Thursday, October 28, 2010

Defrosted Fruit

No, that's not a victim of the Ice Truck Killer: it's a persimmon.

My new home is in the Pioneer (or "Happy") Valley of Western Mass, and luckily it's a fun place to eat. There are farms, there are restaurants, there are farm to table restaurants, and so forth. But one of my favorite food destinations isn't a restaurant. In fact, it's more like a warehouse.

The crowded aisles of Tran's World Food Market in Hadley are packed with odds and ends from all corners of the earth. Need chili paste? You'll feel like a kid in a chili paste store. Need coconut vinegar? No, you don't even know what coconut vinegar is, but you buy a bottle for $1.50 anyway.

The market has assuaged any concerns I had about getting all of the ingredients I need and no longer living in an urban area. Tran's World Food Market might have as many items as all of Boston's ethnic markets crammed into one, or a least it looks that way. One day there were shrink-wrapped hunks of hacked up, spiky jackfruit at the register: an impulse buy.

I recently discovered a freezer section dedicated to whole, dirt cheap, exotic frozen fruit. I bought a mesh bag of frozen mangosteens for about six bucks and a bag of rock-hard, icy persimmons for under two bucks. Sustainable? No. Irresistible? Yes.

Unable to restrain myself, I started eating them still frozen on the drive home. A frozen persimmon is kind of a fun thing to eat, assuming you're as weird as I am, but a frozen mangosteen has as much flavor as a snowball. Disappointing considering I've been told they're the world's best fruit.

However both were stellar once thawed: the fruits had all reached peak ripeness before being John Spartan-ed. But here's the strange thing. I took a bite of a frozen persimmon then left it to thaw in the fridge overnight. In the morning, most of the persimmon had leaked out onto the plate and gelled into an irresistible glop.

I slurped it up for breakfast.

I've tried to replicate the experience by cutting others with a knife and letting them thaw, but little juice and no jelly has resulted. I'd ask if anyone has any advice, but I can't imagine that anyone does.

I think I just need to savor the freak experience of eating spontaneously occurring fruit goo for what it was.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Attack On Attack On School Gardens

Earlier this month Andrew Sullivan posted Adam Ozimek's attack on schools gardens, which he (Adam and then Andrew quoting Adam) called "yuppie vanity." There's a kernel of truth in that statement, but it should be dwarfed by the rest of the ear.

I too find fault in the elitist elements of the local foods movement and in gardens whose sole purpose is to make rich people feel better about already having the world's finest food supply. And any vegetables are better than no vegetables, whether they're frozen, canned, or made into "space dinners" for astronauts.

Where Sullivan and Ozimek misfire is in their unmitigated praise of frozen veggies over school garden programs. If Sullivan/Ozimek were writing from a place of concern for the well being of poor children, they would at least acknowledge that we should emphasize frozen vegetables in addition to school gardens.

But that would make for a far less catchy post. They are playing the "I am an opinionated blogger, listen to me" card and the often-used in conjunction "and I speak for the poor, not you elitists" card, though of course they too are members of the elite.

Changing the way that people eat is not exclusively about changing what they eat. It's about changing perception. With school gardens we're often talking about kids who actually don't know that vegetables are grown in the ground: that's something that many educators report hearing. If that's where you're coming from, it doesn't matter how many frozen vegetables you're told to eat. You won't be inspired to.

School gardens a) yield incredibly valuable fresh produce in areas that often have no produce (not even frozen) and b) provide even more valuable inspirational teaching tools. Condemning them as ineffective or superfluous is just as short-sighted as condemning an inspirational work of art, like the protest songs that fueled the anti-war movement in the 1960's. Especially if you could also eat that work of art, and it was delicious.

Which is better motivation for eating more vegetables: witnessing the miraculous journey from seed to carrot, and then pulling up that piece of food that you grew from the dirt with your own two hands and taking a bite, or being handed a bag of frozen broccoli florets? Teach a man to fish, etc.

Both bloggers also ignore the new data in favor of school gardens that prompted the attack. And Ozimek falls into the trap of using the word "progressive" as a negatively charged adjective without explanation, as in the sentence "Unfortunately, it seems that these genuinely useful policies and programs are being bogged down with wasteful progressive ideas."

