“I grew up in open land. I’m not comfortable in the city. And until you have walked and worked in the fields of Central California, I’m not sure you can really understand what it is like to see them gone.”
— Arthur Parham
There’s an earthy realness in a fresh-grown vegetable. You can hear it in the snap of green beans, or feel it in the stickiness of recently picked summer tomatoes.
That’s what you taste in produce from roadside stands in California. Sunshine. Water. Dirt that’s home to worms and beetles. Weeds that are home to ladybugs and bumblebees. Rain after a long drought. Early frosts and dewy mornings. You taste the land, and you taste the labor.
It’s part of the allure of farmers markets. The scent of the dirt still on the radishes there is something that’s long been washed away, shaken off, carefully removed from the produce you find at Albertson’s. It’s almost as if those commercial places, with their fluorescent lights and neat rows of plastic clamshell packages, want you to forget that your food ever was outdoors.
Near my home in Fresno, there’s a Sunkist packing plant. We go there a couple of times every February to buy a box of “seconds” for cheap. These are the oranges that aren’t big or pretty enough for Sunkist to ship. They’re gnarled and scarred. Some of them aren’t very round. But they are better than the oranges you’ll get in any area that has to import the big, pretty ones. By the time those oranges have been trucked to a supermarket halfway across the country (or the world — Sunkist’s best fruit goes to Japan), the fruit has been waxed and stored and arranged and squeezed and jostled. When you bite into it, you get the taste of the trip, not the taste of the earth that grew the orange. You’re eating the wrong story.
I went to Chicago’s Green City Market today at the recommendation of my boss. I was especially delighted by the huge variety of apples, though I limited myself to just a few honeycrisps (how would I know which were which if I had bought more?!). When I got home, I couldn’t resist eating one right away.
There’s a wholeness in a fresh piece of fruit. You can smell it in the flesh of a butternut squash, or taste it in the skin of a sharp fall apple.