Sunday, May 25, 2008

How to Pick a Peach

It takes 30 years to develop a new variety of citrus fruit, six years to find a new sort of strawberry. California produces over half of the nation's fruits and vegetables. Artichokes are the unopened flower bud of a plant called the "improved cardoon." Iceberg lettuce is becoming the hot new thing in Europe, now that romaine rules the lettuce world here. Climacteric fruits, like peaches and mangoes, will ripen after picking; so will cantaloupes, but honeydews won't. Leeks are so gritty and dirty because farmers heap dirt around their bases to block sunlight, prevent the formation of chlorophyll and maintain the white color; a similar process is used to make white asparagus.

I'm barely 100 pages into "How to Pick a Peach: The Search For Flavor from Farm to Table," by Russ Parsons, and already I am learning an incredible amount about my produce. So far, the advice on how to determine quality produce has been less than earth-shattering -- look for unwilted lettuce, firm green pea pods, onions without fungus. Not exactly rocket science. The essays about the economics, politics, and problems of farming are interesting, and the introduction he gives to each plant is enlightening -- history, chemistry, biology, culinary science. The gambling act played by iceberg lettuce growers is absolutely astounding, as is the chemical behavior of artichokes. It's a pretty fantastic book so far.

After all the philosophical, guilt-inducing food books I've been reading lately, Parsons has a refreshingly different point of view. He claims he doesn't particularly care about the health value or environmental impact of the food he eats, and morality has yet to come up. He is in hot pursuit of flavor -- the best vegetables are the ones that taste the best, period. It's not exactly the way I look at food, but it's pretty close, and I certainly appreciate the clarity of his focus.

Parsons does make me feel incredibly behind the times. He says, "'Eat local; eat seasonal.' How many times have you heard it?" And, well, I guess pretty often -- but it still seems like a recent trend to me. Guess I'm just out of the loop. He writes, "It's surprising that in this do-it-yourself world of cooking, where people brag about making their own bread, fresh pasta and chicken broth, jam making is still so little regarded." Am I wrong in thinking that the home-made movement is still rather the enclave of foodies? I'd say that organic is going mainstream, but do-it-yourselfing and local-eating still seem to me like they have yet to enter the habits of the general populace. (I fear that may just me wanting to feel special, but I reacted to that fear with some more thought... and I still think making your own stock, bread and pasta is unusual, at least if you look outside the narrow confines of foodie culture.)

I could be totally wrong, of course, but I think Parsons is revealing just how specific of an audience he thinks he's writing to -- culinary sorts who already try to eat local, who make their own pasta, who have an opinion on "composed salads" and for whom the phrase "heirloom tomato" needs no explanation. "Foodies now have no trouble at all explaining brunoise (and even pronouncing it correctly) or expounding on the differences between the Maillard reaction and caramelization. Yet many are completely in the dark about the very ingredients they're so expertly chopping and browning," Parsons writes.

He does his book a disservice if he thinks it would only serve those foodies. l may be well on my way to becoming a foodie, but I have only the vaguest idea that the Maillard reaction might involve meat changing colors, and had never heard of composed salads. Not to mention, of course, that my only attempt at making pasta was a gummy, gluey failure. The point is that absolutely none of that knowledge is necessary to understand this book. Parsons describes selecting, storing and cooking techniques in great, for-dummies detail -- he includes an explanation of how to hard-boil an egg, for heaven's sake.

This book should, in fact, be marketed to the interested but clueless, to those who want to eat better food but aren't quite sure where to start. I would submit that most foodies do, in fact, know more about their produce than Parsons suggests. It's the rest of us who need his help.

No comments: