On a flight to Paris sometime in the early 2000’s, I was once fed a tiny wedge of innocuously labeled Brie on top of a sugar cookie. The combo was delivered unceremoniously by an airline Stewardess who, despite being lovely and charming in an exquisitely French way, did nothing to refine the two three-inch pieces of “food”, which were wrapped in plastic like an astronaut’s meal. And yet to this day this airline-brand snack is one of the greatest things that I have ever eaten. All of this is to say that the story of my Brooklyn CSA experience begins long before I bought a share. Walk with me for a moment.
When I returned from my trip to Barcelona, (a city where I indulged in enough Gelato to comatose a bull,) I spoke with a French Teacher about the “cheese-biscuit” Parisian experience. This was around 2007. She sighed and assured me that I would remember it for the rest of my life, telling me a similar tale about instant ramen that she ate in India twenty years before, and how that “That,”– she happily announced– “was the glory of experiencing food and travelling.” By ‘experiencing’ she meant that the culinary and cultural traditions of a place are so deeply woven into its food, that it’s practically impossible to avoid having a meaningful experience with your meals when the food is also a story. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but biting into that unexpected combo (cookies and cheese) opened up another world to me: by paying attention to its attributes, I learned that food that’s worth eating has to have a personality.
A few years later in Quito, Ecuador, at the base of the Andes Mountain chain, I would articulate this lesson to myself when speaking to a market vendor about the quality of her avocados. “Me los encantan!” I would chirp out, enthusiastically, as she proceeded to ask me whether I wanted to eat the luscious fruit that I was about to purchase today, “¿o mañana?”
There was a difference, you see: the process of planned ripening was key, and even one day’s softening could turn a perfectly creamy delight into a bruised and mealy regret. The matron of this corner market diligently oversaw the freshness of our purchases– which we made daily. Moreover, when I was in South America, I ate a lot of avocados and mangos– always gleaned from a corner market in which ‘local’ was the only option, since most people could grow both plants on their own property (the boon of an equatorial climate). Back then, I was learning to value local produce beyond it’s environmental benefits, which were exhaustive and obvious to me from a young age; the nuance to “slow food” ethos that impressed me was becoming more apparent as I travelled around the world. Any product that is locally-produced is meaningful, both symbolically and otherwise, but in the case of food: it nourishes a person on the inside and out. It’s not just something for environmental congregants: people who feed themselves well get more out of all aspects of life, because the same thoughtfulness that goes into cultivating a quality pantry transcends one’s ability to feel connected and really engaged in their daily existence. Once I realized the potency of this sentiment, I was never content with eating “distant” again. I simply refused to martyr my meals in that way.
Later, in New Zealand, Kiwis became my new ‘local’ darlings: 12,000 miles away from my East Coast upbringing, they were a backyard delicacy, an emblem of native produce that for me had only ever been an exotic treat. In terms of horticulture, the transition was a lovely burden to shoulder. Such was the verisimilitude: I couldn’t find baby spinach anywhere, but in a veil of euphoria I settled for the bigger, ligneous leaves because I could easily find kiwis with perfect give, which, to me, was an exciting and worthwhile trade. Just as an avocado in Quito was like Brie in France, a Kiwi in New Zealand was not only my regularly anticipated indulgence, sui generis, but also the national fruit that shares its name with both an elusive bird and the colloquial name for a native New Zealander. Every Saturday that I lived in Auckland, I walked to my neighborhood market– a French style fair called La Cigale— just to buy a few of the little juicy green blimps. Bias aside, they tasted better when I bought them from a grower.
As it turns out, policy suggests that I was right: I eventually asked an informed local why the kiwis at the supermarket were so, (by comparison,) ordinary. Postulating, (but speaking from experience,) he lamented that the best kiwis in New Zealand are shipped to the U.S. and other industrial buyers abroad, but by the time they made it to their final destination, they had lost their edge. This way, both countries lose: the average New Zealander, unless they are a locavore, very rarely has access to the best yield of fruit grown in his own country– and by the time it gets to us, it’s stale. If you wanted to get a real taste of freshness, you’d have to buy directly from a farmer. A side by side taste-test (for science!) proved that there really was no comparison to that which was produced locally and with care. It seemed as though I had never tasted a real kiwi before Auckland. And with the sense of community that I also found at La Cigale, I realized that patronizing local growers had become an uncompromising and integral aspect of my life as someone who eats. Seeking out the neighborhood market– or a way to get local produce– is now the first thing I do when I land in a new place. (Southside CSA will enter the narrative shortly.)
