by Adam Sobsey
Before the locavore/foodie craze erupted in Durham, Sara often seemed to have more asparagus than she could sell—so much more, in fact, that she was in a position to recommend to me bags of bent and broken spears at a steep discount. These would be cut up and then find their way into soups, omelets, risottos or, along with young potatoes arriving at the market in late April, re-conceived "Niçoise" salads; or they'd just get thrown whole into boiling water for 45 seconds and then devoured.
Times have changed, of course—for the better—and Sara no longer pushes broken stalks of asparagus on me. I don't think she even brings them to the market anymore; if she does, they're earmarked for other buyers, which is fine with me. I'm happy to buy the unbroken spears, because the asparagus season is a short one, usually over and done with by mid-May, and because Catbriar Farm is one of very few vendors with reasonable prices. Might as well get the top of the crop and gorge yourself on asparagus while you can.
Last week, a chat I had with Sara while visiting her table—she currently has wonderful spring onions, too—got me thinking more about the Durham food boom. It's wonderful—that is the first thing to be said about it. The second is: We need to take good care of it. A minor threat lurks, and it's lurking in our own enthusiasm.
Asparagus, in these parts, is one of the best examples of intensely local food, just as figs are in the heat of summer: the season is short, the bounty rich; you indulge while you can. Andrea Reusing puts it this way in her engaging, user-friendly new cookbook, Cooking in the Moment (see Chris Vitiello's fine review for the Indy): "After nearly six weeks of daily asparagus feasts, I won't really miss eating them for the next ten and a half months." On page 32, the facing page of the "SPRING" section title page, is a picture of Reusing buying asparagus from none other than Graham Broadwell: a spring image as iconic as baseball's Opening Day.
(Reusing also helped me feel more comfortable about an opinion I've long held but never thought could possibly be defended: Thick stalks of asparagus are better than thin ones, she writes, and I agree. Even though the thin ones, which are produced by male plants, look better, they're more fibrous than their thicker, female counterparts. You can insert your adult wisecrack of choice here.)
Not only is there the obvious and pleasing association of certain crops with certain times of year here—asparagus in spring, oysters in winter, muscadines in autumn, and so on—there is the deeper satisfaction of curbing the rapacious consumerism that drives our culture. We are taught, more or less, that we can have anything, pretty much whenever we want it. Catbriar Farm's asparagus is reminding us that we can't—or perhaps the lesson is subtler than that: We can get asparagus in February, but it won't be as good, and it will come from a supermarket headquartered in Southern California or Cincinnati. Eating local means not only growing the produce here but keeping the money here as well. There is an economic imperative as well as an environmental and an ethical one.
And that brings me to tomatoes. "A perfect ripe tomato sprinkled with salt" makes it onto Reusing's short list, in her introduction to Cooking in the Moment, of the "most delicious and memorable things to eat." Agreed, but the phrase "a perfect ripe tomato" is subject to plenty of interpretation, of course (here's a controversial one). For example, one of my favorite vendors at the Durham Farmers Market thinks heirloom tomatoes are the Emperor's New Clothes—the same one who just sold through his brief, two-week supply of delicious, toothy "over-winter" spinach—and I have to say I think he's usually right. I myself tend to prefer good old garden-variety, standard-issue cultivars: those big, meaty red things that used to be the only thing you pictured when someone said the word "tomato." They've got the best texture, the best balance of sweetness, acid and that ineffable, magical, green tomato-leaf aroma that Reusing herself makes use of in one of her recipes. The heirlooms tend to be watery or mushy, timidly flavored, too low in acid. But they're the rage until further notice.
I asked Sara Broadwell if the exceptionally cold and wet winter we just had obstructed planting this year. It did, she said, although the later summer crops weren't badly affected, because the winter ended early and rather abruptly. Tomatoes, for example, don't really come in until well into July. No hurry, she said.
But she quickly added the lament that many vendors have tomatoes at the market in June. (There's even a greenhouse grower who offers them year round. Those all-season tomatoes can give you a vague wintertime reminder of what a tomato tastes like, but they aren't really tomatoes in my book—the canned Italian version is more convincing—and they certainly don't transport you to summer the way Proust's madeleine transported him back to his childhood.)
Tomatoes aren't supposed to be ready in June, Sara said. It's supposed to be like this: If they happen to ripen by July 4, then you've been blessed with early year. Sure, you can plant them before their natural time and force them to the market not long after Memorial Day—which may very well be what some vendors are in the habit of doing, to meet demand—but to do so is to artificially expand a naturally short season. It also produces inferior tomatoes.
You can't really blame a grower for getting the jump on planting tomatoes, for which they can charge $4/pound. The Farmers' Market sustains itself by its ability to charge far, far more for its goods than the supermarket does. Vendors are merely trying to capitalize on that cache, and the market has a willing, affluent consumer base that is guided by the discriminating tastes of our guiding lights—especially by cooks like Reusing. (In Cooking in the Moment, she blenches at the $140 price tag on an heirloom turkey, and $25 for a free-range chicken, but pays it anyway. It's worth it, she argues, mostly on the grounds of flavor and use value—you can make stock from the roasted carcass—but there are socioeconomic reasons she doesn't cite.)
The necessary justification for the expense of locavorism is quality, which is tied to the season—and the tomato season is, properly, late summer. In seasonal terms, tomatoes won't be here tomorrow; it'll be the day after tomorrow, past midsummer, when August lowers itself onto us. And even if we wait out these tomorrows, who knows what this particular summer will bring? Each summer is its own beast, fickle and capricious, sometimes both a blessing and a curse. The best tomato season I've ever witnessed here was in 2007, a summer plagued by a long drought that lasted all the way into 2008. Even the heirloom tomatoes were explosively flavorful that summer. But crops got smaller and smaller due to lack of rain, and by mid-October most of the vendors, some of them visibly demoralized, packed up and were gone for the year. Nature is strange.