Fruits and Vegetables, American Food and Drink, from Style Gourmet
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oranges and clementines produce department

The fruitful bounty typically found in large American supermarkets.

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Fruits and Vegetables In America
Potatoes, tomatoes, and the various forms of lettuce are the top three vegetables in the United States in terms of popularity (the tomato is scientifically a fruit, but functions as a vegetable for food purposes). Fruits and vegetables are grown in every state, but California, Florida, and a few other states like Washington remain giants for some of the most important items in the nation’s diet. California produces more than half the nation’s fresh fruits and is the leading producer of fresh vegetables. More than half of all vegetable production in the United States depends on irrigation, in widespread use in California’s vast agricultural valleys.

The cases of broccoli and spinach tend to point out the problem of concentration of production. In the case of broccoli, 6% of the growers harvest 80% of the crop. California plants more than 80% of the nation’s broccoli acreage. California also produces 75% of the nation’s spinach, 75% of the nation’s fresh tomatoes, and 95% of tomatoes used for processing.

Due to the vast size of the produce industry, minor problems with the distribution chain, such as the 2006 E. coli contamination problems in pre-cut spinach shipped from California, can cause ripple effects throughout the nation’s food system.

Apples, strawberries, grapes, oranges and peaches made up 69 percent of the value of US fresh market production. California is the leading producer of all these fruits except apples; Washington State accounts for half the nation’s supply. Florida oranges, though available fresh, are largely used for juice. Bananas, usually imported, are the most popular fruit among the public. A large portion—more than half—of all fruit consumption in the United States is in the form of fruit juices.

All fruits and vegetables have seasons, and yet in the United States, because of shipments from Mexico, South America, and China, many products are available all year long. The imported products are not always of the best culinary quality; because of long shipping times, many have to ripen in transit, in less than optimal conditions. Importation does, however, bring to American markets a great number of exotic fruits, and to a lesser extent vegetables, in everyday as well as in ethnic food markets. Consumers who are dissatisfied with industrially-produced fruits and vegetables are turning to farmers markets and organic producers; they frequently rely on natural foods grocers—there are several significant chains—to pick out and choose the best for their tables.

The organic produce business in the United States is often as mechanized and industrialized as the “conventional” branch of the business, but American agriculture also has a vibrant movement of concerned artisanal growers in every state and region. Coordinated efforts are being made by “seed savers” to protect endangered “heirloom” strains of agricultural products; seed companies make these plants available to home and professional growers alike. A common term for these thousands of plant cultivars is “heritage foods.”

A good example is in the popular American food, the tomato. Commercial growers have made tomatoes hardy, uniform, red, round, and profitable, while rendering them nearly tasteless. Heirloom tomatoes, by contrast, can be yellow, green, white, or a number of other colors, have odd shapes (that might not sell well in supermarkets), and fabulous flavor. Over 4,000 varieties are available, if you know where to look. One of the great joys of the American home gardener is to produce fresh summer tomatoes that the supermarket cannot match.

Despite the fact that Americans are urged to eat more vegetables for health reasons, they still resist green vegetables as compared to people in many other countries; the favorite form of the potato has been and still is fried, and one of the most popular vegetables is corn, which is starchy. The national trend toward more frequent restaurant eating has only decreased per capita green vegetable consumption in relation to meats and starches.

In American homes and restaurants, salads are popular, but even though these contain green vegetables, which are by themselves healthy, Americans often add rich dressings, and croutons (flavored fried bread cubes). Frozen vegetables often come pre-flavored in rich sauces, ready to quick cook in a microwave oven. In popular restaurants, vegetables are often thought of as an incidental and not given very much care in their preparation; broccoli, cauliflower, squash and carrots are frequently roughly chopped and steamed together, often losing much of their flavor and texture in the process.

American vegetable-phobia is a generalization of course, since many American cooks and restaurateurs know what to do with vegetables, but many American popular restaurant concepts offer no green vegetables at all. You can get the best barbecued pulled pork or brisket in your life—a true culinary wonder—and have no access to green vegetables with your meal, except baked beans and perhaps coleslaw. Order a hamburger and you may get lettuce and tomato, perhaps a salad, but rarely a properly cooked, flavorful green vegetable. Go out for a rotisserie chicken and among your allowed two “sides” you may find some soggy string beans hidden among the macaroni and cheese, the corn bread, and the several varieties of potatoes. It may well be that the best kind of restaurant to patronize if you want vegetables in the United States is an ethnic one. As a tee shirt from a popular Texas restaurant specializing in barbecue proudly reads, “I didn’t crawl my way up to the top of the food chain just to eat vegetables.”

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