Throughout my 40 years of cooking experience, I have been confronted with an assortment of imperfect produce. Over the last few years, since growing many of my own fruits and veggies, I have a clearer vision of what is afoot in the produce world.
Grocery stores hawk fruits and veggies that have to look perfect to sell to discerning customers. The problem is in agreeing on what is perfect.
Consider the modern tomato: It has been bred to look perfect and taste nothing like a real tomato should. Please don’t blame it on the poor little tomatoes who have to bear untold hardships in days or weeks of transit before they present themselves to you at your local grocery. But what is the cost of this perfection?
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are commonly used to produce such perfect produce. The nutritional value is probably not what you would hope to get from a “real” tomato. And last but not least most grocery store tomatoes taste like nothing!
Canning tomatoes in my kitchen
I, too, have been conditioned to want perfect-looking produce. In my 20-year career as a professional cook, I would toss out most produce that didn’t look perfect or close to it. In the grocery store, I would look for the best-looking produce like the rest of the herd.
At farmers markets, I started to get a different story from the farmers I’d engage in “how it’s grown” type conversations. Farmers I talked with would state a case for the less-than-perfect-looking produce. Each year is different on a farm and between drought, bugs, and storms, farmers don’t have as much control as they would like. Quite often produce that has been hit by one or more of the three maladies will still survive to taste good and be nutritious.
I have been getting much better at accepting less-than-perfect produce and find if it comes from a good organic farmer, the produce still has value. Don’t confuse less-than-perfect with rotten. I’m referring to the look, not freshness, of produce that matters to most shoppers.
I love buying tomatoes from local farmers who sell “seconds” that look somewhat bug-bitten but are perfect for making salsa and canning. They taste great and cost about half as much as perfect-looking tomatoes!
On a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, Canada, I took a trip to Heart Beet Organics Farm. Owners Verena Varga and Amy Smith do constant battle with bugs, weather, and consumer attitudes to bring to market healthy, tasty and nutritious produce. Like many organic farmers, they are working to change attitudes so consumers can see the value in buying spinach, tomatoes, beets and other produce that doesn’t look perfect.
Verena and Amy tell customers, “Taste and nutrition top the chemical-laced grocery store produce most shoppers buy.”
Heart Beet Organics farm
Some of their customers have said, “Your spinach is the best I have ever tasted!” Even though their spinach might have holes in it where bugs have nibbled, the taste and nutrition of their veggies trumps perfection.
At Heart Beet Organics they try to let biodiversity help with pest control. They also use netting to keep the pesky flea beetles off the veggies as best as possible. I applaud Verena and Amy for educating customers, and sticking to organic growing methods. After all, for centuries, we humans have eaten less-than-perfect looking produce and not suffered for it.
From right to left: Amy, Verena, and Kalee
What needs to happen is a change in attitudes. Such a change is not coming soon enough to your favorite grocery store. If more of us buy imperfect-looking produce, grocery stores will be able to change our dependence on harsh chemicals used to grow perfect-looking fruits and veggies.
Last fall while shopping at Mom's Organic Market, I saw local apples with blemishes being sold. This was unusual and I was impressed. I bought a bag of these knowing full well they would at least be good for baking or applesauce.
We vote with our dollars and I cast my vote that day by purchasing apples most customers were passing by. The apples turned out to be delicious and well worth buying. It’s up to all of us to support the imperfect produce movement and bring back taste, nutrition and a healthier planet. How will you vote?
Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.