Fifteen years into farming you’d think we would have our business down to a routine, our methods all down to a science, and know everything we need to know to succeed. After all, farming is pretty basic. You produce a commodity, you advertise it, people buy it, there you have it.
Since Peter runs two other businesses and I run one, we should know that nothing is ever routine in business. There is always a new angle, the world evolves around you, old customers move away and new ones arrive. And tastes change.
What is this thing called “taste?” There is an odd duality in the word. “Taste” is the sensation of food or drink in one’s mouth, of course, and one would like to think of such sensations as eternal or unchanging. The different combinations and proportions of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, in combination with distinct aromas that result from a food’s chemical composition, are consistent over time and should affect your taste buds and the flavor centers of your brain in a consistent way. One may experience these foods in different ways as one ages, but these are very gradual changes that don’t necessarily change our perception of what the intrinsic taste of the food is.
But the word “taste” also has a more ephemeral meaning: the desire for a particular sensation at a particular time which may be influenced by current styles, trends, and fads. In this meaning, we see taste as purely subjective and as the epitome of inconstancy. Truffles may be “in” one year and walnut oil the next. The New York Times recently told us that schmalz (rendered chicken fat) is back in vogue after years as a pariah food. People may have a taste for a taste one year, and not the next.
I like to think of my tastes as immune from fads and rather constant over time. Yes, there was the New Year’s Eve in college that I drank a tall glass of Jim Beam, straight. When I recovered from the inevitable gross illness I found I had forever lost my taste for that sweet corn mash taste. Peter had a similar experience with grappa in Venice. But by and large, I love now the same tastes I loved in my youth–cabbage and tomato, sweet peas and Bosc pears, Brussels sprouts, cashews, blue cheese and chocolate, though usually not combined in the same dish. My tastes may be determined by my upbringing and culture in the broad sense, but not, I like to think, by the temporary whims of fashion.
Peter interjects here “Are you sure?” and of course I am not. One of the reasons I went to grad school to study anthropology was my desire to understand what motivates people to adopt tastes and beliefs and identities that seem both so arbitrary and so powerful. I didn’t anticipate that farming would raise similar questions, but it has been intriguing to see first hand how changeable peoples’ taste in foods actually is. A few years ago, we simply couldn’t produce enough beets; our customers were wild for them. This summer, virtually nobody bought beets. It wasn’t a tragedy, I still have a strong taste for beets and am happy to eat pickled beets all winter, but it’s a mystery nonetheless how beets seem to have gone so thoroughly out of style. Fava beans, on the other hand, have been on an upward trend for the past three years, as evidenced by how quickly and in what quantities people order them as soon as they are advertised. There seems to be no such thing for us as a glut of favas, as whatever we can produce in a given week immediately walks out the door in shopping bags. Swiss chard has experienced a steady growth curve as well.
Planning for the future based on what sold in the recent past has long been the ruin of farmers. In part it’s because once farmers think a crop will be a hot seller they all, en masse, plant more and more of the stuff, glutting the market and causing prices for even a popular commodity to fall. This happened when midwestern farmers used every available acre for corn a couple of years ago. But partly, it seems, the problem is also that food is sometimes no different from other items that enjoy temporary fad status: midi skirts, platform shoes, bell bottoms, the pet rock, the hula hoop. Some foods are just one-season wonders. I can’t help but wonder if the ubiquitous kale I see in restaurants this year will still be with us next year. (Peter and I personally agree here; we’re ready to move on).
Which brings me to something very much on my mind just now, the Christmas goose. The association between the bird and the holiday was once so strong that “Christmas goose” is one of those word pairings that just come to mind as a phrase. But, it seems, only as an historical memory. In at least one time and place (Dickensian England), the goose seems to have had the same inseparable association with Christmas as the turkey does with today’s Thanksgiving.
The Christmas/goose association certainly makes sense. If you were looking for a rich hearty food (goose meat is dark. moist and beefy) for a cold winter day, one that would glisten on its serving platter with a crisp glazed golden skin, confirming the festive tone of the occasion, you could not do better than a goose. We roast ours on a rotating spit on the open hearth, which lends a further special occasion note to the meal. These days, many people opt for roast beef or prime rib for Christmas. They are also dark, rich, and of course beefy tasting, but if you want a similar taste with a more attractive presentation, the goose is an even better candidate.
Why, I wonder, does the taste for Christmas goose seem to have largely gone out of fashion? Do people associate the goose on sale in their supermarket freezer with the pesky Canada goose they’ve come to view as an urban pest? Has the goose marketing association just not done its job promoting the flavor and benefits of geese? Are there concerns about the force feeding of geese for foie gras? Or is it just an arbitrary artifact of the zeitgeist? Few of our customers have ever even tasted goose, and fewer still see it as epitomizing the holiday meal.
Sociologists have associated changing skirt lengths with variations in economic prosperity. Perhaps a clever anthropologist could analyze our cultural attitudes toward eating goose and come up with a similarly compelling explanation of the goose’s fall from fashion. Had I become an anthropologist, I might find this an intriguing topic for a book. But we are farmers now. We will thoroughly and unanalytically enjoy our Toulouse goose this Christmas, and our thoughts on why others are not madly clamoring to do the same will remain in the realm of idle speculation.