On our way back to her college, my girlfriend and I were taking the scenic route through southern Indiana a few days ago. Stepping out of my apartment, we were greeted by the chilly gust of Fall. I was immediately excited at the obvious arrival of the new season. My girlfriend...not so much. The trip back was full of long windy paths through forests that had begun their yearly shedding of the hues of green for the magisterial reds, oranges, and yellows that mark the season. The restaurant I work for recently switched its menu from Summer to Fall, and the flavor of the fall produce we have are crisp, hearty, and downright amazing.
This is my first year actually paying attention to the cycles of the produce that we utilize throughout our local restaurants. With the waning of the vine-grown fruits of watermelons and tomatoes comes the steady march of the root vegetables and many tree grown items. At work, I continually wade through an assault of persimmons, beets, and pears, from poaching and roasting to milling and chopping. This new crop offers a remarkable abundance of culinary techniques to be applied. But what I am most excited about is the arrival of everyone's childhood friend, the apple.
The apple is a nearly universal symbol of health and progress. When I was a kid, we would sing a song about apples to teach us the different sounds vowels made. The famous phrase, 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away' still runs through my mind every time I come down with the flu, which is why I made pumpkin soup with diced apple tonight. The company, Apple Inc., which constantly pushes the bounds of user-friendly technology every year with new and innovative products. The story of Adam and Eve, and the pursuit of knowledge in the Bible. I could go on and on, but I will stop before I beat the point to death. The apple is more a part of our culture than most other fruits.
Back to the car ride with my girlfriend. As we were making our way up scenic route 231 in the middle of nowhere, I remembered a small farmer's stand that was operated nearby on a 24-hour schedule. Every week, the farmers would haul out some of their freshest produce to this stand, set up a drop box, and rely on the honor system to get the payments from the good people driving by. We pulled up and found pecks and half pecks of all sorts of apples. Ranging in size and colors, acidity, sweetness, mealiness, crispness, it was a great way to test out the differences between the various types. Each apple had its own sample bushel, and we devoured one of each. It would have been hard not to enjoy every single note and sweet bit of the apples we ate.
I ended up leaving 12 dollars at the farmers stand. My girlfriend and I departed with two turnips, two squashes, and a half peck of honeycrisp apples that smacked of a sweet and tartiness that you just cannot get anywhere else. And that is when it hit me. That apple in my hand, that I was working my way through in massive bites and waves of awesome had just been picked. It had been grown from a tree on an orchard in a nearby township on the land of a farmer who grew up here. This apple was never sprayed with ethylene to help it ripen, never irradiated to keep it from going bad. It had little black spots on it where it had been gnawed on by a worm, and it had some sun damage from where it grew on the tree. It was in a plastic bag stuffed with other apples, or in a peck basket for sampling. It was a little dusty from being at a roadside stand. It was one of the best apples I have ever eaten.
Flashing back to earlier today, I am entering the local grocery for some toiletries, snacks, and pretty much the things you find at the local grocery. As soon as I walk in, I am already in the produce section, where I am assaulted by the various and vibrant colors of all the fruits and vegetables harboring here. At this point, I casually strolled over to the apple table. There they were. Over ten different varieties, lined up by type in single, uniform lines. No dirt or dust on the table, each apple looked as if it had been polished to a high sheen and placed perfectly on that little table. It was a beautiful display, no doubt strategically placed there to activate some deeply rooted, millions of years in training evolutionary adaptation in my mind to recognize amazing fruit. I grabbed a honeycrisp apple. I could not resist.
I got home and I sat the apples next to each other. One, locally farmed and picked a day or two ago. The other, grown who knows where, had who knows what done to it, and is who knows how old. I picked them up. The farmed apple was much smaller, with more bumps and bruises than the other. I decided that the only way to truly tell the difference was a tasting. I had already had the local apple, so I figured I would try out the supermarket apple. Flat flavor. Mealy, grainy texture. Zero sweetness. A lot of tart. Ouch. A total letdown in pretty much every category. Turning back to the local apple and taking a bite, it still has that crunchy crispness. It still has that bold sweetness from being ripened on the tree to the point of completion. It is still small and a little ugly, but it tastes like an apple should.
These two apples represent more than just a comparison side-by-side. Their tastes and presentation are wholly dictated by the businesses that brought them to my table. On one side, you have the locally raised apple, which is here because it is apple season in Indiana. It has ripened on the tree, developing a great level of sweetness, and it traveled very few miles to get to me, leaving a much smaller carbon footprint than the apple I bought from the grocery. The grocery apple was lacking in flavor, because it was picked before it was ripe. It was then treated with enzymes and chemicals to expedite the ripening process, which still cannot match the "on the tree" ripening. It looks nice because it has been treated and selected. It is a Trojan horse apple.
Friends, to me this is just another example of why you should buy local as often as you can. More often than not, the supermarket produce will be cheaper than the produce you can get at a farmers market. But if we would just take a step back and wait a second, we can realize that the food we get locally tastes better, has a smaller carbon footprint getting to us, and that the money we spend on it stays local.