Ozimek describes the values of fresh food champions like Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters as "wasteful upper-class liberal obsession over local, fresh, and organic foods." Reminder: local, fresh, organic food is not exclusive to the upper class. That's just the stigma it carries in the U.S. today. Not to idealize the diet of the poor, as Rachel Laudan cautions us against doing, but local, fresh, and organic is how the whole world used to eat and how much of it still eats by default and not because it's cool. Such foods get the shaft in being branded as a departure from brand, spankin' new systems of food production labeled "conventional," though they are anything but. Of the two, "conventional" produce is the new radical.

Local for the sake of local is not a luxury, as Ozimek suggests. It is a powerful notion that keeps more money in the communities these children live in and that makes a tremendous qualitative difference in the lives of those it effects: the farmers who receive more of every dollar, patrons who experience the social benefits of having their own farmers market, and those who seek alternatives to the risks posed by industrial agriculture.

Sullivan/Ozimek are also guilty of determining what poor people should do without consulting them, making them appear at least as elitist as any goat cheese and arugula devotee. Ultimately, poor people should get to decide what poor people get to do, and the important thing is to provide them with a range of options so that they can pick the one that works best for them. Because, shockingly, poor people are actual people, and are different from one another, and some of them are able to and want to grow some of their own food. Thankfully there are several programs that help them do so.

Many of the vain yuppies being attacked are also big fans of frozen vegetables. Most of the people I know who grow their own food and shop at farmers markets also use frozen vegetables, and none of them are wealthy. In other words, it's not like people who garden are rich fools and people who eat frozen veggies are poor heroes. The lines are not as distinct as Sullivan/Ozimek make them out to be.

What we have here is a typical case of curmudgeonliness clouding vision. This is precisely the perspective that was dismissive of public interest in organic food, now one of the fastest growing sectors of agriculture, and then of local food, now being championed not only by "yuppies" but also by Walmart (for better or for worse).

There are a lot of poor, blue-collar people the world over who grow their own vegetables. It is neither ignorant nor idealistic to suggest that more people do so, and that's not to exclude frozen vegetables from the mix.

Should lower income households try to grow their own vegetables? Should lower income people try to eat more frozen vegetables? The answer to both questions is yes, though the former has the power to create a greater change, as the new data suggests, and if you can only dismiss that as a pipe dream of the privileged, then you should wipe the icy peas and carrots from your eyes.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Real Eggs, For Real

A real egg has a thick shell that you actually have to crack, not just look at the wrong the way.

A real egg has a carrot-colored yolk, and it doesn't drip out of its shell: it leaps!

A real egg tastes like chicken butter.

The above photo features (real) eggs from my local far-mar scrambled with leeks, which is one of my favorite combos on earth, much more so than Combos. (Of the two, I prefer the one that doesn't sponsor a race car.)

When cracking the eggs to make this ideal breakfast, which also featured pan roasted taters and raw Napa cabbage with a sprinkling of cider vinegar, I remembered just how good a real egg can be, especially in contrast to the alleged supermarket counterparts that I've been using lately.

Don't be fooled by supermarket (or even gourmet supermarket) eggs claiming to be real eggs just because they come in cardboard and prominently display an image of a field at sunrise. A real egg comes from a chicken that has room to move about and eats real food, as opposed to sitting in a pen eating pellets that are technically organic but probably come from China. A real egg might come in a package that (gasp!) has nothing on it all.

Pseudo-real supermarket eggs may come in cardboard, they may be brown, and they may make claims like "cage-free," "organic," or "all-natural," but they just don't compare with eggs raised by your local dirty hippie socialist farmer.

A real egg has backbone. And I like to think that some of that backbone transfers to eater. But not literally, which would be gross.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Knobbed Russet: A Darned Fine, Though Ugly, Apple

This Knobbed Russet was one of the best -- hmm... maybe the best -- apples I've ever eaten. It is not, however, one of the best apples I've ever looked at.

