by Maria Reidelbach
Okay, be honest: does locally grown food sometimes weird you out? Of course, these days, it’s accepted wisdom that local food can be more delicious, fresher, healthier, and better for the environment than processed food or fast food–but what about when you’re harvesting from your garden, shopping at a farmstand, foraging, or checking out your weekly CSA farm share and you see something supposedly edible and you just can’t figure it out?
Maybe it’s something familiar but off in some way—too big or too small, too juicy or too dry, too hard or too squishy, a shocking color, or having spots or bumps or holes where you’ve never seen them before. Maybe even a bug crawls out. Or perhaps it’s some completely new species you’ve never seen or eaten before.
It’s our animal nature to be suspicious of new foods—that’s what kept our ancestors from being poisoned. But that survival instinct gets in our way sometimes—like when we want to stretch our tastes and try something different. Even if we’ve tamed our inner food snob or are just ignoring it, we’re then faced with our ignorance. We’re familiar with supermarket food that is identically packaged with handy instructions, and with food that is cooked professionally and safely served on a plate, be it paper or china. Even the fresh produce from supermarkets is boringly standard—one kind of broccoli, all the same size, shape, color and condition—while locally grown food is a dizzying riot of varieties, sizes, colors, and qualities.
There’s definitely a lot to learn about the wonderful variety of locally grown produce, but I have gleaned some rules of thumb I’m happy to share. (Rather than the kitchen definition of vegetables, I’ll be using the botanist’s definition—tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplants and other seed-bearing structures are fruit. Leaves, stalks, roots, flowers and other non-seed-bearing plant parts are considered vegetables).
Mostly, ripe fruit is relatively soft, wet, colorful and sweet. The reason is quite fascinating: fruit wants to be eaten, that’s how a plant spreads its seeds. Technically, fruit is tissue surrounding a seed. It has qualities that almost all animals are attracted to: high sugar content, aromatic, thirst-quenching, easy to chew and swallow. When the seed inside has matured and is ready to be eaten, fruit cleverly advertises by color and aroma. Animals eat the fruit and the seed within then later deposit the seed somewhere else in a nice pat of starter manure—it’s win-win!
Locally grown ripe fruit is going to be juicier and softer than what what you usually see in supermarkets, which bred for durability, not flavor, and is often as hard and dry as a cardboard box. The softer, juicier, smellier, more sensuous flavor and texture of fresh, ripe produce might seem strange at first—but like sex, once you get into it, it’s really fun.
Vegetables, by contrast, have no interest in getting munched. They are plant parts that exist to help a plant grow—roots and tubers collect water and nutrients from the soil and store resources (carrots, beets, potatoes), stems provide an armature for leaves (broccoli and asparagus), leaves absorb sun for photosynthesis (greens), and flowers attract insects to pollinate seeds (cauliflower, broccoli rabe).
When fresh, these parts are crisp, juicy, and sweet. Despite vegetables’ reticence to be eaten, we do naturally crave them—they are by far our main source of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Most vegetables don’t ripen as fruit does, they just get bigger and more fibrous, starchy and/or tough, so smaller and younger veggies are often more tender and sweet.
To find the best locally grown food, I take the attitude of a curious detective. Take a close look at the specimen. Ask some questions. Does its strangeness look like inherent qualities of the fruit or vegetable—like carrots that look black on the outside but turn out to be vibrant purple with orange hearts? Is it a variety of pear that’s naturally bumpy? Ask your farmer, or look up the fruit or vegetable in a book or on the internet.
Do spots, bumps or holes seem the result of disease, insect damage, rot, or are they characteristic of the variety of produce? Sometimes locally grown apples can look pretty darn gnarly. There are fungi that can make rough, brown patches on the skin, and hail can scar immature fruit—but neither of these flaws affect taste or nutrition. However, a bruised apple is on its way to rotting. A few insect bites may not be a problem, but take a good look for live ones and reject infested produce.
Does the produce seem too hard, soft, wet or dry? Check and see how fibrous it is by snapping a bit off—green beans can get stringy if too mature, or limp if they’ve been off the vine too long, for example. Try a taste and see what you think. Fruit that is overripe will have a characteristic fermented flavor. Leafy greens may be limp, but if the cut ends look fresh, you can easily resuscitate the greens by soaking them for 10 minutes in very cold water.
In general, look for produce that is vibrantly colored, that is full of water and sugars, indicated by weight and/or crispness, and that is aromatic (especially fruit). Taste it when possible. Compare the produce with others of their type, and make a habit of scoping out all the produce you encounter—smell it, feel it, pick it up and see how heavy it is. Ask farmers, friends, and cooks for their opinions and advice.
It’s definitely a learning curve, but it is one that’s interesting and delicious. Plus, the knowledge will serve you well for the rest of your life.
Maria Reidelbach is a local food activist, author and artist living, working and eating in Accord, NY. (firstname.lastname@example.org)