This year, like many people it seems, we took the plunge and subscribed to a summer CSA. CSA stands for community supported agriculture and the idea behind it is simple. You pay for a subscription and in return you get a weekly delivery of locally produced food. There are a lot of variations on the model. Some CSAs let you pick what goes into your box, others choose for you. Some include food produced at a single farm while others gather food from multiple local producers and create the boxes. Around here there are CSAs that include vegetables, fruit, bread, eggs, and meat. There’s even a seafood CSA.
The CSA we joined was associated with a single farm, included vegetables and eggs, and required us to pay in advance last winter for the whole summer. There are plenty of others that let you pay every week.
The first question everybody asks is whether you can tell the difference between vegetables from the CSA and the vegetables from the supermarket. My answer is, I don’t know, because most of the vegetables we got through the CSA we don’t normally buy at the supermarket. Our main reason for joining the CSA was to break us out of our food routine. One of the great triumphs of the summer was an awesome dish out of spaghetti squash. I had never eaten that vegetable at all before. And many of the other vegetables we got were not on our regular shopping list, even relatively mundane things like yellow squash and zucchini.
The more common vegetables we got were really good. The tomatoes that arrived through the summer were fantastic — as good as you get in a really good restaurant. We braised some turnip greens that we got through the CSA and they came out better than any I’ve eaten at restaurants. Early in the season we made a lot of great, simple salads with the mesclun greens that came from the CSA. Overall, the quality was high. What we really appreciated, though, was the variety.
You may have heard the most common complaint about CSAs, and I’ll echo it: vegetable fatigue. This comes in two forms. The first is that someone brings you a box of vegetables every week, many of which may be unfamiliar to you, and you feel guilty if you can’t find a way to cook all of them before they go bad. We wasted very few vegetables over the course of the summer, but handling the constant influx of vegetables wore on us at times. I was happy to have a friend who likes cucumber more than we do.
The second form is fatigue with specific vegetables. On a farm, some vegetables grow better than others from year to year. When a particular vegetable is growing well, you’ll see it for many weeks in a row. For us, that meant a lot of squash over the summer. It also meant five straight weeks of okra toward the end of the season. I like okra, but nobody likes okra that much.
I think we’ll be better prepared to deal with vegetable fatigue next year. We now have a list of really good recipes for vegetables that we didn’t have going into the season and we’ll have a better idea of which vegetables will be arriving as the season progresses. I’m already looking forward to certain vegetables with short seasons that we won’t see again until next year.
That brings me to the final really cool thing about the CSA — learning more about which vegetables grow in which seasons. I had no idea that when it starts getting hot, you’re done with greens until the fall. When the lettuce was gone, it was gone. And around here, it’s gone before the tomatoes start to ripen. The traditional American salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers is a testament to the climate of California and our ability to ship fresh vegetables coast to coast. There was no overlap between lettuce and tomatoes in our CSA. Suddenly, Middle Eastern salads like fattoush and Italian salads like insalata Caprese and panzanella make sense. They’re made using ingredients that all grow at the same time.
Spending the summer as a CSA subscriber was a lot more educational than I would have predicted. It’s a great way to expose yourself to varieties of produce that you may otherwise never get to try. At the same time, it’s a commitment to learning and cooking new recipes that many people may not have the time, energy, or interest to take on. If it’s something you think you might enjoy, I’d encourage you to give it a try.
Skip the organic, read the labels
Today’s New York Times has a long article about organic foods, more specifically, about how the FDA-approved “Certified Organic” designation has been co-opted almost completely by industrial food producers, diluting it to the point of meaninglessness. This does not come as a surprise to me. As soon as “organic” became an adjective that people would pay a premium for, it became inevitable that corporations in the food business would want a piece of the action. Now they’re busily diluting the definition of organic so that they can more easily adapt it to their industrial production methods.
Beyond doing things like going to the farmer’s market and buying food from the producers themselves, I have another trick for buying “whole foods” whether I’m at Whole Foods or any other grocery store. I read the list of ingredients. If it has ingredients that I don’t recognize, or don’t seem to belong in whatever it is that I’m buying, I skip it. Sometimes I wind up buying mass market brands, sometimes high end “organic” foods, and sometimes it’s store brand.
The first time I tried this approach was buying honey mustard. I was shocked to find that most of the honey mustards on the shelf didn’t even contain honey, most of them instead contained high fructose corn syrup and lots of other weird ingredients that I don’t recognize. I finally found a bottle of mustard that had a list of ingredients that included ground mustard, vinegar, and honey, and no strange ingredients we don’t have in the cabinet at home. To get back to mass market brands, French’s Mustard is delightfully simple (and awesome).
I realize that familiar ingredients can be produced in unpleasant ways, but there’s a limit to what can be practically achieved in our modern society. The best favor you can do for yourself if you’re not going to restrict yourself to food you or people you know grew is to stick to reading the labels.