Friday, May 6, 2011

Grocery Killed the Vegetable Star

A statue of the Jolly Green Giant towers above...Image via Wikipedia
“Being pretty on the inside means you don't hit your brother and you eat all your peas - that's what my grandma taught me.”
- Lord Chesterfield, British statesman and diplomat (1694-1773)

            I go to the farmers market. And what do I see? Peas! Glorious peas! Yes, the poor pea is quite maligned, but if your only memories of peas are the mushy ones sitting a pool of murky water at the school cafeteria, I assure you, a fresh pea is a joy to behold.
            You probably don’t believe me. In fact I didn’t even believe me until a couple of years ago when I visited Europe.  Europeans eat fresh peas all the time. In the 17th and 18th century, fresh peas were fashionable in court circles across Europe. The English, while butchering so many vegetables, manage to respect the springtime pea. Chinese have their famous sautéed pea sprout dish, 豆苗; dòu miáo (which I will feature in a future post, as soon as my pea shoots are grown!). And yet, the pea gets so little respect.
            I think the reason why Americans can’t ever love a pea is that they have never eaten a fresh pea. Unless you scout a good farmers market in the spring (New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket and Chicago’s Green City Market have them) or grow them yourself, you probably don’t even know what a fresh pea pod looks or tastes like. The only pea most Americans see comes from the Jolly Green Giant. Part of the reason why average grocery stores do not sell them is due to their short shelf life.  As soon as the pea pods are picked, they quickly start turning their sugary selves into starch. As soon as a day or two after being picked, they sweetness is muted, eventually turning themselves into the nasty critters we don’t want to remember from cafeteria hell.
            The other reason is far more invidious. It has to do with the dominance of grocery stores, food distribution systems and industrial farming[1] in our fruit and vegetable system.[2] First, let’s start with the farm. Most of our produce comes form industrial farms-you know, the ones featured in Grapes of Wrath (even though it’s not Okies doing all the work anymore-it’s Mexican migrant workers). Forty-six thousand farms (out of two million farms) are responsible for 50% of all the produce sold in the US. They are also the ones that get the most in USDA subsidies: the top 20% of farmers get 80% of the subsidies. Guess who are those top 20% of farmers? Industrial farms. Thus there is a perverse incentive to have industrial agriculture, the kind that has endless miles of corn, lettuce or whatever, at the cost of smaller (and usually local and sustainable) farms. This dominance of the farm allows them to control the types and kinds of fruit and vegetables on the land, and thus on our plate. In 1866, California used to have 1,186 different types of fruits and vegetables grown on its lands. Now there are only 350.  If industrial farmers aren’t interested in growing a plant, it will never see the light of day.
            Speaking of which, here’s second link the chain. Food distribution. As food distributors have control over how food is delivered across the US, they have a large say in what type of produce is regarded as “transportable.” Thus produce is grown for their ease of transport-not for nutritional value or god forbid, taste.[3] Because of the limits of transportation, some varieties of produce are more amenable to transport versus others.  For example, nearly 99% of all bananas sold across the world are of the Cavendish variety.  This is due to its hardiness over long distances (the bananas are kept in cold conditions to prevent them from ripening). There are hundreds of other local varieties of bananas, but due to their fragility, they will never make the global market. The banana will travel 3-4 weeks over 2,500 miles to get to your local market, making your broccoli look like a locavore dream at 1,800 mile average. Either way, the produce lost its freshness LONG ago.
And the last step to you – your supermarket. Ninety-four percent of all produce production is sold in supermarkets. Only 1.5% of sales are direct farmer to consumer sales. Supermarkets value shelf life, aesthetics and convenience, which then favor certain varieties of produce over others, (e.g. Green Zebra tomatoes vs. Floramericas) choices.[4] The market dominance of 3 major chains, plus Walmart, also plays a hand in limiting consumer choice: growers will only grow varieties that have a market, which is then determined by the dominant players in retail food.
It’s all one evil cycle. You get less choice and worse food-and your taxpayer dollars, in the form of agricultural subsidies, are paying for it. Yes the food is cheap[5], but it’s tasteless, filled with pesticides, and paid for by the lives of underpaid exploited labor. Is this what you really want on your plate?
Where to go? Farmers markets and CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture).  Not only are they a better deal for your health and the environment, they are a much better deal for the farmer (average farmer receives 5% of every dollar, whereas direct farm to consumer farmer receives 80-90% on the dollar). But if cost isn’t going to get you, then I say go with your palate. The varieties and quality of produce at most farmers markets will beat any supermarket in terms of taste and freshness. Do you really want to eat a 2 week-old head of lettuce? Go local and it will be probably picked the morning of. Have any questions about how your produce was grown? You can ask your farmer. The guy at Safeway doesn’t know squat about your squash (trust me, I’ve asked).
So go find some peas at your local farmers market. Shuck them on the spot and eat them. You’ll be wondering why you ever dealt with the supermarket tomato in the first place.

Sweet Pea Risotto with Mint Gremolata

            My child loves fresh peas and unfortunately, this means I have to buy double the amount of fresh peas than what is required for dinner. But if you can resist the temptation to eat them all while shelling them, this is an easy great dish to highlight spring produce and herbs. The most complicated part is the stirring. And you can even cheat on that (you don’t have to be stirring the ENTIRE time. Every couple of minutes of so is OK). And with the fancy title, you’ll impress everyone. No one has to know your secret – which is that nature did all the work for you.

4 Servings
2 tbs. of butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
11/2 c. of Arborio or Carnaroli rice
3/4 c. of dry white wine
6 c. of boiling chicken or vegetable stock (unsalted or low-sodium)
3 c. of freshly shelled peas
salt and pepper to taste
Mint Gremolata
1 bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped
1 bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed
zest of 2 lemons (lemons must be unwaxed)

Parmesan cheese for serving
1.     Gremolata: Combine all ingredients, until combined. Set aside.
2.     Melt butter over medium high heat in a large non-stick pan. When the butter stops foaming, sauté shallots until soft, but not browned, about 3-4 minutes.
3.     Stir rice into the pan and sauté for 30 seconds, until the rice has absorbed some of the fat in the pan. Immediately add the wine into the pan, and stir rice until the wine is almost absorbed, about 2-3 minutes. Add one cup of the boiling broth into the pan and stirring the rice frequently, until almost all the broth has been absorbed. Repeat the process, adding one cup of broth at a time, until the rice is creamy and firm to the bite (like al dente pasta). This will take about 18-22 minutes.  After 18 minutes, you should start tasting to see if the rice is done.
4.     Right before the rice is done, about the 20-minute mark, stir in the peas. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Place onto serving plates and sprinkle 1 tbs. of gremolata on top.  Pass along freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top.  

[1] I’ve discussed this in a previous post regarding apples. Click here for the post.
[2] I am not trying to ignore the importance of the food processing and its related industries.  That is another whole can of worms for another post. Ugh.
[3] This is not to suggest that growers also favor certain plant varieties. Plants that are easy to harvest, resist drought, disease and pests, and have high yields are also highly desirable for industrial agriculture, for obvious reasons.
[4] This also distorts consumers understanding of seasonality. When did we start getting strawberries in January? Thanks to food distribution. They may look pretty, but they taste awful.
[5] When I say “cheap” I mean only in real dollar terms. If you were to actually look at the environmental, human and political costs of “cheap” food, then food prices would be 3 or 4 times the price we pay at the average supermarket.
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