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Posts Tagged ‘farmer’

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A fatty!

Very, very few things give me as much pleasure as picking the first strawberries of the season. And after a number of years of picking after it had rained the night before (which was gross) and going at noon in the heat (only to plotz), I’ve worked out a practical system.

1) Per my first lesson above, choose a day after a sunny day to go. Mud is a bit of a bummer.

2) Wear jeans, an old t shirt, boots, a hat, and sunblock. Tuck your pant legs into your socks to ward off ticks. Bring a water bottle and more sunblock for the ride home.

3) Go to the farm first thing in the morning when it opens. If there’s still mist floating by, you’re on time. This guarantees the coolest weather of the day as well scarcity of crowds. Besides the farm staff, you’ll probably be the only one there.

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In repose. And about to be macerated in sugar. Don’t breathe a word.

4) While we’re on the topic, introduce yourself and remember to be respectful of everyone who works there. Barring Red Cross relief workers in Uganda, few people work as hard, amid as much uncertainty, while maintaining optimism, as a farmer. And besides that, they feed us.

5) Take a flat out to the fields instead of a basket if you can. Laying the berries in one layer means they won’t get crushed.

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Sliced and lightly sugared for the freezer.

6) Sit your sweet self right down onto the straw path between the rows of strawberries, which is dry because it didn’t rain last night, and pick and scootch along as needed. Sounds nutty, I know, but the benefit of sitting is twofold: it saves your back and quads from pain tomorrow, and you’ll see berries you would have otherwise missed standing and bending.

I’ve written before about taking the time to look beneath, and how much you can reap in doing so. It’s true whether you’re looking for berries or a loyal friend or pretty much anything of value. You need to look, to be deliberate. You need to have your eyes open and reach where others won’t.

You won’t always find something. But you usually will—that I can promise. You’ll get to the counter to pay for your berries and people will flip out. ‘How did you find so many? I was just out there and I only got a pint!’ Just smile enigmatically and whisper, ‘Look beneath.’

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Buttermilk biscuits pipin’ hot.

7) Choose berries that are evenly red, with as few white ‘shoulders’—that’s the top of the berry, by the stem—as possible. Get the darkest red berries you can find for deepest flavor, and eat those up first, since they’re the ripest. Get shiny red ones for firmness and bright flavor; they’ll be the ones that stand up in your showboat recipes like decorative tarts.

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They got creamed.

8) Eat a warm fat one right off the plant. There are many glories gone to us, never to return. This remains. Enjoy it.

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The best thing you can do with a heap of strawberries. Classic Americana: the strawberry shortcake.

 

 

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I just discovered that the edges of a crab apple leaf are the exact same red as the fruit they’ll produce in the fall. Isn’t that the coolest? Foreshadowing!

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You all know I can’t get enough of the outdoors. This time of year there are so many new things to see, and many of them tiny things, so you kinda have to look.

If you do, and if you live in an area that doesn’t over-manicure open spaces (as I do, sing hosanna), you might find one or more of the little wildflowers that once carpeted all of the outdoors in May. They’re called spring ephemerals, and in the very small town where I grew up, they mainly grow on the quietest, shadiest street along the lake. Most of the trees there are original and thus are enormous, but enormous. That spot feels like a forest to which people happened to add some houses. Little woodland flowers pop up on roadsides, near the mossy banks, and right on people’s lawns. They don’t know that the town was settled almost a hundred years ago. I find this incredibly comforting, especially as time goes by. It’s something we can count on, something silent and resilient and beautiful that never fails.*

I’m having very little success finding out the names of most of the flowers there. Can anyone help me out?

These first I know: white violets. (Sometime I’m going to find seeds for the variety that has a sweet scent. My girl Laura Ingalls Wilder, who grew up in the western part of the U.S., talks so fondly of them in her books.)

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The below ephemerals are edged in palest purple, with white on the inside.

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These have the form and color of a grape hyacinth, with blossoms shaped like lilies-of-the-valley.

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These are pure white and grow in clumps. I had to sneak onto the Schwartz family’s lawn to take this shot. Shhh now.

