Grab a cup of coffee. This is long.
Books have long influenced me. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle caused me to stop eating meat (most of the time) at age 17. A few years later Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation kicked my fast food habit and pushed me over the line to no beef, pork or poultry ever (or game, either, while I was at it). Dr. Weil’s Eating Well for Optimum Health sent me to my kitchen to remove everything with partially hydrogenated oils, and more recently Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma led to my extreme aversion to high fructose corn syrup (and let me tell you, it is in EVERYTHING).
A nice change it was then, for a highly influential book to send me in the opposite direction – to *add* foods to my diet. I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle recently, mad to start eating locally and seasonally. (January in Kentucky, sadly, is not the ideal time of year to launch a lifestyle change like this but it gives me lots of time to think about it.)
This book really resonated with me. I am one of those people she talks about who don’t know what’s in season when. I have eaten with the seasons of Kroger for the last 20 years, which is to say that I eat listless asparagus in January, mealy tomatoes in February, limp zucchini in March and in general, cardboard facsimiles of flown-in and trucked-in produce all year round, never questioning whether it’s good for anyone – me, the farmer, the environment. I have long admired (and enjoyed!) the European insistence on local fresh food but for some reason never thought I could apply that philosophy of eating and living to myself.
I wasn’t always so unaware. As a kid in rural Kentucky, I spent many grubby mornings in my grandpa’s garden picking potatoes (watching out for the bugs), corn (watching out for the worms when I shucked it) and green beans, and many long afternoons on the front porch breaking the beans with my mom and grandma. This work (that I found tedious and grimy) was rewarded with vast plates of my grandma’s simple and delicious cooking – corn right off the cob simmered with butter and sugar, green beans sautéed in bacon grease. Many summer meals consisted of plate after plate of fresh vegetables. I possessed a kid’s determined dislike of tomatoes though, a dislike a childishly held until my first trip to Italy at age 26 when the possibilities of these luscious fruits exploded for me. I longed then to go back to my grandparent’s garden and pluck and eat a warm tomato from the vine.
With the illness and death of my farming grandparents, as an older kid I lost my previously taken-for-granted concept of seasonal eating. My memories of meals as a teenager are a blur of mashed potatoes, meat that my parents begged and bribed me to eat (I never did like it) and probably some store-bought vegetables here and there. I’m duly ashamed now of the years I gave no regard to the effort my working mom put into planning, shopping and cooking for our finicky family of four.
I subsisted in college on beige packaged and fast foods, sodden with sodium, chemicals and fat and my diet didn’t improve much when I got married. Our first trip to Europe really opened my eyes and my palate to the joy of good food. And when my husband began to take an interest in cooking our meals at home really took off.
We’ve gotten quite good at picking out recipes and treasure-hunting the ingredients at stores across town. We sometimes even buy ingredients at the farmer’s market if our craving happens to align with the season. In fact, we love to wander through the farmers market. The vibrant colors and textures of the heaped produce are art for me, but a mysterious foreign art – I wouldn’t know what to do with most of it. Just one of the drawbacks of growing up on the seasons of Kroger is the extremely limited number of produce items one becomes familiar with. So I wander the market, ooh and ahh, take pictures, then go to Whole Foods to buy out of season produce flown in from Argentina.
It’s not that hard to be a good cook. Following a recipe is just a matter of the ingredient scavenger hunt, closely reading the instructions and following them. Cooking with the season will take an altogether different talent. It requires an ability to look at an ingredient and build a meal around it. I don’t have that ability. Yet.
Enter Ralph and Kathy Packard of Misty Meadows Farm in Payneville, Kentucky. Small family farmers who have supplied fresh produce to Louisvillians for the last 15 years, they are the stars of our great local food experiment.
Ralph and Kathy started with a garden of their own years ago, growing food — like so many others used to — to feed their own family. Someone encouraged Kathy to set up at the Bardstown Road farmers market in Louisville about 15 years ago. Somewhat apprehensively, she piled her three kids and one box of garden produce in the back of her 1976 Ford Granada and cleared $58, a veritable fortune. She followed this happy success with seven loaves of freshly-baked zucchini bread, a side effect of summertime zucchini abundance, and sold out in five minutes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ralph and Kathy have become farmers market fixtures, and nine years ago started their community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. A CSA is a way for consumers to support local farmers and buy their food, often organic, from someone they know. The farm sells “shares” at the beginning of the season and uses the income to fund their farm. The buyers share the risks and rewards of the growing season with the farmer. With most CSAs, the buyer receives a basket or box of fresh produce once a week, containing whatever the farmers picked that morning. (Learn more about CSAs.)
Participating in a CSA is a commitment for both parties, not just the farmer – on the buyer’s side, it’s a responsibility to honor the farmers’ work by enjoying the (literal) fruits of their labors. When you get a box of unknown vegetables, it’s your duty to find out how to prepare them and then do just that. If your box is loaded with bell peppers and you despise peppers beyond all reasoning (yours truly), Ralph says that’s when you engage in the dying art of horse-trading. No matter what, you use the food. I think wasting food in a world with so many hungry people is sinful, and when you know the person whose hands planted and dug the food, that seems even worse in my book.
That said, I’m fairly terrified of what we’re about to undertake. Ralph and Kathy’s labor and love will supply us with organically and sustainably grown fresh produce from May through October this year. I am committed to making use of my food, and sharing the experience on my blog. Each week I’ll show what we received, and then describe how we used it, including recipes and what I learn in the process.
This public accountability will serve two purposes. One, it means if I waste my food, I have to confess it. I do NOT want to do that. And two, it gives me an opportunity to share what I learn – hopefully with other people who may be considering a CSA, and don’t know what to do with the boxes of surprises that arrive every week. Throughout the year, armed with cookbooks and email and phone access to Kathy, I’ll learn how to eat what nature and the dedicated work of two farmers provides. On paper this sounds amazing – beautiful food from only 50 miles away, raised by people whose faces we know, bursting with nourishment. In reality, I know it means I’m going to scramble some nights — probably many nights — to figure out what the heck to do with the likes of kohlrabi .
I hope you’ll come along (and share recipes!)
Here’s what we can expect this year:
Arugula, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chinese greens, collards, cucumber, daikon, eggplant, green beans, green onions, hot peppers, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, okra, onions, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salad greens, salad mix, spinach, sweet corn, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, tomatillos, tomatoes, turnips, pumpkins, summer squash, winter-squash, zucchini, apples, blackberries, cantaloupes, cherries, melons, peaches, pears, persimmons, raspberries, strawberries and watermelons.