I used to find people annoying who complained about how supermarket tomatoes and vegetables available even out of season because they’re shipped from California. The difference wasn’t that great, I thought. The organic stuff was too expensive, inconvenient, and hard to find, I thought.
Then I started buying local and fresh. Until then, I didn’t know what I was talking about, as, I figure, most people who haven’t learned to buy and prepare fresh.
This morning, I was chopping some supermarket celery I got when volunteering bringing surplus food from a market to a food pantry. Why the market was getting rid of it, I don’t know, since it looked fresh, but I got to keep it as a volunteer. I hadn’t had supermarket celery in a while. My CSA‘s celery is darker green, has thinner stalks and more leaves relative to stalks. Most of all, it has more flavor than I could have imagined celery having, even to the point of it being hard to keep in my mouth. By comparison, the supermarket celery is like crunchy water.
I got to wondering: which fruit or vegetable has industrial agriculture destroyed most?
It’s tempting to say it’s destroying the planet most, lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life, therefore ultimately hurting the people it professes to help, namely the poor and vulnerable. It’s tempting to say that by redistributing wealth toward the already wealthy, by extracting wealth from poor communities and impoverishing them, it’s hurting people most. Sadly, people with means, who say “Josh, you don’t know what it’s like for a single mother with three kids and three jobs,” think doof helps them when on a systemic level it creates and exacerbates those situations.
But I’m asking just based on flavor, texture, nuance, and whatever makes a fruit or vegetable delicious, which has lost the most?
I think the common first answer is tomatoes, since supermarket ones look so bright and red yet lack flavor, then the ones from your garden or local farmer who cares explode in your mouth with thousands of flavors, rich and complex, like thousands of rainbows sparkling from a diamond.
Have you tried concord grapes? One bite and I can’t believe anyone would choose to eat candy. Or ripe strawberries in season picked that day? They take my breath away. I can’t speak for a while. To do anything but give it my full attention would insult the fruit and deprive me of unspeakable joy. How can I not include all berries? Those plastic boxes in the supermarket, designed to protect berries from thousands of miles away, may weigh more than the berries inside. When I pick mulberries here in Manhattan, each berry has more flavor than the whole stack of plastic, polluting boxes. And the tree has more than I can pick.
Cherries are one of the rare fruits that if I eat too much my stomach feels woozy. But when they’re in season, I haven’t eaten one in ten or eleven months so I honor them by eating them. Also by not buying their poor peers shipped from elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll eat the shipped ones if they’re on a fruit plate someone prepared at an event since they still taste delicious, but I won’t buy them, trying to avoid supporting long supply chains over resilience. How do I know I’ve had enough of the local ones in season? I eat them until my stomach feels woozy, otherwise I haven’t.
Peaches I can’t speak of without dishonoring them since they are beyond words. The supermarket ones can still taste incredible, but fail to reach the divinity of ones from the farmers market in season.
And I’m in New York. If I talk about fresh fruit in Southern California or Europe, I’ll start to cry at what we could enjoy. I’ll also cry at irrigating the desert to where the Colorado River doesn’t reach the Pacific Ocean and the Central Valley is measurably descending as we deplete the aquifer beneath it. I’ll note here, as I have in a past post, what we used to call heirloom tomatoes. We used to call them tomatoes. Those bastards in the marketing departments got us to switch what used to be normal to special for their bastardization that never existed before but for their desire to profit.
Carrots, when people taste the ones I serve from my CSA, routinely elicit responses of, “I remember that flavor from when I was a kid! I forgot about it,” followed by eating more carrots.
Zucchini, I’m starting to reclassify in my head as culinarily closer to fruit than a vegetable since they taste so sweet, I’ve lately found. Maybe I’m more sensitive to their sugar since I haven’t eaten anything with sugar added in years, allowing my taste buds to recover, but whatever the reason, I can’t eat more than a couple in a row or I feel overloaded with sweetness.
