Back to the Regularly Scheduled Programming

There’s been entirely too much French thrown about here lately. Here’s some good old American English dialogue to break things up a bit.

Tonight, O7 was drawing in her Garden Fairies book. The left page has a simple picture, which you’re supposed to copy on the right page by scratching off the black coating, thus revealing the stunningly beautiful and most fairy-like colors underneath with every stroke. She made a nice copy-drawing of a Poppy Fairy, and then brought it in to show me.

“That looks great,” I said. S8 came over to investigate. She eyed her sister’s scratch-drawing critically for a moment.

“Pretty good, O7!” she announced. “You’re going to grow up to be a Major Artist, just like me!”

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Fresh CSA

The CSA season has just begun here.  It’s  a bit later than last year, but we are trying a different farm and a different program, so that’s that.

I’m trying very hard not to compare this program to the first one, but it’s hard.  We had such a good experience last year, and this year has started out in a very… shall we say disorganized manner.  But the season is young, and I will try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Pickups are now on Wednesday instead of Thursday.  I sort of liked Thursday better.  It was closer to the weekend and made things easier, since I’m splitting my share with a friend who lives a half-hour away.  However, the new pickup is practically halfway between us, whereas last year’s location and time made it almost impossible for my friend to go out to get the boxes.  So the logistics are better (which was our motivation for trying something new).

Last year’s box, which was on 6/18 (and was Box 3) included:

  • 18 eggs
  • pint cherry tomatoes
  • head cabbage
  • head broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • 2 zucchini
  • head of lettuce
  • impatiens
  • collard greens

This year we received:

  • 3 large green onions
  • 2 yellow, 4 orange, and 2 yellow-orange carrots w/greens
  • 3 zucchini
  • small bunch red swiss chard
  • 2 kohlrabi
  • large handful of green and yellow wax beans
  • bunch collards
  • about a pint of edible-pod peas
  • 4 recipes

The price was about the same ($500 last year versus $480 this year) and I think the boxes are comparable.  Of course, I’ve only got one box to go on so far, so that’s not really a very accurate assessment.

As for my share this week, we put the carrots and onion into coleslaw and salad.  I steamed the peas and beans and put them into vegetable soup and stirfry.  I still have to do something with the zukes, chard and kohlrabi.

CSA Week 13

Most of the other CSA subscribers pick up their weekly produce boxes at the Millers’ farm, the nice folks who organized our CSA. I normally pick up our CSA box directly at the growers’ farm, since I live closer to them. Last week’s potluck must have thrown a wrench in the works, because somehow my box accidentally got shipped up to the Millers. Mr. Byler was very apologetic, and put together another box for me while I waited.

Rachel, Mr. Byler’s wife, usually puts the boxes together. Each week we receive a half-bushel box which is solidly full, but never overflowing. I think Mr. Byler felt a bit embarassed about sending my box on with the others, because he not only filled my box so full that the flaps were stuck open, but he also gave me a bag with 14 ears of corn in it.

CSA Week 13

The peppers are definitely in season. This week’s box has several different varieties, and they’re all turning red, which I think is the best stage. I like bell peppers with some color in them.

The box for Week 13 has:

  • a quart (2 #) of green beans
  • a pint (12 oz) of cherry tomatoes
  • 4 tomatoes (2 pounds)
  • 4 “tomato peppers” (1 pound)
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 1 red pepper
  • 4 banana peppers (1 pound)
  • 3 cubanelle-esque peppers (1 pound)
  • 1 small hot pepper
  • 14 ears of corn
  • and 2 of the biggest onions I’ve ever seen

Very large onion

See what I mean? This onion weighs 2 1/2 pounds. That’s just crazy.

I have already sliced a tomato and made a sandwich of it on homemade sourdough bread, which deserves a post – and I even took pictures for one.  Give me a day or so and I’ll tell you all about that, plus making a delicious plum brandy.

Harvest time in the midwest US  is a glorious thing.

CSA Week 12 and Potluck Picnic

The Millers, who are the very nice organic livestock farmers we’ve enjoyed buying meat from for several years now, are the ones who organized our CSA. This week, instead of picking up our CSA boxes at the growers’ farm, we went up to the Millers’ to get them and to meet the growers and other CSA participants at a potluck. Everyone brought something to share, and we had a very lovely evening getting to know each other and talk about our CSA participation.

