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This is it. Right now. Get to a farmer's market and savor the taste of the summer before it’s over. Don't squander it. This is the season when tomatoes taste like tomatoes. You know what I'm talking about. Tomatoes: sweet, tender, juicy. Not the mealy flesh-colored objects that masquerade as tomatoes in the dead of winter, shipped from miles and miles away. No, tomatoes that are only available when the season allows it—the ones that couldn't weather the 1700-odd mile journey that the average food item on a North American plate travels from farm to fork.
There is something sacred in the taste of an organic heirloom tomato. It is something a long-distance tomato—bred not for taste but endurance to be shipped without bruising—just can’t possess. There is something precious about eating a fruit grown close to home, in season. It doesn't just taste better; it's better for you. Plants lose nutritional value when they’re pulled off the vine before they're ready. Travel-friendly but under-ripe, they mature on a ship or truck instead of under the sun.
What’s more, there is something sacred about the hands that grew that tomato, the hands that feed us all. Yet the awareness of who grows our food and how they grow it is rarely front and center. Small and mid-sized farms have been on the decline for decades, unable to compete with the economies of scale that larger agribusinesses can offer. Transportation costs and additional farm expenses for petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides have risen, while the amount of money going back to farmers has remained stagnant for more than a decade. According to the USDA, about 20 cents for every food dollar we spend go back to the farmers. Considering these numbers, it should come as no surprise that, in the last five years, roughly 80,000 mid-sized farming operations have disappeared.
There is a deeply delicious and satisfying way to try and increase these numbers: buy food directly from local farmers. I was reminded of this at a farm dinner hosted by Free State Brewing Company. The five-course dinner was held at Prairie Star Farm — a sweet spot of land in De Soto, Kansas, ripe with raspberries, cherries, garlic, greens, and flowers — and paired incredible local food with handcrafted beers (enhanced with wheat, berries and lemongrass from the farm). The distance between the farm and our forks disappeared. My gratitude grew exponentially for these farmers, sitting just a few feet away from me, and for their efforts that went into feeding me.
This meal was the manifested vision of Free State’s Executive Chef Rick Martin (a new friend and constant source of inspiration). Before the dinner started, I asked Rick what I really needed to save myself for (I’m 5 feet tall, weigh 95 pounds, and knew I couldn’t fully imbibe six beers and five plates of food). “The soup,” he said. “The cold cherry soup.”
I can’t fully describe how deeply nourishing the meal was, but I suspect you’ve experienced something similar: the sensation you get when you eat something borne out of love—a meal prepared by someone who cares about you and cares about the food, a meal that feeds your body and soul. The soup was made with sour cherries fresh from the farm, from a family recipe passed down from Prairie Star proprietress Margit Hall (who runs the farm with her husband Bart) as part of a dinner that, for years, had been Rick’s dream. The care was undeniable, and the soup was delectable.
Most of my meals are not so expertly prepared. Bread, hummus and salad, or organic mac and cheese blended with fresh spinach and tomatoes, are my staples. I frequent my natural food coop but usually struggle to make it to the farmer’s market before it closes on Saturday mornings. But this meal shifted something in me. It made me slow down and recommit to seeking out my farmers. It reminded me how lucky I am to have such dedicated growers in my community. And I don’t want to lose them to corporate agriculture. So I am channeling my inner Jamie Oliver and starting my personal food revolution. Right now. If you feel the same way, join me. Get to a farmers market. Invest in a farm by supporting Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). Start a garden at your child’s school—or in your own backyard. Grow food, not grass. Find out what grows in your area and when it’s in season—and then buy it (or grow it yourself). Encourage your favorite restaurant and favorite grocery to offer more local items from farms in your area. Volunteer at a food bank. Support an urban farm. If you’re an omnivore, celebrate those who hunt for food, not sport. Or just eat a really good meal, away from the television, slowly, with friends. Give thanks for the hands that helped get that meal to you; give thanks for your full belly. If you’re lucky, pick cherries and make soup.
Margit Hall’s Hungarian Meggyleves [MEHJ LEV-esh] (Tart Cherry Soup)
Courtesy of Rick Martin, Free State Brewing Company
A traditional cold summer soup served during cherry season alongside Hungarian Chicken Paprikash or red meats.
Yield: Ten 6 oz. servings
3 cups tart cherry juice (Margit recommends Knudsen’s “Just Tart Cherry”)
3 cups red wine (choose one with big blackberry or cherry notes, such as Shiraz, Merlot, Burgundy or Cabernet Sauvignon)
4 oz. sugar (or less, to taste)
2 tbsp. lemon juice (1 squeezed lemon), plus rind
⅛ tsp. (a dash) ground cloves
¼ tsp. cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 ½ lbs. (about 4 cups) morello cherries (or other tart cherries), ideally fresh off the tree! Canned or frozen pitted cherries will also suffice.
½ - ¾ cup sour cream (sour cream is more traditional, although whole milk yogurt may be substituted)
2 oz. flour (optional, to use as a thickening agent)
Combine cherry juice with wine, sugar, lemon juice, a piece of lemon rind, spices and a pinch of salt. Add cherries and heat slowly, until boiling. Turn heat down to simmer gently, about 5 to 8 minutes (to diffuse the alcohol and cook cherries slightly). Stir occasionally. Remove from heat.
Cool for 10 to 20 minutes.
If the soup is still warm and you’d like to thicken the broth, combine sour cream (or yogurt) with 2 oz. flour in a small heat resistant bowl. Stir until smooth. Ladle a spoonful of warm soup into the sour cream mixture and whisk to combine. Gradually pour the sour cream/soup mixture back into the pot of soup, in a steady stream, stirring to combine until smooth.
If the soup is completely cooled, just add the sour cream (or yogurt) until smooth.
Chill 2 to 4 hours. Serve cold. Garnish with fresh mint leaves and crème fraîche (recipe below).
Combine equal parts heavy cream and sour cream. Transfer to a small bottle, or spoon on top of each bowl just before serving.
P.S. The way to this woman’s heart is through her stomach. Follow my food and ag tweets on Twitter @SimranSethi.
Photo by Rick Martin