While we are busy resetting our expectations ‘for’ food we need to change our expectations ‘of’ food.
I often write for retailers or food and beverage manufacturers, but this time my focus is on consumers. (But maybe there is also inspiration for those of us who consume and hold one of these jobs in the food world.)
Here is my argument: It’s time we give up our expectations of consistency in taste and appearance.
Let’s start with an observation. We’ve come to expect that the products we buy should be familiar and consistent. I’m not certain of the origin of this expectation; maybe it is human nature, some part of our psychology, or maybe we have been trained via the industrial standardization of our "value meals," food brands and our modern food system.
I’d argue that the expectation that our foods taste and look consistent seems to have become a natural and reasonable expectation. But, I wonder if it really is. We’ve come to expect that one bottle of ketchup should taste like the next one, at least when buying from the same brand. When I say it, it feels obvious. But should a good, high quality product really possess the quality of consistency? Should one bottle, can, box or batch of anything really taste the same as the next?
Is variation bad?
Is variation a sign of poor quality?
Or is variation a sign of high quality?
As we progress in our appreciation of food and our appreciation for how it is produced, where it comes from and who grew it, I’d argue that we should set aside this expectation of consistency.
When we buy something that is hand-crafted, we appreciate "unique," not "ubiquity." When we buy artisan, we buy high-quality, but we also buy variation and we accept and appreciate it.
So then I would like to ask...Why do we indirectly ask our farmers, whose good intentions we increasingly want to support, to try and reduce variation in their fields? Why do we ask them to control conditions to produce a more controlled and uniform product? Why do we ask our food service and food and beverage manufacturers to do seemingly unnatural things to our food to ensure consistency and uniformity?
I’m not criticizing anyone; I’m guilty of holding this expectation too. I’m simply trying to increase our awareness of the inconsistency in our expectations. We are increasingly asking for the right things from our food system. While we do this, let’s give those who produce, serve and manufacture on our behalf a little bit of breathing room to improve the system by lowering our expectations for a consistent and uniform look, feel and taste.
Are you willing to allow one bottle of ketchup to taste different from the next in the name of natural variation and the evolution of our food system? Who’s with me?