The potluck was really fun. The Amish women brought an amazing selection of homebaked breads, butter, jams, cookies, and brownies. There was a creamy bean casserole, a fresh pasta salad, homemade noodles, and “beet chili”- basically beet preserves, which tasted a heck of a lot like strawberry jam. (Delicious on homemade bread, let me tell you!) The Millers made brisket, so soft you didn’t even need a knife, and it fell right off your fork so you really didn’t need one of those, either. I brought potato salad made with my own blue potatoes and a few jars of jam and apple butter from last season. Someone else made a purple-cabbage salad and decorated it with nasturtium flowers (the girls thought that was fantastic, since we also put our nasturtiums in salads). I think there were other dishes, too, but that’s what I can remember at the moment.

We introduced ourselves and, over plates of great food, talked for about participating in a CSA, both from the consumer perspective (someone said it would be very helpful if the more “mysterious” vegetables might be labeled, so the less-herbivoracious among us knew what they were) as well as from the growers’ angle (the late tomato blight is really hitting them hard and they’ve had to resort to using some non-organic fungicides to protect their farms from this devastating disease). It was really nice to meet some of the other consumers and share recipes and food ideas, too.

Many folks in the CSA joined because they felt it was a more economical way to get organic produce. While a share was not inexpensive ($500 for the 25-odd week season), it probably is a considerable savings if I tried buying each item separately in the organic section of my supermarket. There is the reality that I would probably NOT buy things like kale or broccoli, so getting them in my weekly box isn’t really a savings since I wouldn’t buy them anyway. But getting things like kale and broccoli and unusual varieties of other vegetables is part of the fun of a CSA, so I’m not complaining.

And, of course, we picked up our boxes.

IMG_7484

This week there were:

  • a large bunch of very large carrots (about 2 pounds total)
  • four medium red tomatoes
  • a pint of cherry tomatoes
  • a quart of peaches
  • a quart of green beans
  • three green bell peppers
  • a pair of eggplants

I’m not a big connoisseur of eggplant, but am excited to try it. Perhaps breaded and fried. The carrots look fabulous and will likely go in soup. S5 will demolish the cherry tomatoes, and both girls will take care of our share of the peaches.

CSA Thursday

Today was CSA day, which meant we got to pick up another box of produce from our Amish farmers and figure out what the heck to do with all the vegetables before they go bad.

This week’s box included:

  • a cucumber (which we chose from the farm stand since Mrs. B forgot to put one in the box)
  • a round squash which is supposed to be similar to zucchini in flavor
  • about a pound of kale
  • a very large head of lettuce
  • the biggest white onion I’ve ever seen
  • two yellow peppers, possibly hot
  • a small bunch of broccoli
  • a jar of sweet pickles

I really enjoy getting the CSA box each week.  Of course it’s local food, and organic, and outrageously good compared to what’s in the grocery store.  But there’s also the challenge of figuring out how to cook and use up what we receive in each box.

My friend and I are sharing the boxes, and we usually split everything quite literally in half.  This week I traded her my share of the broccoli (not a fan) for her half of the onion (she still has quite a bit from the last few weeks’ boxes).

The pickles will be demolished by S5 sometime before tomorrow’s lunch, or whenever she discovers that they’re in the fridge.  The cucumber and lettuce will likely become salad (which we’re eating lots of these days).  As for the kale, I’m not quite sure what to do with it just yet, but my friend suggested sauteeing it with butter and either onion or garlic, which sounds quite palatable.  There was also a recipe in the Rodale cookbook for some sort of greens-soup that also looked good.  I will see how I’m inspired tomorrow.

Oh-rganic

For about a decade now, I’ve been pretty interested in organic food. I try to procure it for my family as much as possible, within reason and within our budget. I’m definitely willing go out of my way to get it, especially when it comes to meats and eggs, which we get from a local farmer. But I feel like I must take a step back – or maybe several steps back- and explain exactly what it is about organics that interests me. This is because I keep getting the word “organic” thrown in my face by people who seem to be just interested in the word, and not what it means. And it’s got me right annoyed, it does.

First of all, I’ll share the impetus for this post: a post from the “Healthy Organic Food Group Blog“. I like this site because they always have fresh and interesting recipes, and they never ask one to open up a can of condensed soup. But, as I was reading today’s offerings, it occurred to me that there was something bothersome about the way they talked about organic ingredients.  For example, in the “Rosemary Lemon Biscuits (Organic Recipe)” posted today, the ingredients read as follows:

1 cup organic buttermilk
1 organic egg beaten
1 tablespoon organic lemon zest
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 cups organic whole grain pastry flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup cold organic butter

Notice all those organics? Yeah. So, my first question is this: if you don’t have organic buttermilk, does that mean you can’t make this recipe? And my second question is, then, why doesn’t the rosemary need to be organic?? (Or was that a typo?)

