The Beauty of the Ugly

So there is a recent advertising campaign here in Spain about “ugly vegetables” as seen above. There is nothing technically wrong with these vegetables with respect to nutrition or usability. They are unexpired and delicious. The only issue is that compared with the “ideal” form that we have in our minds of what a red pepper should look like or how a pear should be formed, they are, well a bit ugly.

The great thing about these vegetables is that they are on sale for roughly 1/3 to 1/2 the price of the regular vegetable. Imagine that: perfectly healthy, good, nourishing food is available for pennies. For one euro you can buy (I’m estimating here): 2 kilos of carrots, 6 red peppers, 5 kiwi, 4 eggplants, 4 oranges, 5 pears, or 8 onions. All because they are slightly misshapen. For we cooks, this is an incredible embarrassment of riches (or savings).

But it begs the question: why haven’t we generally sought out the ugly in the past? For anyone that has actually had a garden, they know that it is quite often what they are growing doesn’t turn out picture perfect. Why haven’t we valued the unique and weird? And furthermore, what becomes of these when they are not chosen? But why do we insist that a vegetable that will quickly be chopped up and cooked down follow any form other than the one that nature made for it?

I will admit, on the one hand, that if my market basket looks a bit, well, “perfect” that I take some delight in the aesthetics. But if the kiwi isn’t ripe, and the onion has mold it does me no good, no matter what shape it is. What mattered is that the vegetable was useful in its due time, that it was delicious and that it was used to feed people. It’s final presentation was far from what nature created, but rather was the result of the art of someone cooking.

The question that I want to ask, however, is a bit more controversial: why are we okay with paying more for perfect-looking vegetables? Or, why don’t we demand that the ugly vegetables are cheaper? Does the “perfect” aesthetic merit double the price?

There is one ugly vegetable (okay technically a fruit) that has enjoyed popularity for a good while in Spain. During the summertime there is an abundance of the heirloom tomatoes, what we call “feo tomates.” These are particularly delicious and frankly make for an entertaining centerpiece. But they are quickly tossed together with a cucumber and made into a blended gazpacho, cut up into a red sauce to serve with pasta, or diced for another purpose. These tomatoes tend to be more expensive than the typical perfectly-sized tomatoes.

What is interesting to me is that in Spain the crowd started to see the value of the ugly tomato. The price went up. Now the rest of the ugly ones are coming our way. When we realize that these vegetables are just as good, will we start asking the deeper questions about our relationship to our food, to the land, to our culture of disposal. I guarantee, the ugly ones have their use, and they are often the most useful for creating the perfect meal.





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