The food I was served growing up was not gourmet. We had never heard of arugula. Parmesan cheese came in green cans exclusively. Party food was cheese and crackers and summer sausage; maybe cocktail wieners in the crockpot, dressed in a mixture of ketchup and grape jelly (much better than it sounds, actually.). I recall the excitement generated at one memorable Ohio State vs. Michigan football party when my fifth-grade teacher (aka Grandma’s next door neighbor and wife of my mother’s first kiss) brought Hawaiian wings. The soy! The pineapple! The daring juxtaposition!
My dad’s side of the family was more daring—an uncle once brought stuffed grape leaves, and no one in my mom’s family believed me when I told them—but that brought its own set of problems. My parents were divorced, and my sister was one of those kids who tried to control her surroundings by controlling what she ate. The list of unacceptable foods is vast and multi-layered; some items are OK raw but not cooked, or vice versa; some solo but not as an ingredient; sometimes only a certain brand is acceptable and everything else is anathema. I’d say I couldn’t possibly explain them all, but the truth is that after a lifetime of study, I could. I was her royal taster, charged with protecting her from verboten items. Was there sour cream in the mashed potatoes? I would taste first and feign delight, asking, Aunt so-and-so, how did you make these? They’re so good! I can spot cream cheese icing at twenty paces, and my sister and I became masters of non-verbal communication; I’d shake my head or nod as each item was passed to her.
We did have good produce in the summer and fall—locally grown peaches, strawberries, tomatoes. The sweet corn grown in the countryside around my town is still the best I’ve ever had, and the long drives to get it worth every second. Silver Queen, Bread n. Butter; I buy sweet corn from roadside stands wherever I go and nothing else has ever come close (take that, New Jersey.) I can easily eat a dozen ears in a day when I go home in August.
All of this is just a long introduction to the topic at hand: I’m a slave to good produce. I can spend an hour in the produce section at Fresh Fields, a whole day at the farmer’s market. I’ll buy any kind of vegetable if I’ve never heard of it, at any price. The things I’ll do for heirloom tomatoes would shock most churchgoers. For years, I’ve dreamt of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share of my very own; you pay a few hundred bucks in the spring and each week during growing season the farm delivers your portion of freshly picked, organic veggies. French breakfast radishes! Mizuna!
Problem is, each share feeds a family of 2-4, and I am a family of one when it comes to produce. My sister has expanded from iceberg lettuce to romaine, and discovered a love of French green beans. Once or twice she’s even tried asparagus. But I’m all on my own when it comes to swiss chard and kohlrabi, and even I have my limits. Oh, plus I never have several hundred dollars to sink on yuppie veggie futures.
The solution: work shares. Not 30 minutes from my house is a farm where you can work from 9-1 on Saturday in exchange for a weekly share. The farm donates a bunch of the harvest to food shelters, and subsidizes shares for low-income and elderly people. I was totally psyched. Can’t you just see me in the fields, sun beating down on my broad-brimmed straw hat, humming Kumbaya while sweaty, socially evolved boys toil nearby, mud under all of our fingernails? Afterwards, a communal meal; I could make a frittata, transform bitter greens into garlicky heaven, wax sage about how to serve all of the butter lettuce we’d cut.
I’d forgotten a few crucial facts when I planned this endeavor. One, I hate to be hot. HATE it. Two, I hate physical labor, especially if it involves bending over. Hurts my back. Three, I don’t know nothing about harvesting no vegetables. Four, I don’t really like Kumbaya.
But I went. It was hard, and hot, and I got sunburned and my hamstrings still hurt four days later. All of the boys were actually men who had been brought by their wives, under duress. They were sweaty, but not in a way that made me want to Kumbaya them. (though truthfully I was a bit too sweaty myself to Kumbaya anyone after about a half hour). On the other hand, I stood in a sunny strawberry patch and ate the small red fruit straight off the…bushy thing strawberries grow on. I never knew any fruit could be that good. I tasted little baby greens that had been freshly cut by me. I did get the chance to wax sage about the many joys of beet green preparation. Plus, between the two of us, Sister and I brought home 5 pounds of fancy greens, four pints of strawberries (I ate them all in three days), 2 bunches of tender green garlic, and a couple of adorable heads of broccoli. Arugula for everyone.
I will do it again, because I think it’s important to know where your food comes from and because it’s good for me to do something besides smoke and read on Saturday. Next time I’ll remember the sunscreen, and wear long pants so that I can get on my knees instead of bending. Plus I’m going to try to sneak away and find the patch where the tomatoes are growing. I’m taking a salt shaker with me when it’s time to harvest those.