Savoring Summer Produce

I am a “fruit-aholic”. I love fruit. Even as a kid, I craved fruit– especially the summer fruits–strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums. The juiciness, the flavors, the short summer season so taste boredom never arrived–all reasons summer fruits satisfied immensely. As an adult, I still love fruit, but now I find sweetness in vegetables–carrots, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. It’s the natural sweetness that I long for.

Looks can be deceiving though. I’ve been snookered into buying a pint of the biggest, plumpest blueberries with a deep blue sheen–and they taste like wood or what I at least imagine wood tastes like. So, what is it that makes a piece of produce just taste so good?

Is it Just Memories that Taste Good?

Luscious Bluberries

Luscious Bluberries

I looked back at my childhood, to gather data from my memories. As a kid, Grandpa Peters–the quiet, introverted engineer–drove me to a neighbor’s strawberry fields to pick a flat. Sweat dripping from my face in the sweltering sun, I bent over a row of plants lifting the leaves to find a treasure of red berries. Instinctively, I wanted to pick the biggest berries, but knew that the smaller ones also packed a punch of sweetness. Picking berries with a tinge of green was however, totally unacceptable, as they were bitter. To reward myself for my effort, it was one in the mouth, one in the basket, one in the mouth, one… It’s lucky the neighbor didn’t weigh me before I started picking and I wasn’t making a living picking berries.

Fresh red strawberries, no more than a few seconds old are divine. But, even after bringing them back to Grandpa and Grandma’s house, they were still marvelous, perhaps with just a little whipped cream. Did picking my own berries make them test better?

Grandma Peters–the joyful, loving, teaching, and extroverted grandma–and I picked wild black caps (black raspberries) on the edge of untended forest at the top of the ‘back 40’ slope in the heat of the summer. Following the jam recipe on the back of the liquid CERTO pack, we crushed the berries, mixed in the liquid pectin, and added the prescribed amount of sugar. The statement, “DO NOT REDUCE THE SUGAR IN THE RECIPE SINCE THAT WILL RESULT IN SET FAILURES,” scared me into obeying every word in the directions. Boiling the fragrant black mass as the recipe demanded for “exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly” was critical before ladling the preserves into jars ensuring success. The final step, to prepare the jam for extended storage, meant pouring 3/8″ of freshly melted preserving wax on top of the jelled preserves. Two-piece vacuum caps and lids, now standard for protecting and preserving jam, didn’t exist 50 years ago.

Opening a jar of black cap jam in the middle of the winter and spreading it on toast, brought the waft and taste of summer to my senses. Did using the freshest berries make it taste better?

Oma and Opa Gardow jointly owned “the Farm” with other German immigrant families about an hour’s drive outside of Buffalo, New York. Down the steep hillside, from the horse stables that had been converted into tiny weekend getaway cottages, were wild giant high bush blueberry plants. Being a kid, I could only pick from the lowest branches and looked up at what seemed like bushes as tall as the cottages. Dressed with long sleeves, pants, and boots, mosquitoes and flies buzzed around my head, as my feet sunk into the mud. I hated the bugs, as I was and still am a mosquito attractor. Again, the berries were luscious, sweet, and juicy. Oma was an excellent cook and preparer of meals and used the berries to make a pie. Was picking the berries with my own hands the secret for flavor?

With all that I learned from my grandparents, to this day, I still make jam, (chutneys, relishes, salsas, and pickled vegetables) and follow every direction as it is exactly written. Using only the freshest ingredients from the farmers’ market, my CSA box, or my garden, I savor the sweetest tastes of summer opening every jar I canned during the darkest days of winter. What is it that makes my canned food taste so good?

The Secret Ingredient

My own labor growing, picking, or selecting the freshest ingredients are definitely factors that make my food taste better. But, is there something else? Reading Dan Barber, chef extraordinaire and author of The Third Plate, I learned the secret ingredient. “When we taste something truly delicious, something that is persistent, it most likely originated from well-mineralized, biologically rich soils.”

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Summer Radishes and Carrots

At the base of the wild black cap brambles at the forest edge, the ground was strewn with old leaves and layers of humus. The blueberry bushes sucked the water and minerals from the soggy soils to produce the most succulent berries. Fifty years ago, strawberry fields were family run and managed the old-fashioned way for the best flavor rather than optimized for travel, color, and profit. The most extraordinary tasting food comes from the best soils. It’s the dirt that matters. As Dan Barber says, “the more minerals available for the plant to synthesize, the more opportunity for better flavor.”

Try it yourself. Buy a box of berries or bunch of carrots from a mainstream grocery store and the same from a local, organic farmer. Do a blind taste test. Savor the flavor. Which tastes best?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Foraging: The Act of Searching for Food

We are all foragers. We search, scavenge, and gather food habitually. My daughter comes home from school and automatically opens the refrigerator and says, “there is nothing to eat in here,” despite it being filled with loads of food. Going to the grocery store is dangerous when hungry, as food items astoundingly show up in my cart despite my best intentions. Traveling the buffet line, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, as everything looks delicious.

Gray Jays Foraging in a Hive in the William O. Douglas Wilderness

Gray Jays Foraging in a Hive in the William O. Douglas Wilderness

When hungry, we crave food just as our ancestors did and thus, become modern day hunter-gatherers. Granted we no longer kill an animal, but we stalk, search and eventually grab the food we yearn for, just as the gray jays in the wilderness poked and prodded the downed hive for bee bits observed on an early September backpacking trip. Our evolutionary heritage is alive and well in all of us today. For the first 1.8 million years of humans’ history we lived in the wild. We gathered nuts, berries, roots, and leaves and pursued game, caught fish, and snared birds and small animals. Humans could just as likely be a wild animal’s lunch, too. We lived one with nature, as we were integral to the ecosystem.

In what we now perceive as ancient history, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, our ancestors started to cultivate plants and domesticate animals, at the same time slowly began our journey away from nature. The initial dawn of agriculture started in the Fertile Crescent, which is a swath of land stretching from what is now northern Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean countries encompassing Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, to the now northern Persian Gulf countries of Syria and Iraq. Animal domestication and plant cultivation continued to travel throughout the world with eastern North America adopting agricultural practices as late as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Amazingly the advent of agriculture is merely 0.2% to 0.7% of the total time that humans have been on this earth and it is not ancient history!

Stokesberry Duck Eggs with Ralph's Greenhouse Beets

Stokesberry Duck Eggs with Ralph’s Greenhouse Beets found in the buffet line at the WA Sustainable Food & Farming Network Harvest Dinner

No wonder as we wander the grocery aisle, or peruse the farmer’s market or salivate in the buffet line, we tap into our hunter-gatherer instincts and gravitate towards certain foods. At my husband’s milestone birthday party, we celebrated with a tiramisu cake surrounded with lady fingers, topped with mascarpone frosting, and adorned with chocolate nibs–heavy, dense, and delicious. Thankfully, the cake is gone, because even writing this, my taste buds lust for just another morsel. My longings are totally normal, as Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., author of The “I” Diet and professor of nutrition at Tufts University says, “In prehistory, calories were in intermittent supply and very essential for survival,” causing the human desire to crave food instinctively.

Now compared to our early ancestors, as a culture we have so much food that we can afford to throw excess away. Think of your last restaurant visit. Were you a member of the “clean plate club”? Or did you ask for a “take-away” container, to schlep food home for another meal? Did you remember to eat the stored meal? Or did it grow new forms of life and you pitched it? Our ancestors would never throw away food as it was unthinkable, unnecessary, and unwise, as they didn’t know where their next meal would come from.

More importantly than our cravings is the quality of the food we eat. Only since World War II have we mechanized, commoditized, petro-chemically fertilized and sprayed, and genetically modified the products grown in our mainstream food production system. This is a mere 70 years or 0.004% of our human existence and 0.7% of the 10,000 years of agricultural history. We are continually being assured and assuaged that our foods are safe for us and the environment, despite the findings that RoundUp is expected to be classified in California as carcinogen and therapeutic antibiotics are consistently being used in animals being grown for human consumption. RoundUp kills unwanted plants, but what other harm does it cause? The minimal amounts of therapeutic antibiotics found in mainstream meat products are now threatening the effectiveness of medicinal antibiotics used by people to treat life-frightening infections.

My solution is foraging at the Farmers Markets or PCC Natural Markets–my local food cooperative, and organic is my sought after label!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! (Thanks to Dennis Weaver of Change Your Food, Change Your Life for the great photos from the WSFFN Harvest Fest!) 

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Reconnecting with Fresh Food

Hayton Farms Strawberrries

Hayton Farms Strawberries

Summer brings my favorite foods. Succulent corn on the cob, pints upon pints of Hayton Farms strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, flame-roasted Hatch peppers, and lettuces all bigger than my head. My 5,000 square foot city lot just isn’t big enough to grow many foods, so I count on my local farmers markets for most everything since I only nurture tomatoes, green beans, and Italian prune plums. Whether from my yard or from the farmer, I know the food is as fresh as it can be. It’s not stored in a warehouse for weeks nor traveled thousands of miles to my plate.

