Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Just Eat It

I bought a pint of these purple tomatillos at the Davis Sq. Far-Mar in Somerville with big plans in store. The going idea was to broil or roast them to make a smoky, tangy stew, but before doing so, I took a chomp of one raw. Sampling is a practice I advocate in every stage of the cooking process, including before you even start cooking.

When I first started expanding my food horizons, I would buy a new vegetable each week and prepare it three ways, raw being one of them (unless it was something like a potato). That way I understood the whole arc of potential, and in doing so I came to appreciate the complexity of many fruits and veggies when unadorned by elaborate preparations. As soon as I took a bite of the tomatillo, I knew two things. First, a real tomatillo is as different from a supermarket tomatillo as in the same comparison of its more famous cousin, the tomato. Second, I wasn't going to do any roasting, I was going to eat the whole pint raw.

The texture and flavor of these little fruits was outstanding. They popped, they crunched, they melted. They were sweet without any of the dull, cloying corn-syrup quality of many modern fruits. In eating this tomatillo and savoring its unique character, I understood just how much we stand to loose by dumbing down the flavor and boosting the sugar content of America's fruits.

Beside growing them sweet, there are many distinct fruits both wild and domesticated that no one in modern America will touch without sugar. Among these are cranberries, gooseberries, currants, elderberries, beach plums, chokecherries, and in my home state of Florida, the sea grape.

I first learned about the sea grape in third grade during a section on Florida pioneer history. Our teacher mentioned that this small, seaside fruit was a staple of the Florida pioneer diet, though according to her it could only be consumed in heavily sweetened forms such as a jam, juice, or wine. We were also told that the local indigenous population was fond of them, and herein I sensed a disconnect. I knew the Indians weren't eating them with sugar, because they didn't have it.

The next time I was at the beach, ever the early forager, I popped one in my mouth. I will never forget my first sea grape, though many more would follow. The first thing you taste is salt from the sea breeze which has dried and lingers on the exterior. Below this dusting comes a soft, slightly fuzzy skin, not unlike a firm apricot. Then comes the thin layer of flesh surrounding the pit, its flavor deep and murky, reminiscent of copper, or blood, and tinged with a gamy, tangy sweetness. I would never, ever, mask it with sugar.

The sea grape boasts a wild flavor, a taste unchanged by human history, and one which is a world apart from anything available in your local supermarket, partly because nothing in your supermarket is local. I miss the sea grape, but have found the same pleasure just this past weekend in a wild elderberry bush on the bank of a pond in the woods behind my house in Massachusetts.

There are countless native fruits like the sea grape and elderberry which have sustained native populations on this continent and others for thousands of years. Now the only place they hold in our culinary tradition is in the rare instance that someone adds equal parts sugar to make them into a jam. If you do come across such a fruit, and you probably can in any woods or vacant lot near your home, don't do that. Just eat it.

Sure, I could have made a marvelous soup from the tomatillos, with chicken stock, black pepper, knives, a blender, and various other implements of the modern kitchen. But it couldn't touch the joy I felt by eating fruit after fruit raw, crunching on the small seeds of history.

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