This summer is different from all other summers.
This summer I’m signed up for a weekly basket of local, organic vegetables from the rented land of some starry-eyed young farmers. And this week’s bounty included four cucumbers ranging from Lou Costello plumpness to Bud Abbott skinniness, six carrots resembling the clown-twisted balloons available at all circuses and county fairs, plus two red beets shining with mud.
The carrots and cucumbers sang to me of Morocco, where fresh salads of every possible kind precede many meals.
So I rinsed those organically grown and odd-shaped fruits of the earth in my kitchen sink, its gleaming stainless steel now marred by tiny dirt clods and slivers of straw. For a moment, though, I wondered: should I soak these vegetables, just hours away from their earthy womb?
Why in the name of all that is good and holy would I even consider that?
You see, I used to spend hours shopping in open markets in various countries where sanitation standards could be dubious at best. Everything I bought went into large baskets with floppy handles, no packaging, although sometimes the butchers would wrap freshly slaughtered meat in old newspapers. I then spent hours unpacking my shopping baskets, plopping the vegetables and fruits into a solution of cooled boiled water infused with chlorine bleach. It took two large plastic tubs, of say about ten gallons of water each, to do the job. Yes, it also took immense quantities of fuel to heat the water, unless I used a charcoal water filter as I did in Morocco. Once the required time lapse of about thirty minutes passed, I dried the vegetables and fruits by setting them on clean kitchen towels.
I decided not to soak the vegetables, peeling would just have to suffice.
What gets taken away from sojourns in cultures different from the one you grow up in? Many things, and one of those is almost always food related. How else would I have ever chosen to make a sweet cucumber salad perfumed with the pungency of oregano? And sliced carrots, parboiled, swimming in a lemony and cinnamon-rich vinaigrette?
But there are other ways to journey toward changes in food habits.
Maybe I might be lucky, too, living as some do in grand metropolises sheltering immigrants from all over the world, such as London or Paris or New York or Los Angeles.
And perhaps in my daily life I could share a plate with people from different parts of the globe, who in turn might share their cuisine with me.
Or I could just read a cookbook about Moroccan food, and there are many out there by such experts as Paula Wolfert and Kitty Morse, both of whom, by the way, spent years away from the places of their birth.
The work of these authors reveals a salient point about food writing, at least one facet of it: writers who somehow spend time outside their cultures return, eager to share their love of new foods. Or they yearn for the foods of their cultures once they leave and stay away. Think Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Darra Goldstein, to name just a very few.
These modern-day factors help to partially explain how food habits change and dissemination takes place. People, the most important ingredient.
All this from a few grimy carrots in a basket of vegetables.
© 2015 C. Bertelsen