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Posts Tagged ‘supermarket’

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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I know it’s almost Valentine’s Day and I know that’s not a picture of heart-shaped Scharffen Berger chocolate and Bordeaux up there. I’m dispensing with tradition again and deliberately not talking about candy and wine in the interest of…well…I don’t want to be trite, especially not this week. I don’t even want to get into the gooey romantic language, if I can help it. Hope you’re good with that.

Instead we’ll salivate over other combinations I adore,* stuff that’s not typical, starting with sandwiches. The first one, above and at the very bottom, makes an incredible lunch.

-Sweet** onion (like a Vidalia), caramelized in olive oil or butter

-Chicken, roasted (or grilled, or whatever), shredded and added to the onion

-Apple (pick anything that’s not a McIntosh because those’ll just dissolve on you), sliced, don’t bother to peel it, thrown into the pan with the onions and chicken and cooked until golden brown

-Fontina (a European, kinda nutty, kinda pungent, eminently oozeable cheese that any supermarket has)

-Ground allspice, a few shakes into the onion/chicken/apple pan

-Black pepper, coarsely ground  (I like a lot in this) into the pan as well

Now. Butter and toast your bread under the broiler (I used a Cuban roll because it was all the bakery downtown had left but it was awesome), melt your cheese, then pile your stuff on top.

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When I shot this I accidentally had the camera set on video like a dope. So right now I have valuable footage of a sardine sandwich in its natural habitat, on a plate, on my dining room table. It’s fascinating. They’re very docile, much quieter than you’d imagine.

The next sandwich, above, makes an incredible breakfast if you’re my mom. I grew up in a house that relished the combination of sardines and raw onion on a sandwich. The above is normal to me and wildly addictive, too, actually. I hope I don’t lose subscribers over this.

-Sardines (skinless and boneless, packed in either water or olive oil)

-Mayo

-Red*** onion, thinly sliced

-Bread of some sort (I used a whole wheat roll from Trader Joe’s)

-Salt to taste

Add mayo to bread. Add the rest. Wipe exertion from brow.

Since many of you are already appalled, another delirious combination is tuna packed in oil into which you’ve mixed in a good amount of anchovy paste. Keep the sliced raw onion, hold the mayo, and sandwich-ify.

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Other yummy food combinations:

-Almond extract, just a teaspoon or so, baked into anything that features peaches, nectarines, cherries or apricots. Almonds and all of these fruits are botanical cousins. Ever notice that the pit of a peach looks a lot like an unshelled almond? Yep. And they are lovely together.****

-Mushrooms cooked with a few splashes of chicken broth. Not cousins, to be sure, but for some reason they bring out the best in each other, like Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Okay, mellower than the two of them, but the point stands.

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*Sorry. Crap. That was quick.

*Totally not my fault. Vidalias are sweet!

***It’s a color, not a holiday.

****%&#%*!!!

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If the apple were to post a listing on match.com, it’d get dozens of hits because it has it all—looks, personality and versatility.

This pictorial features the glorious apple in the height of its season. All shown are organic, and what’s more, none ever saw the inside of a supermarket.

The small apples are crabapples, which I picked from a tree in my town. I know of five crabapple trees within walking distance, some planted and some wild. They are all alongside the lake, and thus the EPA dictates that they cannot be sprayed. As is always the case, while I was picking, someone stopped to ask what they were, what they tasted like (very tart), and what I was going to do with them (make jam. And another day, schnapps).

The large apples were purchased from Tom Nivison at Silverton Farms. The splotchy red ones are Empires and the green ones are Mutsus. I think the deep red ones are Romes. The apple trees in the photos are Tom’s own: ‘Liberty’ and ‘Freedom’. ‘They look like hell, but they taste great,’ he said, as he polished one on his shirt and took a bite. He’s right. I took a ‘Freedom’ home in my pocket (that’s the sliced apple on the cutting board) and it was my ideal combination of floral sweetness with a little bite of tartness.

