Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Currants: The forbidden fruit?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you get to the farmer's market late, you will find that all the most ruby red strawberries and the crispiest heads of lettuce are gone. Perhaps that is why college students like me, a late-night late-morning breed, are not that common at such markets. That is also why I generally like to buck that trend and be one of the first ones there, before there is a long line to weigh and buy the nice snap peas (which are sadly out of season now).

However, a couple of weeks ago I did sleep late and found the time hovering around 11 am, a late hour in the world of farmers. I raced to the market and found that all the raspberries, cherries, and blueberries had vanished.

But aha…here were some berry-looking thingamajigs. Currants, both black and red, and gooseberries, were still available. I am not usually in the mood for making complicated preserves and I don’t really have a real kitchen, so I asked the farmer whether or not they could be snacked on raw. She said yes, but she told me that most people don’t like them that way since gooseberries are sour and she said black currants have an indescribable and pungent taste most people find unpleasant. I tasted some and bought them anyway.

The farmer told me that she couldn’t really describe the taste of black currants. After a week of eating them I can say it’s a gamey nearly wild taste that milds out as the berries ripen. That is what makes them a good accompaniment as a sauce for meat dishes.

Both berries also are wild for another reason: their fruit to seed ratio. Open one up and the pulp that comes out is inundated with seeds. Also, if you eat them raw you spend a rather long time removing the stems. Strawberries, blueberries, and cherries do have seeds and stems, but they are much easier to deal with which probably accounts for the fact they are so much more popular than currants and other menus of the genus ribes. The latter fruits have been bred to be bigger and easier to eat, but no one has bothered to truly domesticate the currant.

However, the currants are worth trying if only for their unique tastes and beauty and if you are willing to cook you can do some really interesting things with them. They are also supposed to be high in a group of potent antioxidants called anthocyanins, which is thought to be more concentrated due to the small size of the berries.

If you are committed to eating local in a climate where fruit output is not high, they can be an important source of vitamin C. During WWII in Britain when imported vitamin-C rich fruits were difficult to obtain, the popularity of blackcurrants soared and the government encouraged their cultivation.

An interesting anecdote for the lack of popularity of blackcurrants in the US is that in the 18th and 19th century they were banned in several states because they were thought to be a vector for spreading a disease called blister rust to white pines, which threatened the nascent logging industry. Because of this, they were banned in the United States in 1911. It wasn’t until 1966 that the nationwide ban was shifted to state jurisdiction and even now they are still banned in several states. I suspect these bans will be challenged since rust-resistant varieties of currants are available and many farmers want to break into the market for specialty crops.

I never suspected a late morning would lead into a story about law. Here is a fascinating NYT article on the subject.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On the Banks of the Boneyard

In the summer I live in an apartment that has large windows facing the Boneyard Creek, a small creek best known for flowing through the University of Illinois campus. Unfortunately, that is usually all it's known for. Once part of a series of wetlands, most of the Boneyard is now a concrete-lined channel.

When I first saw it I was on the engineering campus, admiring the bridges and verandas and expecting them to look over a scenic blue river. One peek over the side of the bridge quashed that illusion. At its most scenic, the boneyard is flush with algae, at its least it is nearly dry and framed by trash. I take some comfort knowing that it was once worse, almost resembling an open sewer in the 1970s.

Last year my particular window-view stretch was simply concrete graced by the occasional brave duck. This year things look somewhat better. The concrete now hosts a thriving population of algae. Large amounts of algae is frowned upon in most cases, as it can choke out other species, but here it only replaced the gray concrete.

Now I have a regular duck population. I have observed what I am assuming is the same one female with her ducklings over the past two months. At first she had a large brood, but now only three remain. The Boneyard does not have many predators I know of. The only aquatic possibility I can think of as a predator would be the rare muskrat I am lucky enough to glance occasionally. Other local animals that might also indulge in baby duck snacks include raccoons and crows.

The other main hazard would probably be drowning. During downpours the water level rises several feet very rapidly. The duck in the photo was unhappily observing this after struggling towards the bank.

I have never seen fish in the Boneyard, but there are signs of them in some of the deeper portions. Sometimes I see ripples flowing out of where a waterbug once stood. The waterbugs also seem to be the preferred food of swallows at dusk.

I'm always amazed what can survive in landscapes altered by humans. When I rowed it was in the smelly brackish Skokie Canal. Even there I would see hundreds and hundreds of fish and birds. Perhaps a limited population, but amazing considering how poorly that body of water had been treated.

Urban waterways have potential as both ecosystems and human recreation. Unfortunately mostly I see them treated as drains.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

When good food goes bad

They called out to me with their wilted greens and sordid brown spots. Once they had been red and bright. They had waited for me patiently in the fridge and waited and waited... By the time I wanted to eat them, they had given up.

