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.