Out of curiosity, I thumbed through the two organic-specific cookbooks in my collection: Le Petit Appetit, by Lisa Barnes, and The Earthbound Farms Organic Cookbook. Both are excellent books and I use them often (particuarly the Earthbound Farms book, now that my kids are older). But they both use the same organic-elite language. I find that really disappointing.

The reason I’m taking issue here is because organic is more than just a way to spend extra on your groceries. It’s also more than just avoiding pesticides, unnatural fillers, toxic chemicals, and the like. Buying (or growing) organic food means truly understanding where your food comes from. And as it is a noble committment, it is also difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and not always possible. Many families just can’ t afford to buy organic milk and eggs and butter and everything else. Many families don’t have access to organic ingredients – they’re just not available where they shop. (I can’t get “organic buttermilk”, at least not at my local grocery store, for example.) So to suggest, even obliquely, that eating “organic” is an all-or-nothing proposition is downright snobby and exclusive. And to suggest that always going “organic” automatically makes your food “better” is misleading, naive and dangerous.

I’m excited about seeing organic foods going mainstream. I love it that when I go to my local deep-discount store, they have a whole refrigerator case and half an aisle dedicated to organics. It tickles me pink to see local farmers brag about the local produce they have for sale. But I’m concerned about this willy-nilly overusage of and overemphasis on the word organic. What matters more: that your foodstuff has a silly label on it, or that you know who grew it? If I use local, Amish-made butter, is that inferior to Horizon’s mass-produced “organic” butter? Should I forgo tomatoes from my neighbor’s garden just so I can get some Muir Glens in an aluminum can? We need to understand that “organic” means so much more than buying a label.

Along these lines, I don’t want to see organic food become a trendy highbrow fashionable uppercrust thing, as if they are “elite” foods (though personally, I do think they are generally far superior!). It seems ridiculous to me that “organic” foods cost so much more than conventional ones. If there is less processing and less chemical input, then why should it cost more? Again, it comes down to knowing where your food comes from.  It’s not just that organic food is expensive; it’s that conventional food is cheap. You want beef for 99 cents a pound? No problem- but it’s going to come from a CAFO on the other side of the country. You want to buy “fresh” produce any time of the year?  Okay- but those grapes you’re munching in the middle of January came from Chile, trucked 1500 miles to get to here. If we re-learn to eat seasonably, locally and moderately, and if we participate in our own foodways to whatever extent possible – buying directly from farms, growing our own produce, preserving local harvests, joining CSAs, etc – we will herd modern agriculture away from its current chemical- and petroleum-intensive methods, away from vast anonymous systems of altered and modified foodstuffs, away from exploitative international operations; and bring us back towards a more sensible and reasonable system of production. This, in turn, will turn organic foods into “normal” foods, bringing down the price and making them available to everyone.  But it will take some effort on the part of the consumer, who must not be tricked into economic complacency by the clever positioning of a green label.

Honestly, I would love to see the whole “organic” moniker just go away. It’s already a fair joke, thanks to the USDA’s complicity with Big Ag. But for that to happen, we consumers have to educate ourselves, to know what we’re getting when we buy “organic”. And then, we have to stop buying these faux-organic products and start buying from small, local producers – organic, whenever possible.  For the time being, at least, our dollars are still very powerful tools, and we can use them to close the gap between “conventional” food and “organic” food.

Then, maybe, we can all sit down and enjoy some real food.

SuperNatural

Sorry, Jensen Ackles fans. This post probably ain’t what you were looking for. ‘)

Okay, so I went to a “natural” food store yesterday. You know, one of those little shops at the end of a strip-mall somewhere, with staff who reek of patchouli, customers who drive really old diesel Saabs and carry canvas bags, lots of peace signs and rainbows and other leftist paraphernalia hanging about, etc. Yeah. One of those places.

Actually, I’m pretty down with the leftists. I mean, I embrace most of the Left’s social ideals. Where we part ways is that I don’t want to be taxed to support these social ideals. I believe that you should be free to do whatever the hell it is you would like to do. Just, please, don’t ask me to pay for it.

Anyway, my libertarian views are not really important at this juncture. I just wanted to stick them in there briefly. Back to the hippie store. So, S4 and I went there looking for some whole-wheat pastry flour, because it is unavailable at any but the most boutiquey of boutique shops, apparently; we also thought it would be fun to look around and see what sort of other scrummy food choices we might be missing by shopping at the Really Big grocery store. We found the organic chocolate straightaway, which was nice. Then we found shelf after shelf loaded with [slightly dusty] boxes, packets, packages and bottles of other organic and/or “natural” products. There was hardly a drop of high fructose corn syrup or autolyzed yeast protein to be found. Huzzah!

