Friday, February 20, 2009

Local Hardship, Local Harvest

Fair warning: this post is a passionate and vehement call to action in disguise as food writing. Read on, readers.

Since coming back to Orlando, I have found that one of the great joys of living in Florida is its abundance of locally cultivated produce. In Utah, few things actually grow, so the choices for shopping are severely limited to maybe the poor excuse for a Farmer’s Market in Salt Lake, and the once-in-a-blue-moon trip to one of the four Whole Foods markets. Individually owned produce markets? Fuggedaboudit. In Paris, there are tons of markets, my favorite being on the rue-des-Trois-Freres in the St. Germain area. Golden chantrelles and bejeweled blackberries overflow in September, and in March, fresh new goat cheeses add springtime tang to the grassy air. The markets in Central Mexico were an interesting experience, irregularly shaped cucumbers and bruised apples sitting in sky blue Rubbermaid tubs buzzing with flies was the image I would take away from my brief time in a Mexican tiendita (though, I must admit, while in Mexico I tasted the most cucumberiest of cucumbers). Chicago is known for its springtime-early summer Green City Market, but the crowds are thick, and the selection – not always varied.
Florida, on the other hand, is ripe for the picking. Baskets of grapefruits, okra, lettuces, strawberries, bell peppers, and tomatoes are the gems of Florida produce, and every chance I get, I take advantage. There is nothing like fresh March strawberries blended with a mango and a little water and ice to refresh a body. It’s my favorite drink (add rum and you have yourself a party). The beauty of all of this, is that there’s such often such a bounty that tiny family-owned produce stands crop up all over the city. More affordable and fresher than the chain grocery stores, and, often, straight off the vine with no added wax, strange shininess, or attractive arrangement. The yuppiness of Whole Foods, while the selection is fabulous, always makes me a little weary – produce should look like a pile of nutrition and goodness, not a showpiece. When I am shopping for food, I do not want to feel as though I am being had. And when I shop at “specialty food stores” like Whole Foods, that’s exactly the way I feel.

However, if Whole Foods happens to be the only place where I can find (wild) Alaskan sockeye salmon, that’s where I buy it. I refuse to buy fish that has the tiny disclaimer “color added” on the placard. To me, that’s like buying a diamond ring that says, “sparkle added.” Not awesome. Buy wild.
More on local fish markets (I love Lombardi’s Seafood more than life) later.
I had one produce market in particular that I absolutely loved. Only about three miles from my home in Colonial Town, the hub of the burgeoning Viet population in Orlando and home of probably the best pho ever, some of my favorite afternoons were spend in its tiny aisles, picking up dragon fruit and wondering how to use it, enjoying the smell of the “root vegetable room” where the earthy aroma of clay and sand permeated the walls around which sat piles of onions, yucca, potatoes, and other tubers. I loved wrapping the Chinese long beans around my arms like snakes on Cleopatra’s bracelets. I loved ordering a small cup of boiled peanuts (another reason I love Florida), and stuffing my shopping basket with things I would never have time to cook. I loved that my total never seemed to exceed twenty dollars, though when I got home, my refrigerator would be stuffed to the brim with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The economy has been brutal to small businesses lately, and when I returned from Birmingham in December, I drove to my produce market, expecting the same bounty as when I left in July. My produce stand had fallen victim to our interrupted economy (trying not to use the word “recession”). As I peeked through the glass doors and saw all of the stalls in the store empty, my heart sank. There were no potted herbs outside the door, no flowering orchids blossoming with purple and orange blooms. I supposed that my produce stand would be forever lost, and that I would be relegated to the Publix produce section, with its sterilized tomatoes and waxy apples. Never again able to bite into a tiny pickling cucumber without having to wash it first, savoring the crispiness from first bite to last.

I found Clemons’ Produce while riding down Curry Ford Road to Blockbuster to return a few movies. Clemons’ supplies the produce for many of Orlando’s “local food” restaurants like Dandelion, Ethos Vegan Kitchen, and the acclaimed gastropub, The Ravenous Pig. I stopped in, and was aghast at the seemingly endless aisles of unadorned produce. Not only did they have fat royal purple eggplants and skinny, lavender Japanese eggplants, I found an assortment of tiny white Thai eggplants and purple-and-white striped Indian eggplants. Chinese long beans, fava beans, mangos a plenty, durian (gross…but yay!), huge papaya, green and brown coconuts, purple potatoes. No longer would I be forced into overpriced tomatoes or 2 for $5 strawberries when they’re abundantly in season. Now I would buy poblanos to roast and strawberries for 2 for $3.
The moral here is to find local food. You never know who will close next, so buy local, and buy in abundance. No one will be sad when you show up to their door with a warm Thai curry teeming with tender vegetables and piquant spice during these windy months. No one will be sad that you used fresh pinto and kidney beans that you shelled yourself to make the chili and rice you bring to your neighbors.
Buy local, my friends. Buy. Local.


Trish said...

There is a local food co-op that also supplies many of Orlando's best restaurants, but supports ONLY local farmers, which isn't the case at many produce stands or markets.

Homegrown Local Food Co-op

Lauren J. Bohman said...

I love you writing and I love you. I'm so glad you are back!