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JOE PALCA, host:

From NPR News, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca.

For the rest of this hour, the taste of summer. What would summertime be without sweet corn or watermelon or a nice juicy peach? We all know what taste good, so why is it those great flavors seem harder and harder to come by? Too often, a trip to the supermarket means a dry mealy peach or a watermelon that taste like water and strawberries that look great, but taste like cardboard. What happened?

Well, my next guest has some ideas and some suggestions for rediscovering some of those great food experiences. Russ Parsons is the food and wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His new book is called "How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table."

He joins us from the studios of NPR West. Welcome to the program, Mr. Parsons.

Mr. RUSS PARSONS (Food and Wine Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Thanks for having me on, Joe.

PALCA: So, Russ Parsons, how did this - how did we get here? What - well, you know, it's - okay. So I want to start with my own little anecdote here. You know, I grew up at New York City and I didn't like vegetables. And then, my parents took me - when I was, I guess, I was a teenager - to France. And I ate raw carrots and raw cruciferous vegetables - they must have been, green peppers or something. Anyway, and I suddenly - these are great, these are fantastic, these tastes wonderful. And so it was as if I never tasted them before.

So was it just being dazzled by being in a foreign country or is there really a difference between the produce that Americans have gotten to accept and what happens elsewhere?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, I think there was a big difference especially when we were kids. I think now, more and more people are finding that kind of experience just by going to their neighborhood farmers market or to, you know, even good produce departments in supermarkets are having much better luck.

But, you know, when - the way this whole thing started, it's kind of - it's just the - it's the law of unintended consequences again, because what happened was that a system was built to make sure that everybody had good, plenty of good, inexpensive fruits and vegetables - which we do.

I mean, malnutrition is no longer nearly a problem that was. Obesity is a problem now. And lack of flavor became a huge problem. And it's all built into the system because the system - in the old days in the United States, every major city was surrounded by a farm belt, and that farm belt supplied the fruits and vegetables that the people in the city ate.

Well, around the turn of the century, a couple things happened. Most of it was transportation related. You know, we got - there was the railroad across the United States. There was the opening up of California Central Valley. There was the invention of the refrigerated railcar. You know, one of the great overlooked inventions of all time because it allowed produce to be shipped from California back to New York. At the same time, local transportation in the urban areas was allowing people to get outside of the urban centers and to develop the suburbs.

And suburbs, you know, then, as now, usually end up on farmland. So the farmers had to go some place. California and the eastern slopes of Oregon and in Washington turned out to be perfect places to grow fruits and vegetables. All of that kind of changed. There are macro changes and there are micro changes.

They required a new system of produce distribution to be put into place and that system of produce distribution over, you know, the period of 50 years, kind of resulted. And everybody playing the cards as safely as they could and picking things earlier and earlier, choosing varieties that would ship better over varieties that tasted better. And we ended up with what was all, too often, pretty undistinguished fruits and vegetables.

What's happened now, though, that I'm really excited about in the last 30 years is the impact that farmers markets have had on the produce distribution. Because under the old system, there was no way for a farmer to get any kind of financial incentive for growing great fruits and vegetables.

You know, if you grew peaches that made a grown man cry and your neighbor next to you pumped his orchards full of water and picked as much he could, he got more money than you did because there wasn't a kind of a flavor bonus.

PALCA: A financial disincentive, yeah. Financial disincentive for coming up with a good tasting peach that you didn't have a lot of.

Mr. PARSONS: Right, because all the decisions that - many of the decisions that lead in the good-tasting peaches means smaller yields.

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. PARSONS: And so with farmers markets, that kind of turned out all the way around because a farmer could say taste this. Now, do you think that's worth more than a supermarket peach?

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. PARSONS: The thing that's really happened since then, though, is that ethos has kind of created a second commodity stream for produce, where there are -especially produce distributors all over the country now who are selecting local or high quality things and putting them in restaurants and supermarkets.

PALCA: And charging a premium for them, I presume.

Mr. PARSONS: I would hope so.

PALCA: Yeah. We're talking with Russ Parsons about his new book "How to Pick a Peach," and we certainly like to hear - about you and your fruit experiences or a produce of any description. We're very open-minded here today.

Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. I mean, I guess the question is you refer to it in the book - in a way, we consumers were complicit with this because we said, yeah, okay, you know, we'll buy strawberries year-round even though they don't grow year-round, and so we wound up having to take stuff that was produced with the intention of having it stick around for a long time.

Mr. PARSONS: Well, I think a lot of times, you know, we want what we want, and we want it now. And, you know, usually, we wanted...

PALCA: That was cognitive dissonance. We were just talking about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: And it doesn't matter, you know. I mean, the original strawberry was - it was a six-week crop. And so in order to have strawberries year-round, I mean, California produces strawberries 11 months under the year now. In order to produce that because - you know, people in New York hotels want to have sliced strawberries in January when they're eating their breakfast. In order -there was a market there, and so agriculture evolved to supply that market.

