On ingredients and organics

[caption id="attachment_98" align="aligncenter" width="540" caption="A raspberry from the kitchen garden at the Biltmore Estate. I promptly ate it after shooting this photo."]raspberry[/caption]

In our circle of friends Vance and I are known as these "great chefs," but to accept that designation would be mostly cheating. Because more often than not we're following someone else's recipe, and what makes the food great isn't that we made it but that we've taken care to put only quality ingredients into what we make. If you're someone who believes sorbitol and hexametaphosphate make a nutritious and appetizing equivalent to real maple syrup, you should probably skip this post.

I love to eat. And it is for that reason that I love to cook. Don't get me wrong; I'll happily drop $30 a person for a great meal at a local restaurant. But I'm happiest when I know exactly where the food I'm eating came from — farm to table. I still go to the grocery store — one of my favorite things is to wander there as if I'm in some kind of edible amusement park — but I buy primarily from the perimeter of the store where the produce and dairy are found. I've adopted a food mantra straight out of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Everything we consume has a story behind it. A tomato isn't just a tomato. It's a farm somewhere in Florida dumping thousands of gallons of pesticides and insecticides and fungicides into the groundwater. It's a seed producer, a planter, a grower and a picker. It's a truck driver and an ethylene gas application. It's a sticker designer and a sticker applier, a grocery store stock worker and a plastic produce bag.

The convenience a grocery store provides has a tendency to make us forget these stories behind the food we eat. Meat doesn't have any bones anymore; root vegetables retain no evidence that they were ever pulled from the earth; cheese packages contain words like "processed cheese food" and maple syrup is really "syrup flavored" corn products. At the end of the day what we want to eat is food, right? Not the idea of food?

[caption id="attachment_99" align="aligncenter" width="540" caption="Pear trees at the Biltmore Estate. Grown in a menorah-like pattern to maximize space."]Pear Trees[/caption]

So with that in mind, our meals are planned around the seasons. I don't have to have a tomato in January or fresh apples in June if what I'm eating ends up being far from what an apple or tomato ought to taste like. I was surprised to learn that we had a network of organic farms right in central Florida, since most of what I found at Whole Foods has been imported from South America or hundreds of miles away. Getting ahold of local produce, cheese and meat is a bit of a trek without a co-op, but we have one of those too as it turns out. The Homegrown co-op puts the freshest ingredients from local organic farmers in a box for us each week; our meals are designed around whatever we find there. Eggplant, swiss chard, okra, kale, and buckets of summer squash generally wouldn't be part of our diets if not for the co-op. And the more traditional items we find there — corn, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, oranges — are fresher than anything I've tasted before we started shopping this way.

Part of the allure of "foraging" for food straight from (or closer to) the source is eliminating a few of the packing and shipping steps from the food chain. There are no processing plants or eighteen wheelers or curious sprays applied to our fruit to make them shine. (We're not eating leather boots, we're eating food; and I'm okay if my apples look just like they did when they fell from the tree.)

The food costs more because the spoilage rates of food grown without pesticides is higher, and the operations are generally smaller. Organic growers generally pay farm workers fairly and have a strong commitment to environmental and worker safety. Your tomatoes may be 50 cents a pound, but someone is paying the rest of the real cost of growing your food, in environmental impact, health bills, cancer rates, and so on.

But I digress. The point of this post was to give you a little insight into a few of the reasons why we choose to use the highest quality ingredients we can find. Once we're informed about the true cost of our convenient way of life, we're more inclined toward consuming that is safe for us and beneficial to our local community as well.