Lettuce, I can’t keep track of the varieties in farmers markets, each one with more flavor and texture than the whole lot of the maybe half-dozen varieties in supermarkets, often pre-cut and wrapped in plastic to keep green if not flavorful. I see vertically farmed stuff in giant plastic boxes often weighing more than the leaves inside, undoing whatever advantage they might have gained from being local. I can only imagine the mental gymnastics someone buying those things goes through to convince themselves that they’re acting sustainably paying for people to drill for oil to create all that plastic they use for a day, then discard for people and wildlife to suffer from, for several times longer than the world has enjoyed the Taj Mahal or Magna Carta. That’s our Taj Mahal legacy: poisonous landfills of what we consider self-indulgence that actually worsens our lives and impoverishes our communities. You know what keeps lettuce fresh better than plastic? Just put the stem in water. It will even regrow. You can plant it. You can create life instead of destroying it.
Cabbage replaced chips and pretzels for me. I used to have chips and pretzels in my cupboard all the time. I couldn’t stop buying them, nor eating them once I opened the plastic bag. The other day I ate a purple cabbage so sweet and peppery I couldn’t tell if I should think of it more replacing candy for its sweetness or chips for its pepperiness and crunch. I meant to include it in a stew, but couldn’t stop myself from eating so much raw that I had to put other vegetables in to make up for there being no cabbage. I grew up thinking cabbage was bland. On top of everything else, it’s one of the cheapest foods around, and among the most nutritious. If you can’t eat cabbage, I’ve learned that some varieties do something awful to my digestive tract too. I’ve solved that problem in three ways. One is to avoid them, but that route I find hard to follow since eating some varieties makes me want to sample others. The other is to build up tolerance, eating small but increasing amounts. Maybe I change, maybe my microbiome does, but I usually end up able to enjoy them without problem. The third is to ferment. I’ve never suffered a problem from sauerkraut I’ve fermented from any breed.
Even the humble apple. America’s northeast must provide perfect conditions for many varieties because we have plenty, enough that I can’t remember which is which. I don’t care because each one I taste, despite tasting uniquely different from all others, always tastes just like apple. I don’t know how they can all taste different yet share an essence, but I don’t need to. I just eat them. I think many places around the world provide perfect conditions for apples, since they seem common, yet we ship them from other continents. Those shipped things lack the zest, crunch, subtlety, or I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it. I can only imagine the farmers in New Zealand or South America growing fruit to send nearly as far away as possible instead of growing for their own community, seeing giant container ships spewing carcinogens and greenhouse gases into the air haul away what could be their birthright of local food for themselves.
Canned beans might as well be wet cotton balls for their lack of flavor or nuance. Meanwhile, local ones, pressure cooked a few minutes, need no spices, or anything, added to eat plain, not that I wouldn’t add onion and a host of other flavors anyway, but the beans can stand alone. In my mind, I’m imagining the wonder of each, totally different from all the others: black versus pinto versus lentils versus split peas versus dozens more.
I could go on, but I’ll close with what I consider the greatest difference: arugula, mustard greens, and similar salad greens. I don’t know a general name or if I’m combining too many varieties into one, but these things barely exist in supermarkets, at least that I’ve seen, except maybe in small amounts in multiple times more plastic than the leaves inside. Meanwhile, when in season, the markets sell giant amounts so cheap, they’re almost giving it away. And people don’t know. These leaves routinely have so much flavor I can’t keep them in my mouth. I try since I love the flavor, but their spice and pepper can reach jalapeno magnitude, just not heat. I don’t know what to call it.
Now that I mention them, I think of radishes, especially watermelon radishes, also sweet and peppery, or kohlrabi, which I didn’t know existed except as a weird name. The first time I ate it, I wondered what was the point since it lacked flavor. But I kept eating since my CSA kept delivering and I’ve come to love them for their subtle sweetness, as I love apples. They’re like rare apples to me.
Oh wait, I think I remember my favorite. Brussels sprouts stalks. Like the peaches, I can’t put it into words, but unlike the peaches, since I discovered that the stalks were edible, they feel mine like the Little Prince’s rose. These stalks are a rare treat that most consumers don’t know exist and even many farmers don’t know are edible. I find the taste something like artichoke hearts, hummus, and childhood exuberance, innocence, and playfulness, since I scoop it out like a canoe.
What’s your pick for produce that industrial agriculture most destroyed? I don’t eat meat, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone sharing a difference there.
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