Sunday, November 22, 2009

Know thy farmers

There are many things that industrial production has done to rob Americans of food’s value and benefit. One of the most basic things lost is our ability to enjoy food’s simplicity and its most basic components—things like vegetables, fruits, simple cheeses—and just as important, we’ve forgotten the culture of food that probably has been lost, beginning with our parents, possibly, but most likely, with us.

Michael Pollan, one of the best writers currently writing about food, touched on the phenomenon of American’s rabid interest in watching people cook and prepare food—some of it quite exotic—yet at the same time, they don’t cook, or take much interest beyond watching regarding their own food and its preparation. Or, as Pollan puts it, “the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.” Paradox indeed!

One of the things that my wife and I have found exciting is the amount of fresh locally grown foods that we can locate within 2-30 miles of our home. I think it’s much like that in many other parts of Maine, a state that isn’t considered a major agricultural producer. Trips this summer and fall on Saturday mornings to the state’s best farmer’s market, in Portland, have convinced us that Maine has a vibrant farming community around Portland, as well as many other communities nearby. It’s like that through much of the state, actually.

A quick 20-30 minute walk among the assorted, colorful vendor’s booths revealed familiar vegetables like carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, and lettuce. Other favorites, like beets, turnips, and parsnips also bid us hello. Even better, we began asking about other vegetables (one of the additional benefits of farmer’s markets—you get to talk to the experts who know the most about their products), discovering a wonderful root crop, like celeriac (or celery root), which is wonderful in soups, as well as kohlrabi (also called, German turnip), which has a texture like broccoli root and makes an awesome slaw.

As fall set in and many of the smaller outdoor markets ended for the season, like in Brunswick (held on the mall and on Saturdays as Crystal Spring Farm), a group of local farmers began holding an indoor market at Fort Andross, near the bridge between Brunswick and Topsham. This Saturday morning market, begun in 2008, now boasts over 30 vendors, with a wealth of vegetable, meat, and cheese options available to shoppers.

[Fort Andross in Brunswick; a former mill, it is now home to the winter farmer's market]

Not only does Saturday bring out many local farmers, but other vendors include some amazing artisan bread makers, including a local favorite of ours, Judy’s Kitchen, of Durham, who bakes breads, pies, pickles a variety of vegetables, and now is producing ChowChow. Chowchow, is a relish made from a combination of different vegetables: green and red tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, beans, asparagus, cauliflower and pies, which are pickled in a jar and served cold. The name is based on the French word chou for cabbage.

I have come to enjoy these forays each week to the farmer’s market. Not only do Mary and I get to pick from some of the best locally grown produce, grain-fed beef, free-range turkey, and even freshly harvested fish, we are getting to know our local food producers, ask questions about farming, and we have become connected to the food chain in a way that would never happen relying solely on our local supermarket.

In closing, Mary and I have made positive lifestyle changes, dating back to June. While both of us have lost significant amounts of weight (50 pounds for me and 26 for Mary), the more lasting result has been to get a handle on the way we eat, particularly choosing local options whenever we can get them. We still go to the local supermarket, mainly for our staples, but more and more, we are finding local food to be a better choice, and even in Maine, with winter rapidly bearing down on us, it appears that we’ll be able to stay connected to our local purveyors during the months between growing seasons.

Last night’s menu:

--Salad made from lettuce and fresh mixed greens, fresh carrots, and local broccoli (all grown within 30 miles of our home)
--Mary whipped up a warm Vinaigrette (Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe)
--Leftover minestrone/vegetable soup from the previous week’s farmer’s market run, which included locally grown parsnip, turnip, and celeriac root.
--Bread from a local bread maker that practically melted in our mouths and was the perfect accompaniment to our meal

Lastly, there’s an appreciation that comes from a meal like this one, shared together at our dining room table, not in a restaurant, or in front of the television. Conversation occurs, the food is enjoyed, and food becomes something sensual between people and helps ground and connect us.


Garnet said...

Wonderful commentary. It reminds me of when I went to a local farmer's market early in the summer. Weather had not been conducive to early veges, but one farmer had plenty of kale, about which he gave me an enthusiastic information lecture. And here I thought kale was only garnish!

Jim said...


Thanks for stopping by. I had a similar experience with Kale, and actually grew it one year. Nothing like blanched Kale, with butter and a bit of salt and pepper, after picking it fresh out of the garden.