Tyranny of the Fresh/Local Calender

February 6, 2009 at 9:09 am

Rob Gardner

Last week at the Winter Market, when I was not marveling at architecture of Unity Temple, I was marveling at the amount of winterized products for sale.  Beet blogger Vera had her Serbian veg spread called ajvar.  The Ackerman’s from downstate Illinois had pickled peppers.  At least two, maybe three vendors, had canned salsas.  On top of that, Michigan’s Seedling’s farm had dried fruit and frozen fruit. 

I stopped in yesterday at the newly re-opened Downtown Farmstand, and they had a whole lot of interesting canned goods too.  Listen, there is a time to eat the most naked tomato or the freshest asparagus, but there is also a time to revel in treated products.  The problem, I believe, is too many of us our beholden to the tyranny of the fresh. 

This is not the first time I’ve made this point.  The following was posted on the VI blog in 2006.  Scroll down from there for the local calendar.

Tyranny of the Fresh

I knew one person who liked canned peas, my grandfather. He is, though, no culinary hero of mine. He went years on the same three meals: poached egg on toast for breakfast; (American) cheese sandwich on toast for lunch; and plain hamburger, baked potato and canned peas for dinner. His condiment, his sole condiment for all this food, salt. Pale mushy peas and their evil cousin, pale mushy green beans, are the foods that leap to most people’s mind when you say canned. We are trained to expect fresh. How can we eat local if there is no fresh? The inventories of our stores convince us that we should have a fresh product. We have fallen victim to the tyranny of the fresh.

People are scarred of canned. Andy Warhol may have famously painted soup cans, but where in the museum do you see a still life with canned peaches? Consumers want their supermarkets to sell fresh, a year round supply of fresh tomatoes, fresh berries, fresh heads of lettuce, and fresh bell peppers in assorted colors. This is supposed to be real food. Never mind the environmental impact of a grape hauled into town from Chile, a tomato that has to be gassed to look red, let’s just talk about flavor.

What do we get as fresh. Whole Foods labels told me the other day that their pretty bell peppers, their vivid red tomatoes with tight green “vines”, came from Canada. What does that mean. It means hydroponic. It means all of the flavor, all of what a vegetable should taste like is gone. On the other hand, take something out of the freezer. Food scientist Harold McGee notes that food picked at its peaked, properly frozen, is of higher quality than food picked off-ripe to survive long shipping. Besides, the places that can supply you with off-season products are not the optimum places for the products. Is Florida really the area where blueberries prosper? Yet, the market demands blueberries in March, and farmer’s can coax something round and blue out of the ground in March down there. Because most of the supermarket inventory comes from California, we get the impression that the best vegetables grow in California. Yes, great vegetables grow in California. Not what find in your supermarket. It is just that vegetables grow in California. Period. How many people realize that Green Giant is based in Minnesota, Birdseye started in Massachusetts. This is not to say that our food conglomerates do not harvest around the world, it’s just, I think, it points out that the stuff worth preserving, often does not come from California. Extrapolate that back to fresh vs. frozen. Does this convince you that fresh is not always the best product?

Here’s three ways I battled the tyranny of the fresh last week: 1) canned strawberries preserved in syrup; 2) frozen red peppers cooked into a frittata and 3) candied preserved pear as part of an ice cream flavor. Three different ways of putting things away, by can, by freeze, by drying/candying. The strawberries, well they had that real, that true strawberry flavor so unfamiliar to most eaters. The peppers taste of sun of summer. The pears made every cliche of “explodes with flavor” and “burst in your mouth” go through my head. Sure, there were textural issues. The strawberries are soft, seeds more noticeable; the peppers flaccid, the pear gummy, but why do we need all of our foods to have the dry, static texture of fresh. You could not dip canned strawberries in brown sugar or make a salad of the red peppers. So. Find dishes that match the food, for instance over ice cream as Vie served the strawberries. The Elmwood Park shop, Massa, expertly mixed the candied pears with Nutella into a mascarpone gelato base. My wife, the Condiment Queen, knew how to use the peppers.

If we remove ourselves from the tyranny of the fresh, we can eat local without the farmer’s market being open. We do not need to rely on someone else, on weather, on seasons. Obviously, one cannot march into this battle wily-nily. But this is not a “how-to” post. There’s plenty of time for that. Before taking the time, the effort, the capital to start preserving your food, you have to enlist. You have to become a conscript against the tyranny. Wallow in conserved foods. Realize you can eat a peach in February, just not a fresh peach. Maybe you will even develop a taste for canned peas.

Can’t wait to fill your basket up with less than fresh foods.  Do we have options for you!

Saturday, the Winter Market returns to St. Bens on the North side of Chicago.  This market got a fantastic turnout in the midst of a blizzard a few weeks ago.  I imagine the unseasonable weather will bring in an even bigger crowd.   For Western suburbanites, there’s a market Sunday in Glen Ellyn.  And if Glen Ellyn is not far enough away, there’s Elburn.  Besides having local food for sale this Saturday, the Heritage Prairie Market hosts a pasta making workshop.

 Something called, er, Green City Market, convenes again on Saturday.  It should be a bit less of a madhouse as they have separated the vendors from the demonstrators and also staggered the demonstrations.

It aint just once a week, local food’s always at Cassie’s Green Grocer, and she has some sources, like Windy City Harvest that cannot be found elsewhere.  When it comes to the canned, she has the artisanal  products made by our friends at Hull House (apres White House notoriety).  As I mentioned above, the Downtown Farmstand is open again.  Amongst their inventory now, basil grown by Chicago’s Ag School.  I jump at any fresh herbs.  They also have the Hull House stuff.

Speaking of Hull-House, next Tuesday, my favorite food writer/adventurer, Monica Eng, presents at the Re-Thinking Soup series.

If like me, you waited too long to reserve for Paul Virant’s first family dinner at Vie.  Instead of Mado’s Rob Levitt’s idea of family dinner, i.e., eat as if you were a family of eight, Paul’s dinner focuses on a kid friendly menu and price tag.  The folks at Vie want to see how well this one goes before scheduling a next one.  I won’t wait as long then.

Discuss your local finds here.

Any other local food events forthcoming?