And then, it hit me. From nowhere came this epiphany that landed on my head literally in the middle of the store, right between the ginseng extract and the soy-veggie chips. And that was this:

There are hardly any “natural” foods here in this “natural foods” store.

See, when I think “natural” foods, I think of raw vegetables. I think of brown eggs. I think of raw milk and raw honey. I think free-range meats. I think of artisan breads made in small batches, or grains grown without a lot of chemical crap thrown on (or in) them. In short, I think of foods that can be recognized from whence they came.

Looking around, there was nary a thing that could be recognized from whence it came. Well, there were a couple of sad bunches of organic bananas. And there was a loaf of bread made with spelt flour. (I did not buy the bread, but I did buy some spelt flour.) But really, truly, browsing this “natural foods store” was one of the most unnatural experiences I’ve ever had.

Most everything in this store was some sort of supplement, extract, fiber-bar, protein powder, or capsule. I had to read the ingredients on pretty much every product to figure out just what, exactly, I was looking at. I can’t imagine how opening a vacuum-sealed pouch and emptying it- nay, even if into a glass of fresh, filtered spring water- would give one a satisfying gastronomical experience, let alone a feeling that one was ingesting something natural. I, the Purveyor of the Free Range Organic GrassFed Beef, felt quite out of my element. Still, we shopped on.

S4 and I did NOT find any whole wheat pastry flour, organic or no; a clerk said it could be ordered, but I wasn’t sure if we would trek back anytime soon and didn’t want her to go through the trouble. We did score ourselves some quinoa, the spelt flour, and some french lentils. Again with the huzzahs.

But later, when we got home and I pulled those treasures out of our canvas bag (<– !!) and set them on the counter, it occurred to me that all three of my purchases were in ridiculous plastic pouches that were totally not recyclable. That seemed like such an oxymoron to me. One of the primary aspects of buying organic and “natural” foods is that you are reducing your demand for resources, and this was clearly not the case. In fact, we probably increased our demand. The flour I usually buy comes in a paper sack, and I can buy quinoa in the regular grocery that’s packed in a cardboard box. I thought about all the stuff we had browsed over in the “natural” foods store, and realized that most of it was prepackaged – and most of the packaging was vicious: unrecyclable foil or plastic or a combination thereof. True, most of the ingredients were organic, and many were vegetarian, or even vegan. Great. Hooray. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to take 10000 years for that pouch of non-GMO tempeh to degrade into something useful.

I think we’ve been conditioned to believe that food should be insanely cheap and available incessantly. And along with that conditioning, we’ve also been conditioned to ignore the reality that, if you want it cheap and you want it now, you’re going to have to sacrifice a bit on the quality. That’s the niche that conventional, industrial food fills. Fortunately, people are starting to demand more quality in their food, which has fueled the enormous growth in the organics sector over the past several years. Unfortunately, however, people haven’t been willing to budge on the cheap and now part. So we’re seeing more “organics” and more “natural” foods entering the retail grocery landscape, but they’re just as over-processed and over-packaged as their conventional competitors so they can survive the harsh realities of retail food: mass production, long-distance transportation, storage, and shelf-life.

Buying organics, and buying less-processed or unprocessed foodstuffs, is a great and noble (and healthy) thing to do, in my not-so-humble opinion. Buying “natural” or “organic” copycats of industrial food (i.e. “Veganaise”, “veggie slices” (cheese substitute), or organic extruded cereals) is NOT natural, nor is it necessarily healthy. And buying foods that are so exotic that they require space-grade packaging to keep fresh while they get from there to here is NOT natural, nor is it responsible. I’m happy for you that your miso paste is in a convenient tube, but will it be convenient seventeen generations from now when it’s still hanging out in a landfill somewhere?

I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re a vegan, a carnivore, a chocolatarian, or a junk-food junkie. We Westerners all* eat foods that involve intensive industrial interference to produce. Our diets have millions and millions of food miles on them. Our foods have millions and millions of pounds of wasteful packaging on them. And for those of us who believe that eating organic, low-impact foods is important for our own health as well as for stewardship of the planet, we need to keep in mind that a “natural” food is one that grows nearby, or one that is made from things that grow nearby, not just one grown without chemicals. The industrialization of food – organic or conventional notwithstanding – is not a sustainable way of eating.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of french lentils. And some spelt bread to go with.

*I’m sure there are exceptions to every rule.