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Another clump of the above was growing a little farther down the street, and I pulled over to shoot them as well. When I did, an elderly gentleman with a big smile walked over and asked what I was doing. Of course I was terribly taken aback at his question, as most normal people routinely 1) both see and 2) stop the car to crouch in the dirt so they can shoot seven white flowers growing on the side of the road. He shook my hand with his big hand and said his name was Fred. He asked the name of the flowers, and all I could say was they’re ephemerals. But along with living in a not-overly-manicured area, I also love having conversations with neighbors in the middle of the street about wildflowers, the neighbor’s precious patch of lilies-of-the-valley, and the dangers of overgrown ivy.

Heading inside. I’m getting hungry, for a change.

I bought the below this morning from a farmer who lives about five miles away. Weathered face, weathered hands, big crinkly grin. The asparagus posed for the picture just before going onto the cookie sheet and into the oven at 350 for half an hour. Just took them out, and the house smells all green.

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The below was a surprising triumph (except for the crust. You can see it’s way, way too heavy.). The topping came out exactly right even though I totally winged the amount of sugar I added to the rhubarb. Underneath was my vanilla custard. Good breakfast choice.

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Hello, whoops, back outside again. Six hungry little girls watching the crowds at the car show today in Ocean Grove. I love that they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder, like sisters, and I love that they all have on new flip flops. All different colors, no less—left to right, they’re purple, blue, yellow, orange, pink, and green.

Hoping your May is as colorful, as close, and as sweet as theirs.

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*You know the song Edelweiss, featured in The Sound of Music? Edelweiss were not just flowers to Captain von Trapp; they were a brave and constant symbol of everything he loved about his home. They were his home. The spring ephemerals are my edelweiss.

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Soft-shell crab season begins in spring on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Nearly the whole bugger can be eaten.

So here’s me snooping around on a restaurant’s About page, and I see this: ‘With locally sourced fresh ingredients. Our menu changes seasonally: we always serve what is in season.’ Heart so warmed. Then I saw out-of-season ingredients on the menu, and called the chef to ask when he’d be updating it.

That’s when he said the menu was current. And consequently that’s when the Warm in my heart turned to Grrrr.

I was polite, don’t worry. But I was ticked. It’s not right to tell customers how important seasonal ingredients are at your restaurant and then put butternut pasta and corn/watermelon salad on your spring menu. Which is what I told him.

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Asparagus, mid-spring.

He squirmed. I heard it over the phone.* Then he told me he would like to use spring vegetables, but his hands were tied, you see: ‘There just aren’t that many,’ he sighed mournfully.

First of all, yes, there are. Second of all, huh? You can’t go throw a rock at a farmers market right now without hitting snow peas, asparagus, tiny radishes.** He thought I’d roll over and agree?

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Cherries, early summer.

It’s true there are no spring fruits here until around Memorial Day (strawberries are first). But you better believe there are lots upon lots of spring vegetables. I cheerfully took his assertion as a cue to rattle off every single one I could think of. Maybe eight vegetables in as many seconds. He squirmed some more and soaked the back of his chef’s coat.***

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Potatoes, summer. They keep well, but they’re born in the summer.

I have three problems with chefs who lie about offering local and seasonal produce on their menus.

You’re Lying

Look, the people you lie to are operating under fakery, and eventually it goes all London Bridge on you. It does. That’s the impractical end of lying.

But the insidious end is this: it implies contempt. At this restaurant and others of its ilk, with every bite of that butternut pasta in April comes a glaring lack of respect. It’s no way to eat. Then they want $24 for it.****

Some of Us Know Better, See ‘Ticked’ Above

Not everyone is a food writer who knows when produce comes into season, granted. Others are restauranteurs themselves. Or farmers, in this, the Garden State. Or ag students. Or home gardeners, or bio teachers, or hey wait COOKS.

Honestly? I don’t know this stuff because I’m a food writer. I know it because I cook. And I may be the first person who calls you on this lie, but I promise you with fairy dust and butterfly kisses that I won’t be the last.

It’s Your Job To Teach

People may disagree with me on this one, but I stand by it.

You, Sir Chef, chose to work with and present food to the public. With that choice comes the responsibility to go by it, and your customers, ethically. But there’s more.

