Nature’s Bounty


There exists a sense of childish wonder that accompanies the sights and smells of fruits and vegetables ripening out-of-doors: a delicately-cradled handful of perfectly dark blueberries, still covered in a thin film of summer dust, or the weighty, water-swelled skin of a blushing tomato, warm from hours of bathing in the sun. Money might not grow on trees, but the bounty yielded by nature dangles from branches, clings to vines, and sprouts from the ground, promising items more vital to human life than the coins and bills of currency. To some, the first mouthful of bursting, summer-sweet corn kernels or the raw crunch of a sugar snap pea, tasted moments after being picked from the vine, creates a unique pleasure that is readily shared with others.

“…little bowls of feta drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with oregano; puréed smoked aubergine/eggplant combined with yogurt, lemon and garlic in a velvety dip; artichoke bottoms stuffed with succulent cinnamon rice and wrapped in tender vine leaves; freshly fried salt-and-pepper squid with a creamy pine-nut sauce; a fresh crunchy salad of skinned tomatoes, cucumber, onions, and handfuls of chopped parsley tossed in sour pomegranate syrup; and a round of freshly baked flatbread sprinkled with nigella seeds. This was food to share, savor, and swoon over. It was too good to eat alone. With every mouthful and every sigh of sublime pleasure, I thought about eating my way into the remote pockets of Turkey and the Middle East to immerse myself in the culinary culture of the region. I thought about travelling and writing, cooking and sharing, and I thought about capturing that very moment…”

Ghillie Başan, introduction to Mezze: Small Plates to Share.

The value of a well-nurtured, sun-ripened fruit or vegetable is easily recognized in the spheres of chefs, food producers, and purveyors. In the past several decades, many food establishments have been founded (and earned great success) by creating dishes that center on just a few key ingredients, bringing forth an item’s unique flavors and textures by simple combinations of high-quality ingredients. There is not just a consideration towards how the diner will experience the meal, but also of the locality of the procured food stuffs, the ecological impact of the harvest, and the sustainability of the ingredients being used. Many times, this leads to a focus on knowing where your food came from, and being able to track where it was grown, who harvested it, and how it got to your plate.

A sizeable subset of the world’s population is confronted by an excess of food, creating a condition in which we can ignore the food wilting and dehydrating in the back of our refrigerators, or reach for a second helping even when we aren’t hungry enough to truly enjoy it. We forget that apples taste best in the late summer and early autumn, when they aren’t faded and mushy but crisp and juicy from the week’s most recent harvest. Asparagus doesn’t have to be tough and stringy, but can be delicately crunchy and fragrant when the stalks are still young in the early spring. Artichokes leaves are less aggressive and more sweet when the globes are harvested at their peak in mid-spring, and oranges are less dry and more pleasantly juicy in January, when most other fruits are no longer in season.

After we’ve been winding past aisle after aisle of produce in our regular grocery store, air-conditioned and stale and dark except for the glare from fluorescent bulbs overhead, a visit farmer’s market evokes a curious reaction. The fruit and vegetable selection might be the same in the store and the outdoor market: pyramids of oranges and bags of clementines in the winter, piles of corn and pints of strawberries in the summer, but there is a curious tendency to gravitate towards the items in these outdoor stalls. Perhaps it is the tangible connection to the soil, the concept that these fruits and vegetables were grown and harvested by local hands, which supersedes the abstract notion of eternal storage in a setting-less warehouse. Or perhaps it is the ability to be surrounded by the harvest in the sunshine and the breeze and in the middle of the faint scent of grass and trees, evoking the freedom of al fresco dining or plein air. After staring at strawberries behind their clear, sharp armor of plastic clam-shell boxes, barcoded and stacked like prison cells, there is a marvel in picking up those soft pulp-paper baskets from which the berries at the farmer’s market tumble and overflow.

“Abundance of vegetables—piles of white-and-green fennel, like celery, and great sheaves of young, purplish, sea-dust-colored artichokes, nodding their buds, piles of big radishes, scarlet and bluey purple, carrots, long strings of dried figs, mountains of big oranges, scarlet large peppers, a last slice of pumpkin, a great mass of colours and vegetable freshnesses.”

D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia.

A handful of white radishes

A preoccupation with the delights of an abundant harvest is hardly a recent development of our contemporary era of modern agriculture and food production. A glance at the exquisite still-life paintings by Dutch and Flemish artists1 reveals a yearning to capture the translucence of a grape skin, the fiery glow contained in a radiant red currant, or the jeweled tones of a half-peeled lemon, haphazardly discarded yet painstakingly arranged, as if the diners had just stepped away from the table in the middle of their meal. The swollen water droplets glistening on the surfaces of a pear and the blemishes of a bruised, over-ripe grape or peach further entice the viewer, and the presence of a small swarm of attentive ants reminds us that the intoxicating sweetness of these fruits will attract even the smallest animals and insects.

To some, there is a vital connection between happiness and the opportunity to nurture a plant and watch it develop from seed to fruit-bearing vine, shrub, or tree. On the one hand, there is an opportunity to observe the new leaves unfurling with each day of sunlight, and to watch the flowers open their tissue-paper thin petals and eventually reveal a small fruit or vegetable, which swells in size and changes color until it resembles the one we are used to seeing in the kitchen. There is the excitement of counting how many clusters of pea pods you have this year, and the eager anticipation of finding the largest zucchini you’ll harvest this summer. Even for those of us with the tiniest of balconies in a thin sliver of sunlight, we can watch the unruly sprigs of thyme spill out of a pot, or the woody stalks of rosemary reach up and up to new heights. The simple act of watering a collection of plants that we call ours, peeking on them day after day to see how they are doing and whether there are new buds or sprouts, provides a moment of pleasant surprise and a time to reconnect with the earth. The fruits of our labors, then, are all the more rewarding when the moment arrives to savor and enjoy.

A plate of shrimp and squash with couscous

Footnotes

1 Masterpieces of Dutch and Flemish Painting, Van Otterloo and Weatherbie collections, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. https://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/masterpieces-of-dutch-and-flemish-painting

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