PALCA: All right. All right. Let me ask you another question. I mean, in terms - let's focus on the peach for a minute. Now, you hinted that growing techniques affect the way the peach is produced, and I was just working with a producer who said she had a job in Israel where they were making peaches of rubbing the peach plants so that it would - what's the word I'm looking for?

Mr. PARSONS: Pollinate?

PALCA: Pollinate, yes, more effectively. And she still has the blisters from it, she said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: But the idea was to reduce the yield so you'd only get the very best peaches. Is the - can you take the same fruit and ruin it or is it different varieties that are chosen for specific qualities?

Mr. PARSONS: No. You know, it's - in fact, that's one of the things I really, I think, people are still a little naive about because you have to remember that produce - fruits and vegetables - they're grown, they're not manufactured. And so when you're buying a variety, you know, if you're buying a great Alberta peach, it's not the same thing as buying Lincoln, you know. A good farmer can take a mediocre variety and grow good fruit. A bad farmer could take a great variety and grow mediocre fruit.

So what you need to look for is, first of all, you need to follow the farmer and then you need to hope that that farmer has - picks a great variety because when you get those two things in sequence, that's when you get that kind of, you know that peach that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. And it's an expensive proposition because what they have to do - a lot of the steps that they have to take in order to get great fruits and vegetables are things that cost money, starting with really rigorous thinning...

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. PARSONS: ...on the trees so that there's, you know, they may lose half of the crop in the spring so that the fruit that is left gets the concentration of the tree's vigor - for want of a better word.

PALCA: Right.

Mr. PARSONS: And then, you know, letting the fruit hang on the tree longer so that it becomes more and more mature at the same time that it's beginning to ripen. At that stage, the fruit's becoming more tender, more fragile and all kinds of things can happen to it from, you know, I mean, the obvious disasters like a summer hail storm to, you know, just like naughty birds. I mean, how many times have you, you know - if you've ever had a tree in your backyard, you know you lose a certain percentage of the - a certain percentage of your crop to the birds, and that happens in farms as well.

PALCA: I don't think we should anthropomorphize here and describe birds as naughty. But never mind. Let's pick a call now and go to Jennifer(ph), and I take it - Jennifer, is that Norman, Oklahoma?

JENNIFER (Caller): Yes.

PALCA: Okay. Jennifer, welcome to the program.

JENNIFER: Thank you for taking my call.

PALCA: Sure.

JENNIFER: This is a fascinating discussion for me because my husband is originally from the Middle East and he considers himself to be a fruit connoisseur. He is actually been approached in the grocery store and people ask him how do you choose your fruit, because it's very clear to people that he's very serious about...

Mr. PARSONS: He's discerning.

JENNIFER: ...how he selects his fruit. You know in his country, when we've been there, we've been blown away by the quality of the fruits and vegetables we've had there. Although in recent years, I would say that some kind of genetic engineering or whatever has actually crept into that country and suddenly we're getting tomatoes the size of our heads and things that we never used to see before.

But my husband's rule of thumb that he always tells people is that if you cannot smell the fruit, it's probably not worth buying. So if you, you know, if you put your nose up to it and there's no apple smell or orange smell wafting out of it, then it's probably not worth buying. And actually, the fruits he likes to buy the best are the ones that you can actually smell from about 15 feet away.

PALCA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Good point.

JENNIFER: So this - it's very interesting and I don't know if, you know, this is going to be a worldwide phenomenon or not, but I hope that we can continue to, at least, travel abroad and get some excellent fruits and vegetables even when we have a difficult time finding them here.

PALCA: Jennifer, thanks for that call. What about that? Is the nose reliable?

Mr. PARSONS: The nose is nine times out of ten - yeah, probably nine times out ten, that's one of the great, great indicators. There are two basic things. One of them is the perfume, because, remember, fruits are - fruits exist to carry seeds. And the farther from the tree the seed is carried, you know, so fruit -the fruit that surrounds the seed is delicious so that it will be eaten and the seed will be carried farther away. And one of the ways it attracts is through the perfume. Another really great tip that I think that people don't focus on enough is, you know, pick the stuff up. Fruit that's heavier for its size is always going to be better because one of the things that happens after a fruit's picked is it starts giving up moisture. And as it gives up moisture, the fruit becomes lighter and lighter.

Now, there are some things that don't - where smelling doesn't work, you know. For example, with melons, if you've got a netted melon like a cantaloupe or a muskmelon, I mean, those things, when they are ripe, the perfume is just like -it'll knock you over from 10 feet away. But a honeydew melon, there's no smell whatsoever.

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. PARSONS: And what's funny is, the Latin name for the family of the honeydew melon is Inodorous...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: ...specifically because there is no smell.

