Late May 2016, Matt and I flew to San Diego for a long weekend vacation with the Geraets clan. We rented an AirBnB in Pacific Beach just a couple minutes walk from the ocean, so close I could hear the waves from our bedroom. If you’ve never slept with the ocean as your sound machine, you should.
Some of you know I used to live in San Diego. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it has been over 12 years since I moved back to Pierre. Sorry, I fell off my chair, but I’m back. My goodness, 12 years since I lived on the West Coast. It is everything you think it might be. Beachy, sunny most of the year, filled with surfers and beautiful people, and a lot of delicious Mexican food. It also has the obligatory big city raging traffic and expensive living costs. I don’t miss those aspects of living in SoCal.
Friday evenings, in my suburb of La Mesa, was our city’s farmers’ market. I went every week, gathering fresh flowers, clamshells of basil, bags of small avocados, and warm tamales. My love of farmers’ markets originated there, on that side street as the sun began to set over the Pacific.
When I moved back to Pierre, I yearned for that market. That market was a major factor in our helping start the Capital City Farmers’ Market 9 seasons ago. I miss being a customer, but I love being a vendor.
Back to San Diego. On Sunday, Matt and I went to the Hillcrest Farmers’ Market, which was started in 1997. We happened upon Sage Mountain Farm, an all organic farm, located in Anza, CA. One of the owners, Phil, was a friendly talkative guy. We thoroughly enjoyed sharing various stories about our vegetables and markets. More about Phil and the Hillcrest market in another post.
While at Phil’s stand, I spied several pints of strawberries. These were not the perfectly sized, strangely same red colored, huge strawberries we’re used to seeing in the grocery store. No, these strawberries reminded me of the berries I used to pick in my Grandma Bouchie’s garden. The strawberries that we used to hunt for and relish as their juices dripped down our chins. We bought a pint. In retrospect, we should have bought four.
Left: Sage Mountain Farm organic strawberries (photo credit: Sage Mountain Farm)
Right: Conventional strawberries
These were some of the BEST strawberries I have ever eaten. I mean the best. Being organic, they were a little more than the store-bought variety, but you cannot put a price tag on flavor.
We sat them on the counter at our AirBnB. Matt’s dad made a comment that they looked a little emaciated. “Try them”, I said. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on his face when he bit into that first berry. He couldn’t believe the true strawberry flavor. Our nephew had a similar experience, eyeing the suspiciously. “Try them”, I said. After his first bite, he smiled so big and dove in again.
There’s an evil back and forth which has somehow taken over the conventional produce world. We are shopping for “perfection” and grocery stores are asking growers for “uniformity.” This back and forth of looking for perfectly uniform vegetables has left out something very important. Flavor.
It doesn’t matter how gorgeous that strawberry looks. If you bite into it and it doesn’t evoke a visceral reaction, it’s just a bite of food. There is a reason people don’t get excited about the food they eat. How depressing to look at something so beautiful, but not have it taste as beautiful as it looks.
What is beauty really? I look at the two photos above and I immediately think the strawberries from Sage Mountain are more beautiful than the conventional type, because I’ve tasted them. Their inner beauty is so amazingly beautiful I’m still thinking about them 9 months after I tasted them!
This is true not just with strawberries. Have you ever tasted a home grown new potato and compared it to a conventional potato. I have and you should. It’s amazing. Truly amazing. Simply boil and sprinkle with salt. That. Is. All.
The other issue with this idea of perfection in produce comes in the form of “waste”. My sweet little eggplant in the photo below wouldn’t have made it out of a conventional field and to the grocery store, because he doesn’t meet the “norm”. He would have gone in the trash or compost. One of our lucky CSA members snagged him up quickly last year.
Left: Our special little guy Right: The “norm”
This is the same for almost all the produce we grow. Carrots, corn, cabbage, broccoli, peppers. You name it. Take the green bell peppers below, for example. In the grocery store, they are always the same size, right? That is not how they grow. It’s just not. They vary in shape and size, at least a little bit. And, of course, growing different varieties means various sizes. There are always some fun oddballs out of the bunch and we love those the best. They make it interesting.
Left: B&G Produce bell peppers Right: Conventional bell peppers
I like seeing this trend on the East and West coasts about chefs taking “garbage” vegetables and using them. Essentially, they are taking what we consider the “cool kids” and making delicious food out of them. I think it’s disheartening, though, that we’ve come to this as a society. Next time you walk through your local grocery store, check out the produce. It’s all the same (although more are starting to carry local produce). Not at our farm.
This is one of the elements I love most about being a produce vendor. We get to grow these awesome, unique, and tasty vegetables for you to take home and enjoy. I harvest a carrot with two “legs” and am excited because someone gets to take this one-of-a-kind carrot home and savor her.