Spoilage is the single person's curse. The radishes only came in batches of six and I could only stomach so many at once. Their fate was preceded by some limp arugala and some moldy new potatoes. At home with my family, lonely looking vegetables are quickly identified and hoards descend upon them if incited by my mother.

Not here. An unwise purchase of an unfortunately large bulbous kohlrabi is tackled alone in my apartment. I am accountable for every perishable I purchase and I'll tell you they don't sell them in batches that make the single life easier. It doesn't help that I take two math classes and work...which doesn't leave a lot of time for cooking. Did I mention I live in graduate halls where there are two "real" kitchens shared with hundreds of people.

So I really have to think small and hardy. If it keeps for a week nicely and doesn't have to be eaten all at one and prepared laboriously, it is my friend. Snap peas, carrots, spinach, chard, and apples are my current favorites. I'm not worried about the tyranny of a basket of alarmingly perishable fragrant ruby red strawberries, but I don't think kohlrabi or radishes will be in my basket for awhile...I've eaten enough of them to last a lifetime.

I always feel more sad about the local vegetables. I know these farmers and don't want to let their hard work go to waste. Managing fresh produce can be difficult, but it is worth it. Here is what I've found so far to make it easier

- keep a list of what you have and when you bought: this prevents you from finding spoiled remains of forgotten food in the future
-salad spinner: a dry vegetable lasts longer
-don't overdo it at the store or farmer's market and eat the most perishable foods first

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Illinois Farmer's Market Basket: English Cucumbers

English Cucumber's are the dainty less-rude relative of the rotund commercial "slicer" variety. Why are they less rude? Sometimes they are called burp-less because while the average cucumber packs a serving of relatively difficult to digest seeds, this cucumber's seeds are unobtrusive enough that some wrongly claim they lack seeds altogether.

They can growth to two feet in length, but generally they are slim and have a neatly ridged surface. Most growers wrap them in plastic to prevent moisture instead of waxing them, so there is no need for peeling.

They are among my favorite purchases because they live up to the cucumber's true status as a fruit with their delicately sweet flavor. I believe they would be perfect for those dainty English cucumber sandwiches, but I like mine plain.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Everyone who works with food has a story behind their obsession with one of humanity's mundane necessities. Some people because they read Animal Liberation and decided not to eat meat, others because they realized that there are aesthetic facets to blueberries, even more who became obsessed after being physically weighed down by the iniquities of the American diet.

For me though I have to ultimately connect it with illness. Though I've never had a strong stomach, it was an epiphany to go from being slightly plump to choosing clothing based on how well it hides bone jutting through my skin. Accidents happen with food, even the most conscientious grandmother might hide botulism in her grape jelly, but the current American food system's deficiencies are systematic rather than accidental.

The serotype of salmonella that took up residence first in my stomach, than in my blood, was no real accident- no unfortunate unforeseen event. The FDA, self proclaimed guardians of our food supply, knew about it long before it sent me to the ER.

Disease makes you feel helpless. Food poisoning is among the most helpless of all conditions- you are infected by your sustenance. Most cases are painful, but mercilessly quick, so they go unexamined. One in four Americans suffers annually because of food borne pathogens. Most are never traced, not just because they weren't severe enough to merit testing, but also because many infections are impossible to trace. Listeria will often be latent for days or even weeks before unleashing havoc.

Where did it come from? It's a question that is usually never answered. Many with severe food poisoning lose faith in the food system and their own ability to chose safe food.

I often think of the history of the food as a bell curve. Hunter-gatherers have usually lived a long enough time in their environment to know what is safe to eat and avoid what isn't. Civilizations treat food differently, with a focus on making things safe rather than avoiding what is unsafe. Lentils, acorns, and a myriad of other foods that came into the human diet later in history have to be "unpoisoned" in order to be consumed. In the wild, many foods we eat are completely inedible.

We still follow this same philosophy, except we have over-extended it. The animals we eat typically wallow in absolute filth, the merging absolutely disgusting and the edible. The processor has the responsibility to unpoison the meat from pigs that ate cow fetuses or milk filled with pus. The process, on the farm level, can be rife with disease-causing organisms as long as they don't make it to the table (or get caught).

The problem is doubly pronged: the diseases that fester in at the agricultural level and the lack of responsibility at the processing level. It gets harder and harder to unpoison our food and sometimes in the effort we make things worse. Even vegetarians now have to worry about virulent strains of e.coli that come from cows fed an evolutionary inappropriate diet. Consumers unusually don't know they are supporting the poisoning of their own food supply because the beef they buy comes from thousands of miles away. The recent melamine crisis highlights how much food suppliers can get away with because consumers just don't know.

Will we shift back? Will infections like mine teach people that cheap food has a high ethical, environmental, and health pricetag? Or will we just nuke our food more hoping that ultra heated pasteurization will keep us ahead of quickly evolving microbes?

In this blog I hope to explore these questions. I stopped writing after I became ill because it made thinking about food so difficult, but now I think I am ready to once again think about the weaknesses of our food system.