In Fiji, however, the narrative shifted beyond produce. Fresh, flakey, succulent white fish that was caught one hour before it was served to me– speared from the very reef in which I was snorkeling on a daily basis– became a mealtime preoccupation. I had learned through my environmental studies in that while global fisheries precariously teetered on ruin, the hardest blows were dealt at the local level. The problem was endemic and continues to be so, plaguing a region much broader than the ocean-centric food web surrounding my tiny hut on Waya Island. But even in communities where seashells outnumber people, we still vote with our purchases, so I patronized the trade in Fiji and in the process became as endeared to the fishermen as I previously was to farmers. The people who produce the food that we eat really are artists: there’s so much purpose and grace to the idiosyncrasies of each craft, vis-a-vis the planned ripening, the responsive harvesting, and the lottery that is the daily catch, a yield that is always at the mercy of the tide cycle.
On the island, I saw how South Pacific chefs season seafood: with a profound sense of legacy and as much virtuosity as they exhibit while performing the Bula, a native dance that shares it’s title with the Fijian word for “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “Relax”. (In Fiji, those words all mean the same thing.) In Copenhagen, while the nature of the catch was different, its epicurean treatment was equally site-specific: in Denmark, I ate Pickled Herring served with mayonnaise and red onion on open-faced Rugbrød (Danish rye bread). They call this staple lunch feature Smørrebrød, and from experience, its best enjoyed in good company after a bike ride by the houseboats in Malmo, Sweden. The memories of both places stick because, whether in the Pacific Islands or Scandinavia, Food has become the foundation for many nation’s deep cultural reservoirs. Ones that threaten to run dry if we disallow people to control, understand, and appreciate where their food comes from, whether its the consequence of rampant pollution, overfishing, weak environmental policy, or unbridled global market ventures, under whose capitalist reign most small-scale artisans wither and perish. And in the Internet age of international shipping, that happens often.
The point of my gratuitous narration of these events– and I could continue vaingloriously on– is that programs like CSA’s and Farm-to-Fork alliances have enabled me to work local food into my life, both domestic and foreign. Not only is local food so much better for the environment (but you already know that, if you are reading this) but I’ve also found that it creates a context for the place in which it is consumed– and we consistently undervalue this less-obvious benefit. And while I may have highlighted some specific revelations abroad, my intrigue was always driven by a penchant for environmental sustainability and a thoughtfulness that was cultivated by the locavore tradition here at home, on American soil. Amidst these travels, I cut my teeth at the City Market as a student at the University of Virginia, and at the fabulous weekend markets that pepper the communities around my hometown, in New England.
Now that I live in New York, I’ve been charmed by the local movement to support CSAs like Southside, not only because they help growers maintain their precious farmland, but because they’ve done a great job at contextualizing the story behind every item in my share. I love knowing on what farms and in which towns each Southside CSA item was produced. This information continues to write the story of my relationship with real food, filling the proverbial pages with an implicit dialogue about how it’s still possible to support local farmers in absentia. And at an affordable price point. I’ve delighted in cooking with those beefy, vermillion tomatoes from Jersey, the giant, yolky eggs produced free-range upstate, and the juicy blueberries from Greig Farm. (I can’t get enough of those, y’all.) This past CSA share, I even got some edamame from Markristo Farm in Hillsdale, NY. I didn’t even know that soy beans could grow here! It is through these unexpected surprises that with each ceremonious package-opening, I take a moment to acknowledge whoever produced what’s inside– the label shows that they, too, have a story.
So Thank You, Black Horse Farm, for the butternut squash that I also got in my last share. I chose to make it into a soup whose recipe I’ve attached, below. Your product, through this CSA, is something that I will forever associate with my time in New York– where, even in one of the most densely populated cities of the world, I can still connect with the people, food, and environments that continually sustain me.
© 2012 Molly Beauchemin
Apple, Gorgonzola, and Almond Butternut Soup
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 cups butternut squash (roughly, one CSA bag)
- 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
- Gorgonzola cheese, toasted almonds (to garnish)
- Optional Garnish: fresh Thyme sprigs, apple slices
(1) Heat oil in a large soup pot. Add carrot, celery and onion. Cook until vegetables have begun to soften and onion turns translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.
(2) Stir in butternut squash, thyme, chicken broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
(3) Use an immersion blender to purée soup. (Or, if you like it thicker, leave it.)
(4) Mix in the applesauce.
(5) Garnish each serving with crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, toasted almonds, a few slices of thinly sliced apple and a small sprig of fresh thyme.