Fight­ing for the yum in our tum

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - James Hill is a for­mer se­nior editor of The Washington Post News Media Ser­vices.

What’s cook­ing? This was not a ter­ri­bly dif­fi­cult ques­tion for our grand­par­ents or great­grand­par­ents to an­swer. Yet some­where along the way in the great pros­per­ity that came over most of North Amer­ica in the post-World War II era, the ques­tion be­came more com­pli­cated. We didn’t know what we were eat­ing. Oh sure, we could name the items that were on our ta­bles. But chicken didn’t taste like chicken. Many fruits and veg­eta­bles didn’t taste like them­selves, ei­ther. This was a re­sult of the in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and sub­se­quent di­lu­tion of our food sup­ply, done in the name of big is bet­ter: greater yields, less waste, heftier prof­its. If the su­per­mar­kets were go­ing to be over­flow­ing — and when is the last time you were in one that wasn’t? — then bland was the price of progress.

This, of course, as­sumes that you were even cook­ing for your fam­ily. Around the same time that food was be­com­ing blander, fast foods were also mak­ing great in­roads into the Amer­i­can stom­ach. Noth­ing to eat? Well, pop a frozen din­ner into the mi­crowave. Or bet­ter yet, head for the near­est driv­ethrough and pick up burgers and fries, or maybe a bucket of fried chicken, then pig out.

In jour­nal­ist Mark Schatzker’s de­light­ful “The Dorito Ef­fect” — the book takes its name from the tor­tilla chip that be­came a na­tion­wide sen­sa­tion once it was fla­vored to have a taco taste — we see time and again just what this revo­lu­tion has wrought. We have fla­vored junk foods to taste like things they are not while di­lut­ing the fla­vors that al­low real food to be the treat we should ex­pect. Con­sider the tomato. “As breed­ers se­lected mon­ey­mak­ing traits like yield, dis­ease re­sis­tance, and a thick skin for eas­ier trans­porta­tion, they ig­nored the genes that de­ter­mine good fla­vor,” Schatzker writes. “There are a lot of those genes, and with each gen­er­a­tion, some as­pect of fla­vor can be lost. Over un­count­able gen­er­a­tions, the loss is sub­stan­tial. And when the fla­vor genes are gone, there’s only one thing that can make a tomato taste good: a bot­tle of ranch dress­ing.”

What makes “The Dorito Ef­fect” so de­li­cious (sorry, couldn’t help my­self ) is not Schatzker’s evan­ge­liz­ing for bet­ter food choices but his ex­am­i­na­tion of the rea­sons science took us in this di­rec­tion and his hope that science can pull us back. And he of­fers up valu­able skep­ti­cism that throws cold wa­ter on the idea that you can put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle by shop­ping at farm­ers’ mar­kets or tak­ing meals at $300-a-head restau­rants.

He does it all with a dash of hu­mor, although one joke about Alzheimer’s dis­ease comes across as in­sen­si­tive. Nev­er­the­less, in the cat­e­gory of food for thought, Schatzker has dished up a five-star serv­ing.

By Mark Schatzker Si­mon & Schuster. 259 pp. $27 THE DORITO EF­FECT The Sur­pris­ing New Truth About Food and Fla­vor

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