Jump at trying a new apple whenever you come across one; go for something different than the usual suspects (Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Granny Smith). Every now and again at a farmers market or a specialty store you’ll spot a bin of dinky little Lady apples (great for caramel apples for the little ‘uns) or better yet, an heirloom variety you’ve never heard of before. Crunch into it and let a wave of adjectives (or colors, or whatever) swirl through your mind.

There was a time not too long ago when most land-owning folks had an orchard, or at the very least, a few apple trees (each tree was grown for a different dish, no less). Think about the possibility that the apple you’re eating might have been grown by your great-great grandmother. It’s not only delicious…it could even be a five-sensory link to the past.

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Blackberries, Silverton Farms, Toms River.

I can’t speak for you, but for me, supermarket shopping for produce in February is onerous at best. It’s been months since the sun made a respectable appearance, local offerings are few, and the produce from Chile is a little too coiffed, like that slicky QVC-type hawker that Bridget Jones’s mum had an affair with.* It’s like they’re trying to pretend they’re not tiny, expensive and lacking in nutrition, which was sadly lost two weeks ago over the Atlantic. The supermarket tries to keep the dismal at bay with bright lights and piped-in music, but it just makes the setting feel more hollow.** Admittedly, the rest of the year it’s not much better. Even now, at the height of the growing season, to me it feels hollow. It might as well be February.

Produce shopping at a farmers market is much more satisfying. You can buy lacinato kale that was in the ground that morning. And it’s only traveled a few miles to get to you. Best of all, you get to meet the people who grew, or baked, or somehow else concocted what they’re selling. They aren’t wearing name tags or uniforms; usually they’re in old jeans. The female growers rarely wear makeup or do up their hair. There’s a sense of integrity, of pride of ownership—a quiet brashness of what you see is what you get, refreshing in today’s endlessly tidied up and sanitized world.

But for the best produce shopping experience of all, I choose pick your own. If you haven’t tried it and think you don’t want to, listen: it’s more enjoyable than you think. As long as you’re wearing shoes that can get dusty or a little muddy and you’re wearing sunblock and a decent hat to keep the sun at bay, you’re good.  A bottle of water wouldn’t hurt, either. And if you go to a small farm, even better; there’s a chance you’ll have the whole blackberry field to yourself.

Pick your own is a five-sense epicurian feast. Remember, farmers aren’t in it for the money. What you’re about to take part in is something ancient, something all at once enormous and humbling, something farmers—despite the labor and precarious nature of a life lived like this—treasure. The connection with the living things offering you their fruit, the gratitude, the simplicity, the peace that taps you gently on the shoulder—all are a big part of what makes this work worth it for them. And it can do the same for you, just for an hour or so one morning.

See the variety in shape and color and texture of what’s growing; the sparkle of dewdrops in streaks across the grass and across your feet (when was the last time your shoes were dampened with dew?); the sky with sun and scribbles of clouds; the geometry of the buildings, fences, plow and tractor tracks; moving, changing color in the leaves and the chickens that dot the yard; tight little immature red berries and fat glossy purple ones (to find the ripest, fattest berries, occasionally you need to lift the canes carefully and peek beneath them).

Hear those chickens scolding each other; the wind rustling leaves in the maple trees a few yards off and several more yards up; the whirring of bees busy doing their thing (and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them); cicadas singing over and over again to a crescendo before dropping the note; cardinals calling to each other; the rustle of tall grass as you make your way down the path.

Smell the green of the blackberry leaves (yes, you can, especially on hot days); the sweet pungency of fruit that’s fermenting into schnapps after the rain dropped it to the ground Tuesday evening; the richness of the soil that crumbles like devil’s food cake; the freshness of the wind.

Feel the dew on leaves growing in the shade; the basket handle under your arm; the prickly canes (being careful of the thorns; much like bees, respect is warranted); the difference between berries that are ripe versus almost ripe (you want fruit that is firm but not too firm; it should be a bit yielding, dropping fairly easily into your fingers when tugged); your blood pressure slowing down to mellow yellow.

Taste the sweet blackberries, flesh and juice…as well as the gift of this morning.

* Okay, he was Portuguese, but the point still stands.

**Whole Foods is a notable exception.

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Peach blueberry pie, Red Bank.

Mid-April. We turn our winter weary selves to the strengthening sun and take deep breaths of the sweet air. The world is yawning, stretching, and growing greener. Another spring.

The predictable sameness of the supermarket isn’t going to cut it this time of year. A farmers market is. Hat, small bills, some cloth shopping bags (French housewives know the stretchy mesh kind are best because they can always fit one more onion), and off you go. Ride that spring momentum.

Like New York City during Fashion Week, the farmers market is a seasonal showcase; specifically, for the local and the just picked. This is what’s in fashion from the earth, right now. Produce sold there is going to be more nutritious, more flavorful, and often cheaper than whatever the supermarket has recently misted with water and glossed with wax.

Young cheese, Red Bank.

This is an opportunity to try stuff you’ve always wanted to, or to try stuff you’ve never even seen before. The blog you’re reading says ‘open your eyes’ at the tippy top for this very reason. If you’ve only ever shopped at supermarkets, going to a farmers market is like entering another galaxy—albeit one right at home—and in the best imaginable way. It’s a way to make your life bigger. Sniff the freshness of lemon verbena now, be dazzled later in the season by the explosion of sweetness in an heirloom tomato. Take in the greens and golds, the deepest, plummiest purples.

One of the best things about farmers markets is of course that they feature farmers. And bakers. And other people who are invested in what they’ve grown or made for you. They’re excited to talk to you about it. Questions are good. (Once a supermarket cashier held up the greens I had put on the conveyor belt and asked me what kind they were. This is not good.) You can talk about butterstick zucchini with the guy who planted it, tended to it, and picked it. This bin of zucchini is his labor of love, not just his job. And the man can give you recipes in his sleep.

Introduce yourself and get his name. After you take the zucchini home and cook it, go back and tell him how much you dug it. Or tell him you fouled the recipe up, if you did. He’ll give you pointers on how to get it right. It’s hard to beat that kind of attention and service.

Local brown and white eggs, Asbury Park.

Collards, Atlantic Highlands.

Ask for a taste. (You can do that there.) Prepare to be surprised. Ask more questions. You’ll find out oddball stuff, like if you add a teaspoon of almond extract to peach pie it will make it celestial. Think about what an almond looks like in its shell and what a peach pit looks like. Pretty similar, right? It’s because peaches (and nectarines, and cherries) and almonds are all cousins. Because of that, they have a natural affinity for each other.

Have you ever bitten into a strawberry that was picked three hours ago? It’s still warm. Chances are it’s also smaller than the ones you’ve seen at the supermarket. Often those are dipped in chocolate—and a good thing, too, because on their own they taste like wet cotton balls. Big strawberries are bred to 1) wow you by their size 2) sit on a shelf for a week. Flavor? Niente.

Taste one that’s small and local. That means it’s bred for flavor, which further means it’s never going to be sold in a supermarket. The farmer grew this variety because he knows he can pick these little guys, pack them in the back of his flatbed and get them into your hands inside a day.

Red cabbage, Asbury Park.

Hot pepper jam, Asbury Park.

If you come across a table behind which stand an elderly woman and her son, and you can’t pronounce their last name, and they make old-style sour rye bread, please buy one.  Ask the woman how long she’s been making bread and why she still does it. She wants to talk about it.

Last summer I met a portly man whose parents taught him to make focaccia and fresh bufala mozzarella, in his hometown of Rome, 50 years ago. I could tell you how good this bread and cheese tasted, but you’ve probably already guessed.

Many of these purveyors are keeping ancient traditions alive. One taste, and both the flavor and the link from past to present will astonish you, bring tears to your eyes if you let it.

Heirloom tomatoes, Asbury Park.

Everyday life can make our heads spin. But farmers markets can bring us back down to earth, literally and figuratively. The growers chatting, your neighbors browsing and tasting along with you, the pooches scooting along beside them—all make a farmers market a bustling place. But paradoxically, it can also give us a sense of peace. The handmade, the homegrown, and the people who offer it have the power to soothe the overwrought spirit as well as to make us feel more alive. It can make us want to stretch along with spring itself.

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