Once upon a time — back in college, in the early aughts — my friends and I made a weekly visit to the grocery store. We went to the closest one, a half mile from our apartment in Chicago, loaded bags with Cheerios and mac’n’cheese and pre-washed baby spinach and chicken breasts, and did the grocery-waddle home, speed walking with tiny steps and our arms dragging nearly to the ground, fingers turning a strangled white from the weight of the plastic bags. After those easy years, shopping seemed to get more difficult.
As my financial resources grew ever so slightly and the food and foodie movements began to grow and my attention turned from totally self-absorbed to slightly world-oriented, food shopping became difficult. Do I buy organic? Do I not buy carrots if there are only conventional carrots on a given day at a given store? Do I resign myself to eating fewer vegetables if they’re now more expensive? Should I skip the grocery run entirely if I forgot to carry spare tote bags with me?
A couple years into living in New York, I made two decisions. One was that I was tired of making myself the same meals over and over: pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with tuna and tomato sauce, pasta with bell peppers and onions, chicken, and salad. I realized that in the grocery store, my eyes really only registered a half-dozen produce items that they readily understood: red peppers, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes. What the hell were all those other things? Wait, wait, I see avocados! The second was that I was tired of spending my money on shitty food. The store near one apartment in Queens always had produce on the verge of going bad — I don’t think they moved enough stock to keep a fresh supply. Farmers markets and Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s were all completely out of the way.
So when I saw signs in the neighborhood I worked in for a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, I investigated, recruited some friends in the office (never did like to try new things alone), and signed us up. The way CSAs work is this: people invest in “shares” of a specific farm’s upcoming harvest, and they get their returns in produce, delivered regularly throughout the growing season. For farmers, this means more money earlier, less financial risk and instability, and the chance to connect with his customers. For folks like me, it means insanely fresh and delicious food at one hell of a price. If it’s a bad year, you get less for your money, but why should farmers have to take all that risk by themselves? They don’t control the weather, and they feed every one of us, which is kind of a big deal. I did the math and decided to go whole hog, buying a vegetable share, a fruit share, and a cheese share. It worked out to under $30 a week, and I thought that with a few extra bucks for bread, eggs, and milk, I’d actually be doing great budget-wise to get all this food through them.
Every single Wednesday after work we’d go pick up bags of food then divvy out the portions back in our office. We felt like celebrities walking back inside with overflowing bags. It’s hard to describe, but this food was just radiant. Think about the difference between a friend of yours that’s pretty good-looking and gorgeous celebrity. What is that? With people, I guess it’s usually plastic surgery, but with this food, it was just plain health and freshness. Coworkers would come admire at what we laid out on the kitchen table. I had fresh berries for breakfast every day, lettuce that didn’t even need dressing for me to swallow it and, to my dismay, more peaches than I could possibly eat. The thing is that these peaches were so damn good I didn’t really want to share them, and I greedily let far too many go bad in my refrigerator. Desperate, I looked for recipes to use them in and made incredible peach cupcakes with a recipe from Smitten Kitchen.
In addition to making me feel like a celebrity (eater) and a super do-gooder, the CSA taught me (well, forced me) to eat so many new foods, a gift for which I am profoundly grateful. A dear friend in Philadelphia agreed to join me in a one-new-food-a-week correspondence and eating experiment, which we recorded somewhat erratically in a joint blog called Dear Daikon, which we started right as I was considering the CSA. I recorded my experiments learning to cook vegetables I’d only ever eaten out before, if ever, like collard greens, fava beans, brussels sprouts, and leeks. My friends at work and I would talk veggies, too: “Have you used your beets yet? Do you know how to eat a kohlrabi?”
To anyone even remotely open to considering joining a CSA, I always say do it. If you can put out the money upfront, the value you get for your dollars is hard to beat, as is the delight in having heaps of gleaming food handed to you every week and getting to talk about it with fellow members, friends, and roommates. But I only spent four seasons — two summers and two winters — with my CSA. That’s a story I’ll tell in a future post.