"Knobbed" is not an adjective I want used to describe my fruit. "Knobbed" is an adjective I want used to describe old-timey walking sticks sold at craft shops for tourists in Asheville, NC. "Juicy" is an adjective I want used to describe my fruit.

Luckily, the k.r. was both knobbed and juicy, unlike the mealy Sheep's Nose apple (another heirloom) I once bought from Cornell Orchards in Ithaca. What impressed me most about this dingy looking fruit was its aroma: like biting into a perfume bottle, but without shards of glass piercing your tongue.

Just another reminder, as if you needed it, that heirloom produce can blow supermarket produce out of the water in terms of depth, subtlety, and mildly off-putting, quaint names.

I'm reminded of something someone recently said to me while I was helping to prepare a post-wedding brunch in Chesapeake, VA. I paraphrase:

"I've tried growing organic but it just doesn't work. At least the vegetables are never pretty."

There a lot of things I dislike about that comment, but here's the most obvious. If the most important criteria for food was the normative standard for "pretty," wouldn't someone have eaten Cindy Crawford in, like, 1991?

Yet she lives. Therefore, eat knobbed apples.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Jews and Pickles

See here for my post on the Forward's food blog about pickles, Jews, and Jewish pickler Sandor Katz (author of the awesome Wild Fermentation).

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Pawtuxet Pawpaw

As you may recall, I'm mad for pawpaws. I have an article about them in the current issue of Edible Rhody, which you can read here and which you can read a little bit of here:

"The pawpaw could very well become mascot for the American local foods movement, a rallying point for both growers and consumers seeking to reconstruct our forgotten national food identity. Nothing better embodies our terroir than this truly American fruit found nowhere else on earth and so deeply embedded in our national history. Certainly not the apple, which, like Borat, is from Kazakhstan.

As we pay closer attention to where our food comes from, why not look a little further back? Even hardcore farm-to-table restaurants like the flagship Chez Panisse are cooking with crops that originated on other continents. In the quest for authenticity, shouldn’t an indigenous plant that our first president grew score higher than, say, a cauliflower?"

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GMO Tater Maker Totters

The NYT reports that agribusiness giant Monsanto is taking a nose dive, with market shares dropping 42%. Yay for the local foods movement? Not exactly.

If like me you thought their market shares might be suffering from increased farmers markets and CSA shares, you're wrong. This is less about anti-frankenfood pressure and more about farmers buying cheaper, generic GMO products from (surprise) China.

Which is perhaps an even worse state of affairs. If you're going to use genetically modified seed that can spill into your neighbor's farm and cause them to be sued for intellectual property theft, and if you're going to grow crops with "terminator genes" that are programmed to produce sterile second generation crops so that you can no longer save your seed but have to go back to Monsanto for your annual fix, the least you could do is buy American.

Granted, Monsanto f's with more crops that potatoes, as the title of this post points out, but I'm willing to sacrifice accuracy for puns.

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Weed Tea

I threw together this witch's brew when I was up in Vermmmont over the summer. Rather than drink one of the dubious herbal teas (think "natural" ingredients) someone had left in our cabin, I just went out to the lawn.

There I found plenty of wild edibles just waiting to be steeped in an old coffee pot and drunk by an amateur forager/food writer. These included raspberry leaves, plantain, red clover blossoms, oxalis (aka wood sorrel) and bee balm.

It was a little minty from the bee balm, a little tangy from the oxalis, it was made richer by the plantain, and the red clover blossom and raspberry leaf did absolutely nothing except make me feel good about myself for knowing I could use them in tea. I'll have to try both on their own to understand their deal.

Was it the best tisane I've ever had? If you said "yes" you clearly haven't read my post entitled "The Best Tisane I've Ever Had." But it was great, it was free, it was wild, it connected me to the Earth and made me grateful to be somewhere where I could trust the safety of the wild edibles. (I'm not afraid of the plants, I'm afraid of the pesticide.)

But best of all, it didn't have "zinger" in the title.

Also, sorry to disappoint any stoners who were expecting a post on tea made from marijuana. In case I ruined your high, here's a picture of a Grateful Dead bear to cheer you up again:

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