Thursday, April 9, 2009

You Are What I Eat Visits Florida

Last week Stephanie, from the blog You Are What I Eat visited Florida. In a fascinating post with lots of pictures, she praises the local citrus sold in our highway rest areas and notices that weary travelers are migrating towards big bags of Florida oranges and grapefruits instead of junk food. Then she visits a farmer's market and finds that sadly, most of the produce there isn't local at all and is flown or trucked in from other states and even other countries.

I've had the exact same experience and it never ceases to disappoint me enormously. To me, it's like a fake farmer's market. It only looks like a farmer's market. Something about stacking fruits and vegetables outside in the fresh air does seem to make them prettier, but in situations like this vendors are merely creating the atmosphere of a farmer's market, without providing the genuine benefits of one (highlighting native species of fruits and vegetables, providing the freshest in season foods and supporting nearby farmers). I think it's really wrong and I've visited several markets this spring, only to be disappointed in the same way Stephanie was.

I've visited farmer's markets in other states and have had a different experience. In New York, California and Delaware the markets sell genuinely local wares. In Florida, they mostly don't. I wondered why this was and after a great deal of thought I theorize that it's because in Florida, where so many people are from "Up North" we feel a pressure to conform to a diet more suited to northern climates. People want to eat what they're used to - things like apples, pears and cherries that they're familiar with, instead of learning about indigenous, more unfamiliar varieties like yucca, caimito and canistel. It's as if we privilege the northern diet over the tropical diet and perhaps there's even some racism or enthnocentrism in this. Maybe our society as a whole associates a tropical diet with a "less American" culture, with foreign-ness and with lower class immigrants and we collectively believe that the diet of a temperate climate is inherently more "American."

I know that saying something like that sounds horrible and that it is controversial and highly debatable, but it's just a theory and not even a theory that can explain everything. I could be completely wrong. Maybe we're all just spoiled and want it all, all the time. Apples, are after all, pretty good and I often find myself craving them. I can't recall ever having had a craving for caimito. But thanks to Stephanie for a great post with a valuable and important observation.

Soon, I will be posting about some excellent farmer's markets in South Florida that are proud to support local farmers and native species.

Whole Foods Cooking Class

And don't forget "Local With Laura" tonight at the Fort Lauderdale Whole Foods (scroll down). I won't be able to attend this one because of Passover. Same goes for the Urban Oasis Liberty City project, but I sure wish I could go to both.

Urban Oasis Project

This morning I got this email from an organization I just joined called the Urban Oasis Project:

"We are so excited that LOTS of people are interested in growing their own food! We also encourage planting for butterflies, bees, birds, and other wildlife. Miami can be a green city! An urban oasis! Your yard can be an urban oasis! All of us together will make one big habitat for the pollinators and beneficial wildlife we need to be a sustainable city. Upcoming events, sorry for the short notice, but if you can't make this one, there will be others, and we will post pictures on the Facebook group: 1. April 9, 8:00 AM: We will be creating a raised bed vegetable garden tomorrow for a family in Liberty City with a new baby.2. April 9, 6:00 PM: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 6:00 to 9:30 pm, Thursday Nights at Fairchild. We will be collecting used tools and gardening supplies (no chemicals please) for needy families in Liberty City and elsewhere who wish to plant a food garden, but don't have the resources to begin. Please come out and enjoy the Garden at night, go on a walking tour of night-blooming plants, and watch the movie Hoot!, a nature story based on the book by Carl Hiassen. www.fairchildgarden.org for details Every Thursday night in April, we will be at Fairchild collecting tools and garden miscellany for needy families to garden. In the meantime, please visit www.urbanoasisproject.org and our Facebook group. (Go to Facebook, put Urban Oasis Project in the search field. The group is open to anyone, and there are many photos with comments and how to info. You can contribute your own experience, too!)"

Monday, April 6, 2009

Edible Wild Plant Workshop Saturday

This Saturday Chris Rollins will be teaching an edible wild plant workshop at Fruit & Spice Park in The Redlands. I'm really trying to get into foraging. I think the Florida landscape is full of delicious, free food that most people aren't taking advantage of. Many South Floridians, like myself, aren't originally from this area. We're more familiar with Northern plant life and edibles, so we don't realize that much of the flora in this region is good to eat, just unfamiliar to us. This workshop is a great way to learn about what grows here and what we can take advantage of. Especially in tough economic times, I think foraging for wild foods is a great and sustainable way to cut costs. The workshop will be from 2-4, this Saturday, April 11th and costs $25.00. Here is the link to Fruit & Spice Park's class schedule.

For more on foraging, visit the blog Forage Oakland out of Oakland, California (where local eating is unbearably simple it seems). This blog was a big inspiration for me and documents a community wide foraging project where people trade or gift fruit, herbs and vegetables they've grown or picked wild. With the abundance of fruit trees we have in South Florida, surely this would be an easy thing to do around here too. Anyone interested in starting Forage Fort Lauderdale with me?

Seasonal Ingredient Map

Via the great blog 24 Boxes, I found this handy Seasonal Ingredient Map. You just click on your state and the map will tell you what fruits and vegetables are currently in season in your state. You can slide the bar at the top to skip ahead to other months to see what's coming next and you can click on each ingredient for recipes and ideas. Among the vegetables currently available in Florida are: blueberries, green beans, tomatoes, strawberries, cucumber and corn.

Longans


Last Friday, while on another one of my research missions, I discovered yet another new, locally grown fruit that is available in the tropics. Longans look like rough, scaly brown grapes. I know this doesn't sound particularly appealing, but once you crack through the hard outer shell with your teeth, the fruit inside is not too sweet, refreshing and has the pleasant texture of a soft grape or a lychee. It tastes very similar to a honeydew melon. Because the trees like the hot temperatures and sandy soil we have here, longans are an ideal choice for growing in South Florida. Here is an excellent web site that explains how to plant, grow and take care of longan trees. If you don't have room to plant or if you don't want to wait several years for your longan to bear fruit, I bought mine at Robert Is Here Fruit Stand in Homestead, where they graciously let me taste a sample as I inwardly freaked out about the possibility of the fruit not being washed. To save face, I brushed it off with my hand and bit into the longan, trying not to think about accidentally consuming the tiny red spider I swear I saw crawling in the basket. Eating locally is forcing me to stop being so neurotic about food and look, I'm not dead and I found a new fruit to love!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Girls Strawberry U-Pick


Visiting The Girls Strawberry U-Pick in Delray Beach was one of my most fun and surprising research projects so far. A friend had visited and told me about this place, which is located in a very nondescript and heavily trafficked area of Delray Beach. Really, there's nothing around except low-end strip malls and over 50 condo communities. My grandparents live a few blocks away and had never mentioned that steps from their duplex one could find a lush, organic strawberry farm.

I got lost and had to make a few U-turns before I finally saw a small storefront with a plain sign reading "The Girls." Surely that couldn't be a strawberry farm, could it? Still, I parked my car and went into the shop. A reviewer on "Yelp" describes the country store as being like a Cracker Barrel and honestly, I couldn't have said it better myself.

The "country store" attempts to be charming and quaint. You can tell they're trying to appeal to children with rainbow sheaths of fruity candy canes and probably a hundred varieties of disappointing jams and jellies and other confections. The preserves appear to be made in house, with their "Girls" labels, however I don't think they are. Reading the ingredient labels I discovered that most, if not all, of their jams, jellies, relishes etc. contained high fructose corn syrup. This suggests to me that the products are factory produced and then slapped with a custom label. While this is a fairly common practice with a lot of businesses, I look down upon it and find it very deceptive because it could cause people to think they're buying local and that they're buying foods made with integrity. In reality they're overpaying for the same corn syrup laden junk they could get at Winn Dixie.

When you go to the Girls U-Pick Strawberry, skip the country store with it's neon, filler packed ice cream and tourist trap key lime cookie mixes and head straight for the back door. Once you step outside you will be amazed. I couldn't believe it. I felt like I was in a true paradise. The Girls have miraculously transformed the back of an urban strip mall into an organic farm, garden and petting zoo. Even if you don't feel like picking your own strawberries from their hydroponic, foam cones, you will still enjoy strolling the grounds where you will see a wide variety of tropical fruit trees like jaboticaba and lychee, carambola and papaya shading hand painted wooden tables and crates full of locally grown produce. You'll find fruits and vegetables and enormous tomatoes which you can purchase without picking. If you get tired you can sit in an Adirondack chair in a banana grove and watch white swans gliding past their own waterfall. Don't miss the miniature donkeys, the giant tortoise or the goats and be sure to notice the bright, cheerful murals painted on every surface. There's even a vintage car decorated with painted strawberry vines.

I couldn't visit a U-Pick Strawberry farm and not pick strawberries and The Girls makes picking your own fruit easy. Since the strawberry plants are raised off the ground on vertical racks, you don't have to bend over or get in the dirt to get to the berries. They also give you a pail and plastic scissors (like the kind you used in elementary school) to snip the stems. I liked this because then you can cut the stems as long as you want. I left a few long stems attached because these are great for making chocolate dipped strawberries.

Another thing that I really liked was how the berries and other crops (such as lettuce and chard) are grown. With hydroponics you don't need a big field. It's more efficient and ideal for crowded, urban areas which can be transformed from ugly concrete jungles to real oases of healthy, edible plant life. I think it's a creative and unique way to grow local produce in alternative settings and climates and it made me really happy to see what the Girls had done. On their website they say that their growing method also conserves a lot of water.

I filled up my pail and took it inside to be weighed. I ended up picking seven dollars worth of berries and had a lot. I was very happy with the quality of the fruit and ended up eating them all plain. I had great plans for jam, shortcake and cheesecake, but ultimately I think I just like my strawberries on their own.
Strawberry season is nearly over, so make sure you visit The Girls soon. Skip the store and head straight outside to the gardens and you won't regret your visit.

The Girls U-Pick Strawberry
14466 S. Military Trail
Delray Beach