A few years ago I sat with a friend and looked at a menu, and we wondered why everything seemed to be flavored like a taco. Or Caesar salad or maple syrup. I couldn’t quite say what about it bothered me, but I held a conviction that something was wrong in a thing — a Mexican snack, salad dressing, tree sap — being turned into a flavor.
I remained wary without knowing why. In “The Dorito Effect,” an illuminating and sometimes radical book, Mark Schatzker shores up my unease with good evidence.
Over the last 70 years, American animal and plant breeding has focused on yield, pest resistance and appearance — not flavor. The pleasure of an ingredient’s taste did not seem to have practical value. Schatzker cites the national Chicken of Tomorrow contest sponsored in the late 1940s by the grocery chain A.&P. Chickens were bred and judged for uniformity of size, volume of breast, hatchability and feed efficiency. Their taste was not considered. Supermarket chicken since — at the cost of flavorful meat — has been big and able to get that way very fast: According to a gruesome statistic from a 2013 article in Poultry Science, if humans grew as quickly as the Chicken of Today, “a three-kilogram (6.6-pound) newborn baby would weigh 300 kilograms (660 pounds) after two months.”
The story has been repeated with tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, wheat, corn and more: all bred for size, speed of growth, pest resistance, shelf life, appearance — not taste. The pleasure of eating seemed superfluous. As Schatzker puts it, “Hedonism, as any puritan can tell you, never leads to virtue.”
Except that in pursuit of flavor, it does. “In nature,” Schatzker writes, “flavor never appears without nutrition.” Flavor means nutrition. Omega-3 fatty acids have flavor. Phenylethanol, a chemical compound humans love and often describe as a “rose note” in tomatoes, is made by an essential amino acid, which its presence signifies. Flavor’s purpose is to help us become like ingestive homing pigeons. Our bodies learn to draw connections between flavors and the physiological responses they signal. Through this post-ingestive feedback, latent intelligence in our digestive systems is animated. We can seek out and find what we need, nutritionally, and stop eating once we get it.
A perfect case is illustrated in an old study, begun in 1926, conducted by a Chicago pediatrician named Clara Davis. She foster-parented 15 babies “who’d never been exposed to ‘the ordinary foods of adult life’ ” and for six years let them eat whatever they wanted, in any order, from a list of 34 foods including “water, potatoes, corn meal, barley, beef, lamb, bone jelly, carrots, turnips, haddock, peaches, apples, fish, orange juice, bananas, brains, milk and cabbage.” They chose balanced diets — sometimes strange ones: One child ate liver and drank a pint of orange juice for breakfast. Their preferences changed often. Another child, who had started off with rickets, was early on given a glass of cod liver oil as medicine. Over the course of his illness, never encouraged, he drank it “ ‘irregularly and in varying amounts’ of his own free will until he was better,” Schatzker writes. This unconscious wisdom has been subsequently studied in goats and calves, showing repeatedly that if the body can make nutritional connections via physical feedback from flavor, it will be a good nutritionist.
But for the body to develop credible associations — including feeling satiated — between dark greens and iron, or eggs from free-ranging chickens and carotenoids, or tomatoes and phenylethanol, it needs to be communicated with honestly. Otherwise it can’t learn. “All over nature, animals . . . limit their meal size not because they’re stuffed and couldn’t possibly eat another bite, but because they’ve hit a secondary compound wall,” i.e. met nutritional needs beyond calories. Synthetic-flavor technology makes bland ingredients attractive without supplying the myriad benefits of the real thing. The twin forces of flavor dilution and fake flavor have short-circuited the biological basis for mutable appetite.
One particularly wonderful thing about Schatzker’s thesis is that if flavor is the voice in which the nutritional benefits of the natural world call out to us, then the impulse to eat taco-flavored Doritos, Caesar wraps and maple-flavored ribs is not the opposite of but rather akin to impulses toward $6-a-pound heritage-breed chicken, or dandelion greens. They are both, as Schatzker puts it, “unconscious strategies against dilution.” Access, not moral fiber, is the difference between one person’s search for flavor and another’s.
Aside from changing the status of flavor — from frill to nutritional essential — the most radical thing about “The Dorito Effect” is that Schatzker doesn’t suggest returning to agriculture of simpler days. His solution is technological. He suggests turning to what started the mess in the first place: breeding. The trade-offs of flavor for pest resistance, for example, weren’t inevitable. Schatzker writes of five successful contemporary breeding experiments — of chicken, tomatoes, potatoes, cacao beans and lettuce — that keep a focus on factors like yield and shelf life, while adding flavor to the list of priorities. It’s doable; it just needs to be done.
The book has two real flaws. The first is the weak climax of Schatzker making a meal of naturally flavorful ingredients. I find it impossible to drum up excitement for these meal scenes, fixtures in food journalism. The confirmation bias of the writer makes them valueless. They’re tautologies. If the meal fails, the argument doesn’t hold and the book isn’t published. Besides, the project is undertaken every day, successfully, in plenty of restaurants that have built their reputations and filled their dining rooms by serving meals that don’t include genetically diluted ingredients. There are plenty of home cooks doing it too.
There is also the strange omission of one American chef who not only serves full-flavored foods from heirloom seeds, but publicly works with breeders to do exactly what Schatzker recommends. Dan Barber has collaborated with Michael Mazourek at Cornell and Steve Jones at the Washington State University Research and Extension Center to breed varietals of squash and wheat for intense flavor, high yield and pest resistance. (Disclosure: I briefly worked as Barber’s research assistant 11 years ago.) In other words, one of the country’s most respected chefs already understands the flavor principle and is, from a populist perspective, breeding seeds that match Schatzker’s priorities. But Schatzker doesn’t mention Barber, never mind ask him to cook the book’s triumphant meal.
The other problem is the writing. So much good research and reasoning deserve better sentences than they get. Schatzker refers to himself as a “card-carrying member,” uses “Mc” to signify “industrial” and makes winking references to the libidos of teenage boys. Cliché stands in for an original prose voice. There is trace of mind in the subject, but not in its expression.
Still, other than in Dan Barber’s book, “The Third Plate,” this is the first time I’ve read of improving our food through smarter breeding, and the first assertion that human appetite may possess an intelligence equal to that of human love — another belief I’ve long held, also without knowing why.
By Tamar Adler