PALCA: Well - now, don't I have to ask? Well, wait just a second, Russ. Hey, we're talking with Russ Parsons - he's a food and wine columnist at the Los Angeles Times - about his new book, "How to Pick a Peach."

I'm Joe Palca, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Okay, so we just came back to honeydew. How do you do a honeydew when there's no smell?

Mr. PARSONS: That sounds like a song, doesn't it? How do you do a honeydew? Maybe...

PALCA: I wish.

Mr. PARSONS: ...from the '20s or something.

PALCA: Honey, let's do the honeydew.

Mr. PARSONS: Yeah, do the honeydew.

PALCA: Okay.

Mr. PARSONS: So honeydews are - honeydews are tough. There's a couple of things that you can look for the honeydew. One of them is the quality of the color. Instead of being kind of a hard, bright color, the color should be rich and creamy.

Another thing is touch. When you feel the rind of a honeydew, it should be almost - it should be - I don't know how to describe that actually. It's kind of velour instead of like marble.

PALCA: Hmm.

Mr. PARSONS: There's a slight rub to it instead of being hard and slick. The third thing that you can check with a honeydew is every melon when it's grown, there's a little pale spot on one side of the melon. It's - the French call it the couche, and that's where the melon rested when it was on the ground. Check the color of that because if it's bright white, that the melon's underripe. It should be getting creamy going to golden. Those were the best one.

The absolute, you know, the honeydew melon that's going to completely knock you over all summer, if you find them that - where the surface is sticky, or if you find them where there are little brown speckles on the surface, those are going to be amazing because the honeydew is - when it gets really ripe and it's really sweet, the sugar starts to bleed through the rind.

Now, the complication is the produce managers usually think that that's a flaw and so they'll wash it all off.

PALCA: There you go.

Mr. PARSONS: But if you - if that's there, man, you've got a great melon.

PALCA: All right. Well, that's something to think about.

Okay, let's talk to Steve(ph) in Madison, Wisconsin. Steve, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

STEVE (Caller): Yeah, Mr. Parsons, you stole my thunder. We're involved with organic orchards and gardens here in Wisconsin. And I was going to say look for the blemishes, the imperfections and above all, the sign of a worm, which is a sure sign of a good organic fruit - and of course, the smell.

But Mr. Palca, I wanted to ask, why do we never hear - speaking of the last segment, cognitive dissonance, I would say 9/11 is about the biggest example of mass psychotic cognitive dissonance. And why doesn't SCIENCE FRIDAY ever show films of - those building exploding due to planted explosives indicating an inside job...

PALCA: Well, that's an interesting question, Steve, but we don't show films on SCIENCE FRIDAY primarily because this is a radio program and that would be a little awkward. But I do like the idea of the fruit and I'm not quite sure why the blemishes. He mentioned blemishes are a good thing, Russ Parsons.

Mr. PARSONS: Well, you know, I think that the blemishes are not necessarily a good thing, but the absence of blemishes aren't necessarily a good thing either. You can't believe the amount of work that goes into commercial agriculture, trying to produce fruit that looks beautiful. If half of that energy was directed towards producing fruit that had great flavor, we wouldn't be having this discussion right now.

PALCA: So, you know, your book talks about the fact that most of the fruit in America is grown in California. I mean, what does that do...

Mr. PARSONS: More than half.

PALCA: More than half. What does that do to people on the East Coast such as us? I mean, do we just have to yearn or do we have to pay, you know, air fare for a plum or something like that? Or can we really hope to get good fruit over here?

Mr. PARSONS: No, you can get great fruit over there. One of the problems on the East Coast is you have to recognize that it's more difficult to grow fruit on the East Coast, which is why it moved to the West Coast.

On the West Coast, their summers are really hot and they're really, really dry. On the East Coast, the summers may be really hot, but they're really humid. And that humidity encourages all kinds of problems. But you can get great fruit if you - you just have to work a little harder for it - by going to the farmer's market, by tasting, by, you know, by shopping around.

You need to really use all - engage all of your senses. I mean, we're really lucky out here. I don't - we don't - I don't want to open up the door for anymore Californians...

PALCA: No, no, no.

Mr. PARSONS: And I also don't want to imply that everything that's grown commercially in California is bad. Because if you know what you're doing, you know, the first step is just paying attention to what you're shopping for instead of picking things up as if they were tube socks, you know. I hate to...

PALCA: Well I'm good at tube socks, but, you know, I'm not quite as good in fruit. Hey, Russ Parsons, we've run out of time. I'm sorry. Thanks very much for joining us today.

Maybe, if people can't pick peach, they can pick tube socks.

Mr. PARSONS: Oh, well...

PALCA: Possible.

Mr. PARSONS: Possible, possible...

PALCA: Read the book, "How to Pick A Peach to Search for Flavor from Farm to Table."

(Soundbite of credits)

PALCA: For NPR News in Washington, I'm Joe Palca.

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