On being ... a local yokel

By Ingrid Sapona

I grew up in Western New York -- a fertile agricultural region. One of my most vivid recollections from when I was very young is of Sunday drives in the country to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Strawberry and cherry picking were annual excursions.

In fact, Dad loved cherries so much we even got to know one cherry farmer by name -- Mr. McCarthy. He had quite a big pick-your-own orchard and he liked and trusted my father enough to let us up on ladders, even though we were quite young. In my teens we started driving up to the lush Niagara Region just over the border in Ontario. Niagara specializes in “tender fruit”.

From May to September Dad marked the weeks by what fruit was coming into season: first strawberries, then cherries, then apricots, then peaches, grapes, and plums, and finally pears and apples. Dad’s enthusiasm rubbed off on me and my tastes became so refined that not only do I have favourite fruits, I developed a preference for specific varieties (like Red Haven peaches).

Of course, my appreciation of fresh fruits and vegetables comes with a down side -- and I don’t mean just sounding snobbish when I ask the produce guy whether the peaches are freestone. The downside relates to grocery stores. You see, thanks to fruit-exporting countries like Chile and Costa Rica who have summer when we have winter, you can get pretty much anything you might desire year around -- and it’s all pretty inexpensive. I’ve become so spoiled at the easy availability I pay less and less attention to what’s in season locally. Worse yet, even when I realize that a local crop is available, I’ve become so used to paying so little for imported fruit that I balk at the higher cost at local farmers’ markets.

And, as long as I’m being candid, I may as well confess that I have even come to like California strawberries. Years ago I used to buy them only if I was making chocolate dipped strawberries -- their almost unnatural size made them perfect for that purpose and the chocolate made up for their general lack of taste. But the past couple years I think they’ve done something that has improved their taste and when they’re on sale for as little as $1.99-$2.50/lb, which they often are, I find them irresistible.

I recently read an interesting article about those California strawberries I’ve been buying. The article confirmed the fact that it’s not my imagination that they taste better now than they used to -- apparently we have genetic engineers at places like UC Davis to thank for that. Of course, the article also discussed the carbon footprint aspects of trucking them the 2000+ miles to my neighborhood. The socially conscious part of me is concerned about that, but since I’m not prepared to only eat root vegetables from, say, October to May, or give up olive oil (which too comes from thousands of miles away), it seems a tad disingenuous to foreswear California strawberries just because they spend some time on the road.

Earlier this summer a friend was going strawberry picking one Saturday and asked if I wanted to come along. I declined, in part because I had other things to do that day but also because I thought it would be quite time consuming and the berries would be more expensive than I normally pay. A couple weeks later she called and said she hadn’t made it strawberry picking earlier but she heard there were still some fields with berries and again, she invited me to join her. I passed.

A couple days later I was in the supermarket and there was a small display of local strawberries for $2.99/quart. Right next to it was a large display featuring California strawberries for $1.99/lb. Feeling a bit of guilt about not doing much these days to support local farmers, despite the higher price, I bought a quart of the local berries. When I got home, I put them in the refrigerator. Because they were near their peak in terms of ripeness and I didn’t want to forget I had them, I left them on the refrigerator shelf rather than hidden away in the crisper.

Later that day I opened the refrigerator and I was overcome by the most wonderful aroma. It took me a minute to figure out that it was the strawberries. I was quite taken aback. I couldn’t remember the last time I noticed the scent of a strawberry -- the California behemoths have barely any aroma. So, rather than devour the berries quickly, as I usually do -- over the next few days I enjoyed them as slowly as possible -- as much to savour their scent as their taste.

Unfortunately, by the time I became reacquainted with our local little red gems, it was the end of the strawberry season for this year. But, that olfactory reawakening has made me reconsider my lack of commitment to local, in-season fruits and vegetables -- and fortunately there’s still lots more good stuff to be harvested before the frost is on the (local) pumpkin. I guess you could say that I’m reverting back to being a local yokel…

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


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