Yes, there are lots of us who know corn isn’t in season in May. But there are far more who don’t; most people, sadly, have become detached from the earth and what and when it produces. You’re supposed to be enamored enough with what the earth produces that you chose it as your life’s work. Right? And thus…you are in the unique position of educating people and sharing that passion.

So educate us. Share it. Saute baby artichokes in fresh lemon juice and olive oil until they’re so tender they’ll halfway dissolve on our tongues. Slice up some Chioggia beets paper thin, and let your youngest customers giggle at the candy cane stripes and sweet taste.

This problem—it’s easily fixed. You just have to care.

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Melons, mid- to late summer.

Please note: I’m not saying every restaurant needs to serve local and seasonal produce. I mean it would be great, but I know it’s not the case. I go to places all the time that serve good meals with produce from all over the calendar. But they dont claim to be local and seasonal. My beef is with those who do, those who want to get on the trendy-phrase bandwagon and make some fat money off calling themselves local and seasonal…and it’s actually a total head fake.

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Figs, late summer into early fall. I picked these off the trees an hour before I shot this, then promptly ate them for lunch.

I called the above chef because I had hoped to feature his restaurant in an article. And who knows—his food, such as it is, might be good. But without integrity? Like at the very heart of the place, like at the very heart of the chef himself? No. If his heart’s not in it, he can’t expect mine to be.

Just checked their site again and was genuinely hoping to see a change, either with new copy that doesn’t tout how seasonal they are, or with an actual spring menu.

Psht.

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Persimmons, late fall.

*Yes, you can.

**Don’t throw rocks at farmers markets. It’s a bad idea. Same with caution to the wind.

***Didn’t have to be in the room. He did. And may I say, good.

****I swear to you this is what they’re charging. For a dish featuring squash picked seven months ago.

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Carrots with the dirt still clinging. I hacked off the tops and fed them to Esmerelda Goat at Silverton Farms. She quite enjoyed them.

Dear Organizers,

Okay, yesterday clinched it.

Compliments first—and soak ’em in, because once I’m done all bets are off.

You know I’m a big fan. I’ve sung arias to farmers and their markets time and again. (Even more than that.)

Here’s what you get right:

1) You created the market in the first place, reviving a homespun way to buy food.

2) People get to meet, kibbutz, share recipes, and have a groovy old time.

3) We get the opportunity to buy food straight from the dirt. And sometimes it still has dirt, or feathers, or errant sticks in with it. This is a plus, I’m telling you. I like finding inchworms. It’s nearing high summer in New Jersey. I’m wildly digging the butterstick squash, the beans, the little potatoes, the sweet bells, and the countless other treasures borne of our happy little Zone 7’s earth and rain and sky.

Okay, put away the Kleenex and turn off the Luther Vandross*. All set? So glad. We’re going to hear a lot more on that last note:

What the…? Mangoes? On a New Jersey farmers’ market table? Jesus H. Sebastian God. I saw a dozen of these yesterday, and it wasn’t the first time. Lemons and limes. Bananas. Blueberries from Canada, when they’re in season right here, right now. When NJ produces 52 million pounds every season.**

Even more insulting, peaches and plums bought at bloody Pathmark, transferred to an aw-shucks-ain’t-that-homey-hope-they-don’t-notice-they’re-from-Bolivia pint box, presented to us with the store stickers still attached, and with the price marked up. To make matters worse (as if you could), most often all of the produce, local or not, is tagged with a ‘Jersey Fresh’ label. That’s stones. Oh, also? That loses you at least one customer, and I can’t imagine I’m alone.

Forget that this mishagoss doesn’t support NJ. Forget that often enough you’re continuing to hoodwink the consumer into thinking produce is in season when it’s not. Even forget the number it’s doing on the environment, bringing in food from thousands of miles away when you can get it right down the road.

Factor in nothing but the incomparable, insane flavor and nutrition that come from collards that were in still in the ground at 7 this morning and still have 4 this-morning’s dew on them. I’ll pay more for them. They’re worth more.

I’m at a farmers market, people. I don’t want some bollocksy greens that were picked a week ago Thursday and have been on vehicles with six different plates from three different countries. If I wanted greens that have more stamps on their passport than Beyonce, I’d go to Pathmark.