Even though unprocessed, raw food appears to be fresh, only recently has my palate been discerning the subtle difference between just picked or foraged food and grocery aisle produce. Just because a pint of blueberries appears to be fresh–bright plump berries, with a little sheen–it doesn’t mean that they were just picked. A head of lettuce may be vivid green, but its connection to the earth may be drab tan indicating its days or even weeks old.

slight but significant difference in lettuce

One of my favorite famers Steve Hallstrom of Let Us Farm of Oakville, Washington, travels the Interstate 5 corridor every Saturday from May until November, leaving the farm at 5 a.m. to bring the largest selection of delectable lettuces to his loyal clientele at the University District Farmers Market in Seattle. Talk to other purchasers at the market and they agree Let Us Farm grows the best.

Located in a rural Grays Harbor County on the Chehalis River floodplain, Let Us Farm practices sustainable, organic farming including intentional crop rotation. By allowing a portion of their 80 acres of fields to go fallow regularly and planting them with a nitrogen fixing legume, the soil is nourished again for subsequent yearly plantings. Steve and his wife Cecelia live on the farm and have had many interns rotate through their farm operation to learn the agricultural trade. As with any profession, it takes at least ten to 15 years to become a master and every season there is still more to learn. Every growing season is different, too much rain or too little, lots of sun or not enough, and a late spring or an early fall.

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Despite the vagaries of the seasons, Steve has accomplished the art of lettuce growing, eschewing herbicides and pesticides in keeping with the organic standards. One choice variety is Galisse, a leafy, lobed, sweet, vibrant green lettuce perfect for salads and sandwiches. The head is as large as a basketball and even with four hungry eaters lasts for two or three meals. Being a thrifty Yankee, I am compelled to buy 2 heads for $5 rather than one head for $3 purchasing Bronze Arrow, Esmerelda, or a bunch of spinach.

Still, sometimes, two heads is more than my family can eat quickly and I store it in my own personal warehouse, the refrigerator. This happened recently, where a Let Us Farm Galisse spent two weeks in the vegetable bin, while I was on vacation. Once home the lettuce still appeared healthy, vibrant, and just as fresh as the day I purchased it, so, I used a leaf to top a sandwich.

Only I knew it was two weeks old! It still tasted okay, but definitely not as good as when I first bought it. Instead of a crisp, juicy, sweet leaf, with flavor just popping in my mouth, it was a smidgen bitter and a tad bit dry.

The Other Lettuce

It got me to thinking how old are the lettuce heads I purchase at the grocery store? Usually Romaine is my top choice, as it is the healthiest variety that is sold at a mainstream store or the co-op year around. Even so, Romaine is often bitter and dull-looking. If my Galisse looked so good after my personal warehousing, how fresh is the grocery store Romaine?

Once picked, fruits and vegetables begin their demise, which can be thwarted by chilling, freezing, canning, and other preservation methods. Sugars begin to naturally oxidize, especially when produce is stored in heat or humidity. Fruits and vegetables respire after harvest causing biochemical changes resulting in a breakdown of the carbohydrates and the production of carbon dioxide and methane.

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Further, fresh food flavor is unpredictable because of its unknown travel or warehouse life preceding its arrival in the produce aisle. Additionally, the varying growing conditions such as watering schedule, sunlight hours, and cool versus warm temperatures can vary the produce taste causing the finicky eater to shun the healthiest foods, just because they don’t taste the same every time. Any delay from farm to fork and just the unpredictability of Mother Nature can be enough for food flavor to change from sweet to bitter or vibrant to bland. No wonder it’s hard to get people both young and old to eat their fruits and veggies. And for some it’s McDonald’s fare, because it is so predictable!

One solution to this disconnect with food tasting differently season to season or week to week is to bring food growing back to the people. I’m not suggesting that we all have Victory Gardens as during WWII, but instead that housing developments are built that are landscaped with orchards, berry shrubs, and community gardens. We all eat, but as a society, most of us have forgotten where our food comes from. It’s not Albertsons, Stop ‘n Shop or Publix, but rather a farm. And on the farm, food grows in the ground, or on a bush or in a tree.

By integrating food production into our communities, we can develop neighborliness around nourishment from the earth’s bounty. We need to reconnect with truly fresh food, so we know how good it really tastes!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! 

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