Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Tyranny of the Fresh

I knew one person who liked canned peas, my grandfather. He is, though, no culinary hero of mine. He went years on the same three meals: poached egg on toast for breakfast; (American) cheese sandwich on toast for lunch; and plain hamburger, baked potato and canned peas for dinner. His condiment, his sole condiment for all this food, salt. Pale mushy peas and their evil cousin pale mushy green beans are the foods that leap to most people’s mind when you say canned. Begin an Eat Local Challenge in any month, and a segment of foodies will declare, “well only if my farmer’s market was open” or “we are down to a few things in our market.” Even in California there are fallow periods (there are, aren’t there?). That’s because we are trained to expect fresh. How can they eat local if there is no fresh? The inventories of our stores convince us that we should have a fresh product. We have fallen victim to the tyranny of the fresh.

People are scarred of canned. Andy Warhol may have famously painted soup cans, but where in the museum do you see a still life with canned peaches? Consumers want their supermarkets to sell fresh, a year round supply of fresh tomatoes, fresh berries, fresh heads of lettuce, and fresh bell peppers in assorted colors. This is supposed to be real food. Never mind the environmental impact of a grape hauled into town from Chile, a tomato that has to be gassed to look red, let’s just talk about flavor.

What do we get as fresh. Whole Foods labels told me the other day that their pretty bell peppers, their vivid red tomatoes with tight green "vines", came from Canada. What does that mean. It means hydroponic. It means all of the flavor, all of what a vegetable should taste like is gone. On the other hand, take something out of the freezer. Food scientist Harold McGee notes that food picked at its peaked, properly frozen, is of higher quality than food picked off-ripe to survive long shipping. Besides, the places that can supply you with off-season products are not the optimum places for the products. Is Florida really the area where blueberries prosper? Yet, the market demands blueberries in March, and farmer’s can coax something round and blue out of the ground in March down there. Because most of the supermarket inventory comes from California, we get the impression that the best vegetables grow in California. Yes, great vegetables grow in California. Not what find in your supermarket. It is just that vegetables grow in California. Period. How many people realize that Green Giant is based in Minnesota, Birdseye started in Massachusetts. This is not to say that our food conglomerates do not harvest around the world, it’s just, I think, it points out that the stuff worth preserving, often does not come from California. Extrapolate that back to fresh vs. frozen. Does this convince you that fresh is not always the best product?

Here’s three ways I battled the tyranny of the fresh last week: 1) canned strawberries preserved in syrup; 2) frozen red peppers cooked into a frittata and 3) candied preserved pear as part of an ice cream flavor. Three different ways of putting things away, by can, by freeze, by drying/candying. The strawberries, well they had that real, that true strawberry flavor so unfamiliar to most eaters. The peppers taste of sun of summer. The pears made every cliché of “explodes with flavor” and “burst in your mouth” go through my head. Sure, there were textural issues. The strawberries are soft, seeds more noticeable; the peppers flaccid, the pear gummy, but why do we need all of our foods to have the dry, static texture of fresh. You could not dip canned strawberries in brown sugar or make a salad of the red peppers. So. Find dishes that match the food, for instance over ice cream as Vie served the strawberries. The Elmwood Park shop, Massa, expertly mixed the candied pears with Nutella into a mascarpone gelato base. My wife, the Condiment Queen, knew how to use the peppers.

If we remove ourselves from the tyranny of the fresh, we can eat local without the farmer’s market being open. We do not need to rely on someone else, on weather, on seasons. Obviously, one cannot march into this battle wily-nily. But this is not a “how-to” post. There’s plenty of time for that. Before taking the time, the effort, the capital to start preserving your food, you have to enlist. You have to become a conscript against the tyranny. Wallow in conserved foods. Realize you can eat a peach in February, just not a fresh peach. Maybe you will even develop a taste for canned peas.

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