as I’d like, I’m a much more conscious eater and cook.
There’s a lot of debate these days about the quality of young adult fiction and whether the current titles are encouraging teens to read more but also setting lower standards or limiting their palate for literature, if you will. This is not a new debate by any means. During my MFA program I constantly heard complaints about the “trash” kids and adults were reading. Any mention of John Grisham or the Harry Potter series was met with groans and scowls. My peers worried that if people develop a palate for commercial fiction, literary fiction would “die” and then who would be there to preserve the “good” writing? And while I recognize it’s totally snobby and elitist, I can’t side-eye it too much since during my single years one of my dealbreakers was anyone that thought The DaVinci Code was the Best Book Ever. You say hypocrite, I say, it’s complicated. It’s… a peach.
One one hand, yes, anything that sparks an interest in reading and books is great. Say what you will about Twilight or Harry Potter, but I know several people that got interested in reading again because of those books and then went on to read The Hunger Games trilogy and other books. Books they may never have sought out if something hadn’t happened to spark their interest in reading. What I find problematic are that some readers never explore new kinds of writing. They find something that they’re comfortable with and that they like and they don’t try anything else. Much like that soft, juicy peach, the idea of experimental literature or short stories or poetry is alien to them.
Despite my mother’s aversion to cooking, she did instill curiosity in me. If she (or, more likely, someone else) put something in front of me that I was skeptical of, she insisted I take three bites. “Three Girl Scout bites” she called it, though I have no idea how Girl Scouts figure in there. Anyway, if after three bites, I still didn’t like it, I didn’t have to eat it. Now, I was a kid, I learned quickly how to exploit the hell out of this, but that’s not really the point. The point is that I tried something. And I made some interesting discoveries because of it. Fried okra, for example, rocks. And fresh green beans are superior to the canned variety and easy to cook, too. And the discoveries continue to come. Just recently I’ve discovered I love vegetarian cooking – that it’s not all about cheese and tofu.
I’ve made similar discoveries with reading too. In fact, I am where I am today because during one trip to the bookstore I decided to bypass the literary fiction and check out the YA section. I picked up Sarah Dessen’s Someone Like You and was hooked. A couple of years ago, a friend suggested I check out Scott Pilgrim and after some hemming and hawing about manga, I read it and fell in love. This is how diverse palates are made. By not dismissing anything without trying it.
I admit that when I heard that thing about the peaches, I was shocked, appalled, and a little grossed out. When I went to the grocery store yesterday, I may have actually scowled at the peaches. But I refuse to believe all hope is lost – for the peaches or for readers. As long as there are farmers markets, there will be a soft, juicy peaches. And as long as there are readers trying and recommending new books, there will be diversity in the bookstores. Hey, if I can grow up on a palate of hamburger helper with a side of Sweet Valley High and turn into a foodie and a voracious reader, then there’s hope right?