It’s mid-August, and my local farmers markets here in New York City are bursting at the seams, groaning under the weight of sweet corn, peaches, carrots, onions and their seasonal brethren in the produce department.
“It’s a buyer’s market!” columnist Mark Bittman recently proclaimed in The New York Times Magazine. Shoppers, myself included, scurry from stall to stall, overfilling bags and lugging home more than they can eat. It’s a terrifically good thing, and I’m heartened to see how many people — especially those who once didn’t give a hoot about food or cooking — are faithfully turning out to support local agriculture.
With the windfall of choices this time of year, it’s a buyer’s market indeed. But recently, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend that makes me wonder whether the sellers at said markets — that is to say, the regional, small farmers we’ve elevated to the status of cultural heroes — aren’t taking a little advantage of their popularity.
See, for a couple of years right after college, I farmed for a living. I worked in a few different places with varying approaches; in each, the quality of the food we grew, and the pride with which we presented it to our customers, was paramount. The farm crew didn’t complain about the backache and rashes we accrued during days spent harvesting 1,000-plus pounds of tomatoes and carefully slicing young zucchini from their prickly stalks. After all, we were in the business of selling food. Good food.
So last summer, when I saw a “special” of flowering basil stalks at Union Square, I thought, this is a joke, right? I, and everyone I worked with, had been taught to pinch the tops off of basil plants before they came close to flowering, harvesting them in such a way so they would continue to produce and so the leaves we put on the stand were full of sweet, pure flavor. If a basil plant had just begun to flower, we’d pinch the buds off, leaving it to put its energy into growing leaves instead of flowers. If the plant were left to keep flowering, we knew the basil leaves would grow bitter.
I was hopeful the basil I saw that day would be marked down, “on sale” as it were, like milk about to expire in the supermarket. I was looking for a sign that said something like, “pinch off flowers, scatter over salads or float in cocktails, and use the leaves for pesto or ice cream.” But no. Instead, the basil was marked up, listed as “special” because of the attractive buds. I twisted my face into a scowl and wrote it off as a one-time error.
Then I saw it again, and worse this time. Flowering kale. Flowering arugula. It was spreading from market to market, farm to farm. Again, the greens were marked as “special,” priced above the “regular” kale, the “run-of-the-mill” arugula. At first, my annoyance had been with the gullibility of shoppers who were purchasing these products, but my frustration quickly turned toward the farm staff. Honest, hard-working, food-loving. Those were some of the words I used to describe the farmers I’ve known. But this? Who knew there would be deceit running rampant in our most wholesome arenas?
Trust is key to making farmers markets effective
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Tips for shopping at farmers markets
1. For prime herbs and greens, look for stalks with broad, unmarred leaves and no flowers or buds. Avoid bolted greens, which often look elongated and have thickened center stalks. They will be bitter in taste.
2. Keep your eye out for flowering herbs and greens. If you can't wrangle a discount on these (you're not getting much bang for your buck, and they certainly shouldn't be marked as "special" or "gourmet"), take them home and use them for their flowers only. The leaves on flowered plants are bound to be too bitter to be true to taste since all the sugars have gone into producing flowers. Herbal flowers can be lovely in salads or cocktails, and flowers of leafy greens are nice as a bitter note on pizzas or in sandwiches.
3. Tomatoes can be tricky. With all the heirloom varieties popping up in farmers markets these days, identifying the varieties of tomatoes can be tough. As a general rule, rounded tomatoes (which tend to be very juicy and full of seeds) are best for raw eating or can be slow-roasted to develop a sweet flavor, while tomatoes that are elongated and tapered are paste tomatoes, which have less liquid and more pulp.
4. Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy" (Ten Speed Press, 2013) is the most helpful cookbook I've come across to date in terms of learning to identify edible plants and herbs by sight and understanding the differences between varieties and various stages of life cycles. Websites and catalogs for seed companies such as Johnny's are also terrifically helpful. Keep a paper catalog on your bookshelf as a reference guide.
On the matter of the first, we took full responsibility. We turned our greens back into the soil when they started to bolt or bud, and diligently topped our basil. Never did bolted spinach or flowering bok choy appear on our stands. It would have been dishonest, we felt, to pawn off a subpar crop on our loyal buyers. Per the second, while we had grown comfortable tossing around terms such as speckled trout (a romaine lettuce) and bull’s blood (a red beet variety), we knew those names wouldn’t mean a thing to our average customer. So we took it upon ourselves to act as translators. When setting up the farm stand, we’d carefully separate varieties, writing their names and descriptions on our board. When people asked, “What do you do with a fairy eggplant?” we gave them suggestions or pointed them toward a favorite cookbook or website for more advice.
We wanted them to be empowered enough to experiment in the kitchen while leaving growing and harvesting the best products possible in our reliable hands. Trust was key. It still is. The whole thing — this scheme of local food, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups and the like — hinges on trust. We bemoan a “lack of trust” in Big Food, decrying E. coli outbreaks and mislabeling of “natural” foods. Big, we reason, can’t be trusted. All it wants is to make a buck. But what happens if even the local farmers — who, by definition, are intertwined (and benefiting, for that matter) in this whole local food movement — aren’t keeping us in the loop?
Yes, part of the burden of knowledge falls on consumers. Part of it, too, I like to think, falls on the media. Thankfully, a bunch of fine cookbook authors, such as Deborah Madison and Joe Yonan, are answering the call. But farmers have to do their part to aid in transparency. Honest marketing that helps buyers understand the difference between a paste tomato (for cooking) and a beefsteak (for slicing) and why flowered greens are past their prime is imperative if we want people to take interest in, and control of, the food they purchase, cook and eat.
Farmers, give us the best you’ve got, and give it to us straight. You want those buyers to keep on buying? Remember, it turns on trust.
Top photo: These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin