Saturday, November 22, 2008

edible art

'Life is one continuous mistake,’ Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, used to remind his students. When he shopped he sought out the rattiest vegetables at market, all the discarded and maimed culls, and his meditation grew strong, nourished by the continuous mistakes of human life. --Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

Buried in The New York Times last week was a write-up about a victory for vegetables. Two weeks ago the European Union pitched “overly curved, extra knobby, or oddly shaped produce” into the grocery store’s waste bin; now they let
them stand proud in the grocery store next to all their perfect relatives. It’s a real high-five for the previously “discarded and maimed culls,” the twisted and misshapen vegetables and also a few fruits. Irregular tomatoes, apples and peaches are still banned, unfortunately, while carrots, peas (have you ever had a run-in with a deformed pea?) and a few dozen others are no longer. It must be a case of political discrimination. Where I think the real achievement lies though is in the acceptance of misshapen root vegetables, always the most macabre of the produce section. Any edible pulled from the earth wears scars of its life underground and if Edward Gorey had written a Thanksgiving tale, it would have been a tale of these misshapen root vegetables.

But farmer’s markets have never been discriminatory against ugly produce in the way that grocery chains have (sites of industrial agriculture that they are) and yet I realized that I always search out the most aesthetically perfect fruits and vegetables, however subconscious this practice may be. Inspired, I made a game out of looking for the most imperfect produce as I toured the Ballard farmer’s market in Seattle with my friend Michelle last Sunday. A truly good friend rarely questions one’s ill-justified pursuits and so Michelle didn’t press me on why I was attracted to the farmer’s market’s least-wanted. We found piles and bins: she pointed out twisted carrots and stood patiently while I took some photos of strangely curved beets, soft-edged cabbages and irregularly shaped Asian pears, three-pronged carrots and purple potatoes with pink splotches. Misshapen edibles were all over the Ballard market but rarely were they broken. No, these were not mistakes wrought by a human hand but by ecology itself: the beet that grows its sweet root down and hits a rock perhaps, or the apple that didn’t quite get enough sun on one of its halves and so shows its mis-proportioned growth. I don’t really know the why of the knobs and lumps and funny colors, but finding them all in plain view made me think about the why of caring what fruits and vegetables look like. So long as a fresh food isn’t showing signs of rot and thus danger, does visuality matter if we ultimately perceive quality through its flavor? Is the visual any reliable indication of the taste?

We’ve long privileged vision and hearing over the other senses, with taste often falling to the bottom of the philosopher’s hierarchy. It was considered to be a bodily and therefore primitive sense by Aristotle, who favored the cognitive senses, seeing and hearing, that allowed for objective rationality and thus the production of knowledge. Taste, as a gustatory pursuit, was too subjective to contribute to that. So what does the European Union’s turn away from using vision to judge produce quality suggest? Ironically, one would think that those cultures with deeply rooted peasant cuisines, the French and Italian being chief among them, would have always privileged the flavor of a vegetable or the succulence of a fruit over the item’s physical appearance. After all, those who grow what they put on their own dinner table could hardly dismiss a deformed peach or stunted carrot as a parent wouldn’t cast away an ugly baby. Unless, of course, the compost pile needed beefing up.

I didn’t allow myself the luxury of searching out imperfect produce at the Santa Monica farmer’s market this morning, though it did occur to me that there seems to be less of it in Los Angeles than in Seattle. It was back to the usual market business instead, sizing up the availability of apples (the ladies with the Gold Rush variety were there!) and economizing on lettuce, four small red leaf heads for three dollars. My splurge, as I was retreating from the market’s dead-end where the row of stalls threatens to lead you into the Pacific, was on persimmons. A strange and whimsical fruit, if only because my tour guests told me so when I chatted them up around the vineyard and garden in Napa when I worked there: how can a tree lose its leaves and leave the fruit hanging, they would ask as I led them past Frog’s Leap winery’s two Fuyu persimmon trees. Or more commonly, what is that orange thing, they’d exclaim, can we eat it? And inevitably a tall man would reach up and pluck one for his wife, who never had the audacity to bite into a strange fruit in front of the crowd. The Fuyu variety, squat like a pumpkin-colored tomato, remains hard even as its insides become sticky with sugars so I’d tell her it was safe for transport inside her purse.

The practicality of these Fuyus means I usually prefer them to their cousin, the Hachiya, which are only sweet when they’re soft enough to scoop with a spoon. Until then, they remain stoically firm, a powerhouse of bitterness that rivals that of the uncured olive (which occasionally a winery tour guest would grab from the tree, chew, appear to be poisoned, and promptly gulp down his, and his wife’s, glass of red). But feeling whimsical myself today, I dropped $4 for three Hachiyas, curious how different they’d actually taste from the Fuyus. They were like little tapered bowling balls and the man who took my dollars told me that they’d take six or eight weeks to ripen. I almost asked for my money back.

“Think of them as edible art,” said the persimmon peddler. “Put them in a bowl to look at, check them a few times a week or so and then one day you’ll be surprised-- they’ll be ready to eat.” So it is that I have a display of pretty persimmons sitting dormant on my table, perfect to the eye... but not to the palate.


Anonymous said...

A framed photo of the Hachiyas would make a nice Christmas present

Ai Lu said...

Oh my -- I cannot express my envy at your buying CA-grown persimmons! I bought a couple of Hachiya at the co-op here in Minnesota the other day, and surprisingly they were ripe enough to eat on the spot: oh so good.

Ai Lu said...

I thought of you again this morning when I went to the little greenmarket by Columbia and bought some of my new favorite apples, golden russets, from the Tibetan garden stand. A lot of their apples are gnarly and pitted from hail damage earlier in the season, but I buy the golden russets by the dozen regardless, because even in their ugliness, they are so delicious!