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Red plum from a NJ farmer’s tree.

Educate me. Please. I know quite a few farmers. I would never suggest the work a farmer does is easy. I know the powerful resilience it takes to fight the fight every season—against the weather, the bills, the aging machines (especially if he or she is one of them), the land developers whispering sweet nothings through screen doors. Making ends meet and staying optimistic takes a mighty, consistent effort, and they have my respect and gratitude always.

You might be thinking:

1) Some farmers sell non-local produce because they had a bad season.

2) Some only grow two things and want to sell their wares just like everyone else, want to make the trip to the market worth their while.

My rebuttal:

1) This has been a lovely, good-sun and good-rain growing season so far.

2) I see this practice most often among farmers who already have a dozen-plus different homegrown offerings. They set out all of their beautiful produce right next to watermelons from Georgia, picked unripe so they could travel the distance intact, when NJ’s own luscious melons will be in season in only two or so more weeks.

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Purple cabbage in noon-time sunshine.

It’s time—long overdue, to be perfectly honest—to take a page from Greenmarket in NYC. Many years ago when the Market was in its infancy some growers began showing up with bananas. The higher-ups ix-nayed that. Food was to be local, harvested within a certain number of miles, or it wasn’t allowed on the tables.

What’s keeping NJ—or any state or country’s market—from doing the same?

Pull it together,

MCP

*Actually, that you’re welcome to deep-six entirely.

**No, that’s not a typo.

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The past month was at once great (crewed two shows back to back and had a raging good time) and hellacious (less-than-enjoyable correspondence with my more-than-schmuck-like landlord). So, looking back at July, I’d sum it up with ‘tiring’.

There are those who, when tiring happens, get a seaweed wrap and later curl up on the futon with the remote and ‘Supernatural’.  And there are those who take naps to catch up on sleep and then regroup by digging in the dirt.*

Recently I saw the post on Silverton Farms’s (Toms River, NJ) Facebook page that customers were invited to dig for potatoes. My heart raced. I don’t know why I’m wired up like this, but I am. I couldn’t wait.

Elena, dauntless future farmer, handed me a plastic bucket and showed me where to look for russets. (That’s a dried brown potato stem in the pic above.) And after the woman picking blackberries** in the nearby patch had left, I had the area to myself.

The thing that surprised me most was how simple it was. I thought I’d be DIGGING digging. Instead, I more or less moved dirt around a bit and there the little guys were.

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Another young worker there, Christine, loves harvesting potatoes. She once grinned, ‘You get to dig like a dog.’ But for me it was like hunting for Easter eggs, and so surprising that I kept giggling. You keep finding them, you see. Some were the size of plums and others as small as hazelnuts. It’s a crack up. It’s hard to stop.

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I did stop once my fingernails were completely caked with dirt. Great feeling, but turns out the next part was almost as good a time as picking. Elena pointed across the yard to where I could wash my hands—not at a sink, but at a pump. Red, and positioned next to an ancient barn, like in a production of The Miracle Worker. ‘Pull down the handle and take off the hose before you wash,’ she said. And I thought I was low tech.

As I washed my hands and dried them on my jeans, Tom, who owns the place, ambled over. ‘Makes good drinking, too,’ he said. ‘Is this well water?’ ‘Yep!’

I leaned over and pulled down the handle a little too hard, half expecting to be blasted back across the Parkway, but I wasn’t. And the water really was fantastic—like drinking from a pond in the middle of the Appalachians.

When I got home I set the oven at 425 degrees F. Then I washed Toms River dirt off a few potatoes, cut them up, tossed them with olive oil, and set them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet to be oven baked. Here they are pre-chopping. The droplets look cool in shadow.

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I amuse easily.

Then I put them in the oven for 15 or so minutes, then tossed them a bit, then put them back in for another 15 or so. I like ’em pretty brown and toasty. They go on a plate and are sprinkled with kosher salt. Then, intensely creamy on the inside, some popping their skins as you bite into them, they’re eaten—quickly enough that I didn’t take a picture.

*Normal I ain’t. Oh, and then I watch Doctor Who.

**…while inexplicably wearing fancy little flats. I will never understand how women can go to a farm to pick produce and yet insist on looking like Grace Kelly from the ankle down.

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So many of you commented on my last post (thank you) with thoughts on why people might choose what looks like quality versus what actually is quality; and it’s clear that the possible reasons, as well as solutions, to the question are many. One reason stuck out for me, though. Let me know if you agree or not.

It’s distance.

Most of us are just too far away from the source of our food—literally, figuratively, or both—so we buy what looks pretty and go about our day.

Distance, and the detachment that goes with it, is a big fat theme in today’s culture. We watch TV alone, instead of visiting friends. We grab fast food and eat it in our laps in the car instead around a dinner table with family. We message electronically instead of speaking face to face (and yes, I see the hypocrisy of kvetching about it on WordPress, but a girl’s got to start somewhere).

Moreover, with a few exceptions, we buy food from massive organizations located hundreds of miles away, run by those we’ve never met and whose philosophies may or may not match our own. And we usually don’t care. A few decades ago food manufacturers made sure to depict wheat and other natural ingredients on their packaging because they knew if they were going to woo housewives, they needed to reassure them that their products were the real deal. Those women grew up on farms, just like their forebears, and strictly trusted their own two hands and consciences or those of well-known neighbors for every single thing their families bit into. They weren’t going to trust perfect strangers. They were wary, and rightfully so—wild, in a sense, and in the healthiest way.

Now we’re tamed, and the worse for it. We don’t require it, so an assurance of integrity has gone the way of disco. The link from farm to fork has been broken.

I recently mentioned to someone that most chickens are raised poorly (to say the least) and he cut me off quickly: “I don’t want to know.”

Because knowing means responsibility—the word begins with ‘response’—and we don’t want to. It means wanting accountability, but we don’t insist on it. We don’t want to do something different when we’re all so cozy with our routine, so we cloak ourselves in the illusion of safety. I suspect a lot of us know it’s all going to bite us in the butt sooner or later, but we do it anyway.

So when faced with two bins of apples, the one on the left featuring unshiny, uneven fruit that was grown locally for flavor, and the one on the right featuring lip-glossy red fruit grown in North Jabibb and bred purely for durability, we pick the one on the right. And we give mediocrity another point.

Man. Now I’m depressed. But I have an idea on how to turn this around. You’ll likely come up with many more (and please fill us in).

For starters, we can support local farmers as often as possible.*

Here’s my thinking: Buying locally from a trusted source…

1) gives us a chance to be won over by quality goods. It starts with taste, and you simply can’t compare the taste of a sweet grilling pepper grown locally to one on a shelf at the supermarket. You just can’t. Don’t even try. And it’s more nutritious because it’s was picked so recently; its store bought counterparts lost nutrients during travel time.

Fighting personal insecurities that make us buy crap that looks good but isn’t…worries that, to our peers, we’ll appear inferior if we buy lumpy pears…that’s a bigger hurdle. But I believe taste will win us over. I fantasize about a day when buying misshapen local food is rad.** Then we’ll demand quality goods on an even wider scale.

2) forges a brand spanking new link to where our food comes from. Along with taste, the link will be soldered by a relationship between us and the farmers. A smile, a handshake, a joke, a story, a lesson—face to face!—these build trust. Introduce yourself at a farmers market and ask questions. Foster a rapport. It’s fun. Buy some of their eggs. Find out what eggs are supposed to taste like, go into a faint, and go back for more. When we buy from the big boys at a generic supermarket***, we’re supporting strangers who may or may not give a crap about us. When we buy from local farmers, we’re supporting neighbors that, if given the chance, will become our friends. They want to keep raising laying hens, they want us to have the best, they don’t want to give up their farms to developers because agribusiness pushed them to it. Choosing to buy locally means we can relax that we’re not being duped, and eat really, really well. And we’re supporting those who provide this goodness so they can keep on providing it.

200 years ago on my native soil a handful of farmers got tired of being the establishment’s lap dogs. They became makeshift soldiers, fought back with blood and won—won big.

A soldier I ain’t. But I can buy local eggs.

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North Bridge, Concord, site of the shot heard ’round the world and the start of the revolution. That’s a plow at his left side.

*If we buy organic, another 10 points for Gryffindor.

