Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Feed Me Farmstand Fruit

There was a day when I never would have stopped at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand. When you grow up accustomed to buying all of your produce at the grocery store, the idea of the roadside truck farmer or farm stand can make one feel somewhat uncomfortable. For one, its not sterile like a grocery store. The floors haven't recently been waxed, all the fruits don't glean under the fluorescent lights, and the apples and plums aren't stacked into a perfect pyramid of uniformity.

Quite often, a bit of the soil it required to grow the produce is still lingering about the store, as well as underneath the fingernails of the storekeeper. That's because the storekeeper is usually also the producer, who can explain to you the variety of the fruit, the age of the tree, if its been a good, fair or poor year, how long they've been growing that variety, how to preserve it over the winter, and what of his other goods will complement it on the dinner plate.

For years, I didn't stop at these places, and even now I have to make a special effort. I believe there are some plausible explanations for this hesitation, or even sheer avoidance. For instance, you are never expecting to see a farm stand; they just appear on the horizon, or more often, as a brief glimpse out of the corner of your eye. It's difficult to shift your mind from its former preoccupation to this new opportunity for fresh, local produce. Because you have no idea what they have to offer, you're also taking a gamble on making the stop. It's not like a grocery store, in which no matter where you stop anywhere in America, you can count on finding Cambell's soup, Starkist tuna, Kellog's cereal and Quaker oatmeal. What if you stop and they don't have anything you want, or the produce isn't fresh, or it's overpriced? We feel like we will offend the storekeeper if we look around and decide not to purchase anything.

I also think that it's uncomfortable because we don't know how to talk to farmers. We don't know what questions to ask them because we're not accustomed to asking questions about our food. What if the farmer has a great suggestion for a delicious cabbage relish, or a pie, but in reality we are totally incapable of reassembling the raw ingredients into such finished products? It's hard to even recognize some of the items, and then how do you eat them? Needless to say, buying for canning, or freezing; forget about it.

“Have you got anything in a plastic pouch that I can boil and pour onto a plate?” We don't actually say this out loud for fear of the inevitable farmer's scowl as he ponders the existence of people with so little respect for what they put into their bodies. These thoughts are, of course, all quite neurotic, but we can't help but think them. So we go down the road to the grocery and instead buy processed, corn syruped, preservative laden items, for which we pay a great deal more, in cash, in the lost nutrition of such foods, and unfortunately, in the loss of understanding and a closer relationship with the sources of our nourishment.

Last week I was pedaling my bicycle alongside the Salmon River in Idaho, heading upstream. The ride had been leisurely and beautiful; the steep craggy walls of the Salmon River Valley were wide enough apart to allow plenty of blue sky and sunshine in to warm my bones. I didn't notice the Fiddle Creek Fruits farm stand until I was nearly past it. I tried to peer inside the open face of the tin roof building to get a notion of what might lay inside. I hadn't passed a fruit stand in five states and nearly two months, so the sight of one was somewhat of a surprise, especially considering I was in a wild and craggy river valley in Idaho. Aside from the rich and diverse farming in the Bitteroot Valley of Montana, I hadn't seen much fruit in the west. Besides, it was October, how much fruit could still be growing?

To be honest, if the purpose of my trip wasn't to learn as much as I possibly can about American farming, I might have just passed Fiddle Creek Fruits, and then three miles later stopped at the Riggins grocery. After taking a few more cranks, I shifted my mind, checked for traffic and pulled a U-turn, coasting into the gravel parking lot. As I dismounted I remembered how much fun it can be to walk into an open air market with the attitude of, “So what have you got?”

Peaches! They had fresh, tree ripened, local peaches. It said so right on the handmade cardboard sign. There were at least four or five varieties of peach, overflowing their baskets, about eight to a basket, and the baskets selling for one dollar a piece. A Georgia boy, 4,000 miles from home, on the road for four months, and with the appetite of an ironman tri-athlete gets a pretty big grin on his face when he finds fresh peaches for a dollar a basket in the middle of Idaho in October.

The storekeeper was a young man of about 15 or 16, wearing a ball cap and a camaflouge jacket. Blond and blue-eyed, he came over and told me I could break up the baskets anyway I liked. This was good news because I wanted to sample the variety. We exchanged some chit-chat, and I discovered that all the fruit and vegetables in the store were grown by his family on the acreage just up the valley. They grew peaches, cherries, plums, and apples, as well as garden favorites from tomatoes to winter squash.

I was still packing fresh plums and ground cherries from my visit with the Galm's in Kooskia two days before, so I very conservatively picked out just four peaches (I'm on a bike remember) and a bottle of cherry cider, a delicacy I had never seen and just had to try. It sat right next to the Huckleberry Lemonade in the cooler. I planned to eat two of the peaches right then and there, one later that night, and one for breakfast the following morning.

At the register I introduced myself to the young man named Corey, and told him about my farm touring. Turns out that Corey's father had moved to the area nearly thirty years ago and started an apple orchard with literally thousands of trees. After the trees matured, the market dried up completely and he cut nearly all of them down and planted peach and cherry instead. The family owned 6,000 acres and also ran 100 head of cattle and 100 sheep. As I dug a little deeper into the family business, gobbling into peach number one and washing it down with cherry cider, we began to hear the tinny thud of raindrops landing on the roof. “Is that rain,” I inquired. I looked back over my shoulder and saw nothing but blue skies and sunshine.

Corey and I went to investigate, we stepped out from the roof and looked straight into the sky. There we experienced, for the first time in either of our lives, big wet raindrops falling straight down out of the bright blue sky. “You ever experienced anything like this before?' I asked. “Nope,” he answered. We looked around at the sunshine. A faint hint of soft white clouds rested just at the edge of the valley's walls, and our human, scientific minds required us to assume that the clouds were dropping rain at a high elevation, then strong winds above the valley were blowing the drops a few miles, and when the drops entered the valley protected from the winds they proceeded straight down.

Corey described how much better a peach tastes that has ripened on the tree. This is rare peach knowledge, because most peaches are picked just before ripening, as they don't last long after. “How many peaches you think you eat in a year,” I asked. After some nudging he guessed about two barrels full. “I couldn't imagine ever living in a place without peaches and cherries,” Corey said. A man's got to have priorities and these made an awful lot of sense. My last peach before climbing back on the bike and heading up the valley had a soft creamy texture and flavor. I'd ended up taking a good twenty minute break, and it had been a good one.


10/21/2006 7:34 PM Anonymous wrote:
I think you mean "gleam" (a steady but subdued shining), not "glean" (reap or gather bit-by-bit).

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