If you have worked in a produce department for any length of time—or just shared a dinner conversation—you've heard someone admit that they dread eating some produce item—almost as if they had a mental "allergy" to it. Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, Red Delicious apples and broccoli come to mind. Where does this dread come from? Is there a cure? Will it take years of therapy? I used to have a food fear myself—lima beans. While I am not an expert, I'd bet many produce phobias started out like mine.
My problems began at a dinner table in Concord, Calif. And involved my mother. Now, I'm not getting into any Freudian theories here. It was just that she overcooked the heck out of our meat and vegetables. I could handle it with most foods but, man, the mushy, bland limas did me in. And I was one of those kids who would eat just about anything.
So how do we get customers to let their phobias go? One approach is to play the nutrition card. Tell a fearful consumer that brussels sprouts belong to a subspecies of cabbage and share the nutritional benefits of the Brassica family, including powerful antioxidants that have been found in studies to help prevent cancer and heart disease. Or that a 1-cup serving contains about 130 percent of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C—almost three times as much as a cup of cabbage. Or that the sprouts contain twice as much dietary fiber as cabbage (20 percent of the RDA); are high in vitamins A, K and folate; and contain good amounts of a number of other vitamins and minerals. Or, if customers have a mushroom phobia, they may be interested to know that mushrooms are a good source of riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid.
On the other hand, I can tell you from experience that none of this will matter if a person's objection is a taste or texture thing.
So for those folks, we have to take a different route. The way I overcame my lima bean dislike was by trying fresh springtime limas shucked and sautéed with garlic, spring onions and butter. I've loved them ever since. So perhaps it's time to let your customers know that they could be in for a taste surprise with the new, hybrid varieties of brussels sprouts, made sweeter when grown in the frost of autumn through early spring, and harvested before they're too mature and strong-tasting.
But your biggest opportunity is to teach your brusselsphobes how to cook the sprouts. Overcooking is the chief culprit in turning perfectly good sprouts into bitter, mushy globes. Brussels sprouts should be crisp, tender and sweet. Tell customers to steam or sauté them until fork tender, toss with a little olive oil and seasonings, and they may find they have a new favorite vegetable. You can also provide a roasting recipe that gives brussels sprouts a tender middle yet crispy outer leaf. Mmmm.
Actually, if we do a better job receiving our produce at the back door by eating what comes in and knowing the seasonal nuances of the product we sell, we could convert a whole lot of producephobes. I know I have helped change the way someone has thought of a Red Delicious just by giving him a fresh apple in season. I have converted a few mushroomphobes by turning them on to an abalone mushroom that tastes like and has the texture of the mollusk. And I've surprised the most ardent tomato haters and turned them into fans by giving them samples of an array of summertime (not late fall) heirlooms that completely changed how they felt about the flavor and texture.
We can gain converts with other produce items, too. Recently, at the EcoFarm conference, I made a point by doing a taste comparison between early- and late-season Valencia oranges. The late variety was superior in taste and texture, while the early oranges were sour and firm, but cheaper. So, if you buy only by price or if you don't know the seasonal differences, or you don't spend enough time or effort to educate your customers, you may be contributing to the produce-phobia phenomenon. And no one wants to be accused of that, now, do you?
Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 4/p. 30