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Summertime and the Living is Easy: In Praise of Farmers Markets

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. Today would have been my father’s 89th birthday and I‘m spending it with my mother in High Point, North Carolina. During the past ten days of my visit, I’ve found myself doing something I’ve not done since when I was a teenager: taking advantage of summer’s bounty and making jam. Now, as I’ve written in many posts, the quality of much food – in its natural state –  has deteriorated over the last decades – a  result of the metastization of our industrial food production system. Foodstuffs are genetically modified. Over-processed. Degraded. Over-fertilized. Doused with pesticides. But I’ve discovered that jam-making is actually easier now, not to

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Today would have been my father’s 89th birthday and I‘m spending it with my mother in High Point, North Carolina.

During the past ten days of my visit, I’ve found myself doing something I’ve not done since when I was a teenager: taking advantage of summer’s bounty and making jam. Now, as I’ve written in many posts, the quality of much food – in its natural state –  has deteriorated over the last decades – a  result of the metastization of our industrial food production system. Foodstuffs are genetically modified. Over-processed. Degraded. Over-fertilized. Doused with pesticides.

But I’ve discovered that jam-making is actually easier now, not to mention the results healthier and better-tasting, when compared to the sugar bombs I remember from my youth. IIRC, the commercial pectin we used then required a large infusion of sugar to set correctly. I’ll confess I’ve been a bit too lazy to can, and instead over the last week made multiple recipes of freezer jam. Using Pomona’s Universal Pectin – one of what I understand are several brands now available that do not not require a high concentration of sugar to set and in fact can be used with any sweetener. Yield so far from my North Carolina visit: about three dozen jars of jam, varieties including white peach with basil; white peach, ginger, and raspberry; simple yellow peach; blueberry; blackberry; and strawberry.

On our way back to High Point from a family reunion held at my sister’s house near Wilmington to celebrate Mom’s 84th birthday on the 3rd, we stopped at Johnson’s Peaches in Candor. After devouring a bowl of vanilla ice cream with sliced peaches, I started poking around the peaches, and ended up buying a peck each of yellow (O’Henry) and white (Sugar Peach?). I chose the only fruit that was ripe, which happened to be graded as “seconds”.  As I intended to make jam, I didn’t want to wait for the peaches. An added benefit: The price of the seconds was half that of the first quality. Yet I wasn’t motivated by price, and in fact I’m glad the proprietor didn’t know that I would have paid double to get ripe fruit.

Usually, when I engage in mass food production, I end up wasting some of what I’ve purchased. I inevitably run out of gas before the task is finished. Not so with these peaches. They were hand’s down the best I’ve ever tasted and it would have been a sin to waste them.  Finished the last of them last night, when I transformed them into puree to make Bellinis. We drank them with a blackberry cheesecake I’d made – with a gingersnap crust and a wicked fresh blackberry sauce.

And Now for Something Completely Different: Some Good News

The peaches aren’t the only food development that’s impressed me during this visit. In fact, some aspects of the North Carolina food scene have improved since I last spent much time here during summertimes, watching my father slowly decline until he finally succumbed to cancer in August 2000.

Last month, a new Earth Fare supermarket just opened close to my Mom’s home. The store seems committed to some sensible principles, including clean food security – “the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.”  And eschews contributing to the worst abuses of contemporary food production, USA-style, and instead opts for humanely raised meat, sustainable seafood, no GMOs. The store maintains a “boot list” of good and bad ingredients: “We read the labels so you don’t have to.”  And pledges that its food is free from added hormones; artificial fats and trans fats; artificial sweeteners; bleached or bromated flour; antibiotics; high fructose corn syrup; artificial preservatives; and artificial colors or flavors.

Now, this post is based on my impressions formed while shopping at this new supermarket. I haven’t studied the company’s claims in great detail nor have I attempted to figure out how much of their philosophy is sincere and how much is mere greenwashing. So I encourage more knowledgeable readers to pipe in on whether Earth Fare  does more than talk the talk, and actually walks the walk as well.

And, I’ll also mention that entering an American supermarket – even one dedicated to resisting the worst depredations of the American food production system – is a bit of a culture shock. This is a deeply alien environment to me as I don’t purchase much processed food and I spend  nearly all of my time in places with thriving local markets. The proportion of the local Earth Fare store devoted to fresh food – vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, seafood – compared to stuff that comes in a box and which my great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food, is about the same as that of a conventional American supermarket. I mean, I guess it’s better that these processed foods are selected to match a boot list of good and bad ingredients. But they’re still processed foods. Also, I noticed that much of the produce originates from far away – meaning it comes with a large carbon footprint and its long journey from farm to table means it’s not as fresh as I would like it to be.

Still, I think Earth Fare expresses a sincere intent to avoid some of the hidden hazards embedded in our food, and I’m pleased that Mom will be doing more of her shopping here in future, rather than at other conventional supermarkets – where more bad stuff inevitably creeps into the shopping basket.

To be sure, I’m happier still at local farmers markets, where most of the food isn’t processed at all and comes from local sources. At my home in Brooklyn, I’m a habitué of New York City’s Greenmarkets. Over the last week or so of stopping at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market every other day, we’ve enjoyed the last of the season’s sweet corn. Tasty blueberries. Blackberries! And vendors who recognize me even after only a few visits – and remember my preference to be spared plastic bags.

One great discovery: tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. In earlier posts, I’ve lamented the decline of the taste of American tomatoes. My first summer job, during that long ago Bicentennial Summer of ’76,  was as a tomato picker, and then sorter, at Guidi’s Farm in Sussex County, New Jersey, so I know exactly why that’s the case. As a former professional tomato sorter, I can attest that when we sorted tomatoes, the hard ones were shipped into New York City, the slightly softer ones went to local farm stands, and the ripest, juiciest tomatoes – the ones you had to restrain yourself from eating – were usually discarded.

Except I convinced Mr. Guidi – a wintertime teacher, summertime farmer, and friend of my teacher father – that rather than tossing them away, I be allowed to take some home to Mom, who served them in salads or transformed them into tomato sauce to freeze and eat during the winter. When in New York, I buy much of my produce from Greenmarkets, but almost always find the tomatoes, even the heritage varieties, a disappointment.

Not so for the local tomatoes from the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market. I’ve eaten some pink brandywines and Cherokee purples that were each bursting with tomato flavour. I’m pleased to find you can find good tomatoes at farmers markets.

And I can’t fail to mention the scrumptious North Carolina potatoes. I’ve been enjoying the Kennebec variety – known for making particularly good fries, although during this visit, I’ve confined myself to making potato pancakes, a gratin dauphinois, and vichyssoise. The summer I turned four, we spent a week at the beach at the Outer Banks, in a small bungalow, long before that destination had been crapified by mass tourism. I was a bit of a picky eater – no potatoes! – but Mom convinced me I should give North Carolina potatoes a try. I did, and devoured them. That meant thereafter she had to maintain the fiction that any potatoes served in our house in New Jersey were actually North Carolina potatoes – a small fib of course, but forgiveable.

This is a bit of an unusual post for me, extolling the small pleasure of  finding that not every aspect of modern life has been well and truly crapified. And I’m happy to report I’ve preserved a small bit of lush summer sweetness for Mom to enjoy when winter rolls in and I’m once again so far, far away.

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