**I’m a child of the 80s. Obviously.

***Whole Foods is an exception.

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Help me out here. Something’s not making sense to me, it hasn’t for a while, and I want to pick your collective brains to try to get back on the trail.

I went to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and ordered ‘carrot cake in a jar.’ It was a charming presentation, cake layered with icing, but the cake was dried out and the icing tasted like really sweet chemicals.

Last week I met a specialty foods store owner who apologized for the way some of his multi-grain loaves looked. The oven was acting up lately, he said, and was turning out loaves that were browning unevenly. None were burnt. He was just worried that I’d be upset that some parts of the loaf I’d bought were mahogany while others were tan.

Many local, hardworking farmers I know don’t set out produce that has so much as one flaw—a nick, natural russeting, a lopsided bottom—because they say the public won’t touch it. Some stores wax their organic apples to make them look more buy-worthy.

My favorite ice cream shop sells artificially dyed green chocolate chip mint ice cream. I asked the owner why he didn’t seek out a variety that didn’t, since I know they’re out there. He said he did, and set it out, ‘but no one wanted it. They won’t buy it if it’s not green.’

The affluent parents of the nursery schoolers I used to teach chose Go-Gurt—those brazenly colored tubes of chemicals—instead of pure yogurt for their kids’ lunches.

My local bakery makes luscious, three-layer chocolate cakes with Jamaican rum. But if one comes out of the oven with a crack across the top, no matter how slight, the proprietor doesn’t put it in the display case because she says it won’t sell.

Yet.

We pay top dollar for low-quality supermarket-made cakes, and we feed them to appreciative partygoers who gasp over the design but don’t pay attention to the flavor or to the fact that they are poking forkfuls of powdered head fake into their mouths.

We buy massive, brand new houses in developments in the middle of farmland, bells and whistles from the sun room to the butler’s pantry, but the basement floods as soon as it rains because when the mason was given instructions to make sure the foundation was tightly sealed, he just shrugged.

We spend $45 for a shower curtain at a big box store, so enamored with the cute embroidery at the base that we don’t actually FEEL the fabric to be sure it’s good quality, and it begins to fray after a month.

We pay six men to haul out the vintage cast iron clawfoot tub that came with the house, consistently holds its toasty water temperature for the length of time it takes to read Eat, Pray, Love, and has never leaked in all of its 80 years, then we install a five-figure plastic Jacuzzi (in ‘Creme Brulee’) whose finish begins to peel by the end of September. And after each use we see little pools of water at the corners.

So it goes.

What is UP with us? Why are we so preoccupied with perfection, even if it’s—absurdly clearly—just the look of perfection, a solar system’s throw from the real thing? Why don’t we see the manipulation that’s going on here?

And a more insidious thought comes to mind: If we DO see it, why don’t we give a flying Wallenda?

We used to care, I know we did. I have cookbooks that prove that people wanted, and ate, honest, delicious food made from real ingredients. I’ve seen old-time ads touting goods made with care and attention, with ‘family-owned’ splashed across them. But when I wrote for radio (18-35 demographic) a few years back I was told not to include ‘family-owned’ in my spots. ‘This generation doesn’t care about that,’ the head sales rep told me.

But I can’t shake the image—and the flavor—of farm-fresh chard so full of rainwater that it snaps apart when bent…of a funkily shaped Sugar Baby melon that’s so ripe that at the gentlest prick with the top of a chef’s knife it cracks and splits open in two on my counter top. Real tastes better than perfect.

I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for convenience; I’m not saying every restaurant serves chemicals for dessert (and to be fair, the carrot cake was at a chain restaurant, so I wasn’t exactly surprised); and I’m not saying there aren’t notable exceptions to what I’ve outlined here.

I’m saying there seems to me to be a dismaying prevalence of choosing fancied-up crap over quality, and it’s a behavior that does not seem to be changing. There have been staggeringly positive advances in the food industry; maybe we all just need time to appreciate foods grown and made with integrity over ‘perfection’, or eating locally and in season, or what have you. And there will always be those who don’t care what they buy or eat. I get that.

But barring those who don’t know better or don’t care, I’m wondering where our predilection for mindfully choosing crap over quality comes from, and when and how the change took place. Thoughts?

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