Strawberries and Tomatoes: A Chronicle of My Life in the Good Food Movement

The daily need to eat, and the search for food it requires, is humanity's umbilical cord to the rest of the planet. Every action we take as we feed ourselves and our families reinforces and recreates our connection to the millions of other species on Earth.

The work I do is to make that connection explicit at a time in human history when it is tragically far from being so. I love what I do, and it's high time I write about it. This is a chronicle of the 17 years I've spend connecting people with the sources of their food, and of what I hope are many more years of that work to come.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An Excellent Night in the Kitchen

Arrived home last night and began my sous-chef duties for the frittata on the evening's menu. My spouse has a way with egg dishes (which I rather definitively do not) and thus would be executive chef for the evening. I was happy to do the veggie prep in exchange for not having to worry about the mysterious transactions between eggs and heat.

We had a whole mess of yummy produce in the fridge that needed to be eaten, all of it from the CSA garden at a good friend's co-housing community up in Southwest NH. The residents there are overwhelmed by the abundance of their garden and I was happy to relieve some of the stress on their kitchens, freezers, and canning operations.

So after a rainy drive home from the office, I fastened on my apron and enjoyed a cozy hour in the delightfully warm kitchen (not a phrase you hear often in August!). I chopped and boiled potatoes, sweated leeks and shallots, halved cherry tomatoes from Papa-in-law, assessed the edibility of zucchini and summer squash that had been a bit too long in the fridge (whoops ...), and generally puttered around joyfully.

About an hour later we sat down to the best frittata I have ever had, paired with a red wine from a family-owned vineyard local to the archeological dig site my spouse worked at last summer. My general rule for wine is to drink from vineyards I have some connection to whenever possible, and since this red was the go-to for the whole team at the dig (being available in refillable bottles a quick drive from the site!), I feel pretty good about it.

While the frittata was cooking I had been prepping the tomatoes for a test batch of Sherri Brooks Vinton's quick roasted tomato sauce, so as we ate the rich smell of ripe tomatoes roasting in olive oil and garlic wafted from the oven. I am confident that the frittata and wine were all the more delicious enjoyed between breathfuls of that heartily fruity air.

After about an hour and a half in the oven, the tomatoes were done, and wow, were they good. "Essence of tomato" was the phrase that kept running through my mind as I spooned the sauce into a glass jar for later use. Not as rich as sun-dried, but significantly more mature in flavor than a raw tomato or even a fresh tomato sauce -- a bit like the difference between grape juice and red wine, perhaps. I can't wait to serve some up over pasta, and we are definitely making more to freeze.

For all the details on the recipe I urge you to check out Sherri's book , but the basics are simple. Core and cut up a bunch of dead ripe tomatoes (I chopped mine to about 1 -- 2 inches square ... ish). Toss them in a glass baking dish with 1 -- 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and as much thinly sliced garlic as you desire. Add salt and pepper if you want, and bake at 350 for an hour or two. You'll want to stir and keep an eye on things, but with the smells coming from your oven you won't want to go too far away, anyway!

Tonight we'll enjoy the rest of the frittata accompanied by a fresh salad with ingredients from the Davis Square Market and yet more cherry tomatoes. Dessert will be the peaches we can't live without, the ones that get me to Davis every Wednesday 'til frost. Nothing fancy, just good, fresh food. Just how we like it, and just the perfect meal for Day 4 of Massachusetts Farmers Market Week.

** Today's blog post, like yesterday's, was brought to you by the Loving Local blog-a-thon, hosted by Tinky at In Our Grandmother's Kitchens with support from the Mass Dept. of Ag Resources and Mass Farmers Markets. The Federation of Mass Farmers Markets is the charitable beneficiary of this blog-a-thon, and it's staff and board (who I might know rather well) would be most grateful for your support. **

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

True Love for Homegrown Tomatoes

The home-grown tomatoes in their home kitchen just after harvest.
Yesterday was the 26th annual Massachusetts Tomato Festival and Contest at Boston City Hall. You can learn all about the winners here.

I held down the fort in the office while our ED attended the contest, but I didn't mind ... because there is a week-long Homegrown Tomato Festival going on in my own kitchen!

It began this weekend at my father-in-law's, where my spouse and I learned that the Saturday morning plan was as follows: pick all the tomatoes from the 20-plus (!) tomato plants Papa-in-law had planted in the spring, and liberate as many as we wanted for our own kitchen. It didn't take even one twist of our rubber arms before we were out the door to the garden, and after a leisurely hour embracing tomato vines in the sun we rewarded our labor with fresh tomato sandwiches for lunch. And despite my affinity for the heirloom varieties, the hybrids Papa-in-law planted were the best of the summer so far. And it's been a darn good summer for tomatoes, and I am, as mentioned previously, a bit of a tomato snob. I credit Papa-in-law's good soil and TLC, and his Southeastern Mass location (a farmer friend once called it "Massachusetts' own little Mediterranean coast!")

Now well over half of those tomatoes sit on the table in our Boston kitchen, awaiting their fate. This evening I plan to try a recipe from Sherri Brooks Vinton's new home-preserving guide, Put 'Em Up. It seems simple, which I like, and liable to turn all the air in our apartment into a cloud of rich tomato-y goodness, which I LOVE. Looks like I need little more than a summer day when I'm willing to turn the oven on (65 and rainy in Boston today -- check), gobs of tomatoes (check), olive oil (one of those exported luxuries that is essential to my personal brand of locavorism), salt, and time -- at least two hours worth. I don't have the recipe with me as I write, but if it turns out well (and how could it not, with those ingredients, user error aside?) I'll share tomorrow.

Meanwhile, tomato sandwiches are on the menu every day this week. Spouse likes 'em with generous mayo, toasted whole wheat bread, and big thick slices of tomato. I like mine with sparing mayo, layers of finely sliced tomato, and plenty of salt and pepper. And the enormous wooden salad bowl that was full to the brim with cherry tomatoes on Sunday evening has in less than two days been seriously depleted by our graze-bys (like a drive-by only much more tasty and with no intimation of violence ... except maybe to the tomato!)

I can't think of a better way to celebrate Farmers Market Week in our house than with our very own Homegrown Tomato Festival. And when this batch runs out and / or gets put up for winter, I will rest easy knowing that a Labor Day visit to my parents' place out in the Western part of the state will secure us another batch of those precious red orbs.

And I'll thank my lucky stars that between our parents' generosity with their garden goodies, and the 224 farmers markets state-wide, basement-apartment dwellers like my spouse and I are never far from a ripe tomato from July through October.

** Today's blog post was brought to you by the Loving Local blog-a-thon, hosted by Tinky at In Our Grandmother's Kitchens with support from the Mass Dept. of Ag Resources and Mass Farmers Markets. The Federation of Mass Farmers Markets is the charitable beneficiary of this blog-a-thon. So if you feel as lucky as I do to have 224 markets and counting spread across the state, and if you're also enjoying reading, writing, or cooking your way through this blog-a-thon, think about visiting the Mass Farmers Markets web site and showing a little love.**

Because in the words of song-writer Guy Clark, as as masterfully covered by Northeast songsters Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, there's "Only two things that money can't buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes!"

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bring on the Loving Local Blog-a-Thon!

Oh my goodness, I actually have a few followers. Thanks to each of you for your moral support!

The important news today is that the first-ever farmers market blog-a-thon, aptly entitled Loving Local, begins this Sunday, August 22nd!

The blog-a-thon is the brainchild of Tinky Weisblat, cookbook author, activist, and soprano, who blogs and shares delicious recipes over at In Our Grandmother's Kitchens. Tinky is launching the blog-a-thon with the support of the good folks at the Mass Dept. of Ag Resources and at my very own day job (more on that below).

The blog-a-thon has been timed to coincide with Massachusetts Farmers Market Week (as officially proclaimed by Governor Deval Patrick with lots of compelling "wheras-es" and one beautiful "therefore"), which also begins this Sunday and runs through Saturday the 28th. The virtual event has been designed to celebrate the myriad of ways that our state's strong farmers market system and rich agricultural tradition positively impact life here in the Bay State. 

Our other goal is to encourage blog readers to support Mass Farmers Markets, the non-profit which has helped Massachusetts become 6th in the nation in terms of total number of farmers markets, and which has supported market vendors, market managers, and local communities as they doubled the number of markets state-wide (from under 100 to over 220) between 2004 and 2010.

We have SIXTY (60!!!) bloggers signed on so far, and I can't wait to savor the delicious morsels each of them cooks up for the week. I will, of course, be contributing my own. In fact, I have Tinky to thank for getting me off my locavore derriere to finally start a blog of my own.

If you want to sign up for the blog-a-thon and haven't yet, Tinky assures me that last-minute participants will be welcomed with open arms pixels. Give her a shout on her blog, on the Loving Local blog, or on the blog-a-thon's Facebook page. We'd love to hear from farmers market fans, full-time or part-time farmers, local food artisans, gardeners, ag policy watchers, CSA share-holders, canning experts, and YOU! Posts can be recipes, critiques, short stories, calls to action, reminiscences … whatever you feel like writing. Let the flavors of the Bay State inspire you!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why "Strawberries and Tomatoes?"

I love the fact that the first piece of food I ate today was a peach bought at yesterday's Davis market from my favorite flirtatious farmer. I love that I had to stop texting a co-worker about logistics for the day because peach juice was dripping onto my phone. When I eat locally grown food, dead ripe and juicy, I remember to slow down and live my life more fully -- with less multi-tasking and lots more flavor.

That said, my passion for local food does not prevent me from enjoying quite a few non-local specialties, some of which are near-daily indulgences. As my friends and co-workers will tell you, my daily need for high-end black tea in itself significantly increases the average number of miles that food travels to arrive in my Boston-based kitchen. And then there's the chocolate and the Parmigiano-Reggiano that are staples of my pantry -- and then there's tropical fruit, an entire subcategory of well-traveled indulgence in and of itself.

But like people passionate for their cause, I do draw the line somewhere -- even if that line is not exactly where I think it should be, and even if that line is far more mobile than I'd like to boot. 

Here's where I draw the line: come hell, high water, or a tempting fruit salad in February, I will never eat strawberries or tomatoes out of season. They are two of the fruits I love best, and what passes for them out of season is watery, mealy, and depressing. In addition, they are two of the produce items that modern consumers seem to require be present in every produce section of every grocery store all year long -- check for yourself next time you're there. Then there's the fact that I spent a year living 10 miles north of Watsonville, CA, home of a vast share of the nation's strawberry production and more than it's fair share of economic, environmental, and social challenges as a result. And whenever I drove from Santa Cruz down I-5 through the Central Valley to see my sister in LA, I passed more than my fair share of flatbread trucks loaded with anemic tomatoes, destined for the wintertime consumption of my parents and friends back home in New England. 

So now when I order a (ideally, but not always, grass-fed and local) burger in January, I am sure to ask the server to hold the tomatoes. And when a mid-winter potluck brunch features waffles loaded with strawberries, I politely say no thank you. Most of the time, anyway -- saying "no thank you" to my father-in-law's fruit-laden waffles is something I am still working up to.

So that's why I have titled this blog "Strawberries and Tomatoes" -- because they are where I draw the line. It is hard to eat seasonally in this culture of luxury and abundance, and I could do better. But when it comes to my friends Fragaria × ananassa and Solanum lycopersicum, I am steadfast. And keeping those two things on my DEBA-OOS list ("Don't Ever Buy Out of Season") helps me appreciate just how fleeting and precious moments like this morning's ripe peach-imbibing really are.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Please Not Another One

Me: These are musings on my life as a foodie.  

You: Oy Vey! Please not another one. Why don't you just bury me in recipes for heirloom tomato tartlets, describe your favorite local farmer in folksy prose, get holier-than-thou about the virtues of the dinner table, post a couple hundred veggieporn photos, and call it a day?!

Me: Okay, scratch that -- some of those things might happen here from time to time, but I'm going to do my best to keep this blog genuine. I'm really not a foodie, and in fact I'm growing increasingly disenchanted with the word. I'm no food groupie, I'm simply an eater who cares, and who has been lucky to live and work on farms and with farmers for over 15 years now. I eat each day, and I care what I eat -- some days I care a little, most days I care a lot. But for me, as for most of us, my life is organized around the fact that that I need food regularly. 

Here's the reality: human beings eat. And when we do, we interact with all the other species on the planet -- whether by eating them directly (thank you for lunch, Zea mays var. rugosa ), or by relying on the work they do and the food they produce for their young (lookin' at you, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, with a nod to Ms Bos primigenius), or in a myriad of other ways I can't wait to think about with you. And these interactions happen, if we're lucky, several times a day. 

What I am concerned with is how the actions humans take and choices humans make about what and how to eat impact not just us, but the other million or so species with whom we share the Earth. As I see it, all life deserves its chance. That means I try to operate in the world as if my human cousins and I are sharing this planet and its resources, and I do think -- here comes my preaching -- that we all should try to operate that way. And I'll freely admit that I stink at sharing -- most of us do. But I'm trying, and the major way I try, that I am incredibly lucky to have translated into a career, is by facilitating conversation about what our food choices mean, and by facilitating options for growing, buying, preparing, and eating food that to the best of my knowledge help us better share the limited resources of the planet.

You: So basically you're an eco-freako hippie foodie Pollyanna idealist who has decided to share her opinions about the interconnectedness of all life with the world?

Me: Pretty much! Welcome to the blogosphere -- that's what we do here. 

P.S. -- As far as why I've named this little soapbox "Strawberries and Tomatoes ..." tune in tomorrow!