Okra is one of those foods that elicit a strong response: either you love it or hate – there is no in between.
That was the case for Fresh Stop Market shareholder Michael Sabes.
“Both my wife and I grew up never eating okra and not liking the sliminess of it,” he said. “In my parent’s house, it is almost a taboo vegetable to mention.”
On those rare occasions when he did eat it, the okra was deep fried or in vegetarian gumbo. It wasn’t until one of his weekly shares at the Gendler Grapevine @ the J market included okra that he decided to give it another shot.
“When picking up our food share at the last Fresh Stop Market, I was surprised to see okra as one of the 10 items,” Sabes said. “I gladly took my share and wondered what in the world I was going to do with the okra. When I saw Karyn I said, ‘You are going to make me try to cook with okra?’
Sabes said he knew that adding acid such as vinegar would help decrease the sliminess that makes okra so unpopular with many people.
“I went home and did some research on the internet and found a recipe for roasting okra on the stove,” he said. “I was amazed at how much they shrunk down. The okra was fantastic! It was crunchy and there was no sliminess at all. My wife and I truly enjoyed it.”
Sabes enjoyed the okra so much that when the next Fresh Stop Market brought more okra, he was excited to try it in a different recipe.
“I took the okra and sliced it lengthwise and put it in a hot pot,” he said. “I then added sliced mushroom and cooked it dry until a little tender. I added fresh garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and a little sugar and some fresh chopped tomatoes and let it cook for several minutes. It was a fabulous side dish for dinner.”
It’s too early to say if okra will become one of his and his wife’s favorite vegetables, but it’s no longer on the do-not-serve list.
“I am no longer afraid of it and will enjoy making it more often,” he said. “I even hope to roast some when the family comes over for a special dinner.”
The History of Okra
By Stephen Bartlett, creator of the non-profit Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville, which educates, trains, empowers, and accompanies the next generation of farmers in the rebuilding of a just and local food economy in Louisville and its regional foodshed.
Okra, is a subtropical or tropical plant from the botanical family that includes cotton, hibiscus, and cocoa. The okra flower looks identical to the hibiscus flower and is a perennial that grows up to 6 feet tall, but is grown as an annual in temperate climates. The greatest diversity of okra varieties exists in West Africa, but Ethiopians and South Asians also claim okra originates in their regions. Okra came to the New World on slave ships from West Africa, as early as the mid-1600s in Brazil, and in the 1700s in North America. It is nutritious and a hardy plant easy to cultivate in varied conditions. Okra is most famous in the US as the raw ingredient for "gumbo" type sauces.
If you harvest the pods young and tender, there is less "goo" in them. Favorite recipes for okra dishes include frying in a corn meal breading, or stewed with tomatoes and hot peppers. Young pods are delicious to eat raw in the field. Okra dishes in the US have a strong association as a kind of African or "soul" food. Less widely known in mainstream culture in the US are the many recipes from South Asia based on okra.
What is it that animals know that we don’t when it comes to eating GMO corn?
Noah Nolt, an organic farmer outside of Liberty, Ky., said while the science around the safety of Genetically Modified Organism crops is not settled, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that points to its problems, for humans and animals.
“There are several other farmers in the neighborhood who have cows that tried the GMO corn,” he said. “One of them had put GMO corn in the silo first, then he put regular, hybrid corn on top. The cows were eating that silage corn just fine until it came to that point (of GMO) and then they didn’t want to eat it anymore. Cows recognize that there is something that they don’t like as well.”
Nolt, who raises corn as well as sorghum cane, said another neighbor who had sprayed their feed corn with chemical herbicides noticed problems with the cows’ health and milk production after eating the feed.
“They finally concluded that the only major change they had made was the GMO corn,” Nolt said. “They switched back again and felt like the problems that had come up were disappearing. They are persuaded that there is something there that they would rather not have.”
GMOs are foods that have been genetically engineered for reasons unrelated to health or nutrition, to give them a trait they don't naturally possess, such as a resistance to chemical pesticides. For example, it enables farmers to plant seeds they can spray them with chemicals such as Roundup to kill weeds or ward off insects and other predators, so farmers can save time and money not fighting those battles.
“There is one side of science that explains that to put something in the corn, it either takes out or pushes out something in the structure of the corn,” Nolt explained. “And so the concern in that realm is, what is being taken out? Is it something nutritionally valuable or vital to the animals and humans that we feed it to? It seems like there is quite a bit of literature that says, ‘Yes.’”
Ben Abell of Rootbound Farm in Crestwood, said there are generally two schools of thought when it comes to growing GMO crops.
“From the consumer standpoint, it’s, ‘Ew, that’s Frankenfood, I don't want to put that in my body,’” he said. “From my standpoint as a farmer, it’s a terrible way to farm. You become reliant on these chemicals.”
Even naturally occurring herbicides such as the bacteria BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is allowed to be used in organic corn farming, begins to create problems when engineered into GMO corn seed.
“When they first genetically engineered BT (into corn), basically the BT corn had one (gene) variation in it,” Abell said. “Now, the corn seed has 20 or 30 (gene) variations of BT in it because the (corn ear worms) have developed a resistance to it. It’s the same thing with Roundup when you’re talking about the Roundup Ready corn; the weeds are developing resistance around it.
“It’s just a short-sighted way to farm.”
Nolt said if he were strictly interested in profit, using GMO would be the way to go.
“But if I’m interested in passing along my farm to my children, I would have serious second thoughts about using them,” he said. “Once I went organic, I didn’t need to think about GMO anymore.”
In life, sometimes you find your passion. At other times, that passion finds you.
That's what happened to Peter Champelli, a sophomore at Ithaca College in New York, when he began doing volunteer work for New Roots as a student at Dupont Manual High School.
“My friend Amanda Tu was the first person who introduced me to New Roots, and she was a formal intern,” he said. “From there, I got to know Karyn (Moskowitz) pretty well. In 2014 as a sophomore, I started filming promotional and documentary work for them, which the primary purpose was promoting the Fresh Stop Markets. My biggest project that started my work with them was a video in November 2014 documenting their Veggie Rx Project that ended up raising (money) for the organization.”
Champelli said when he first became involved with New Roots, he didn’t know much about food equality and justice issues.
"As soon as I was introduced to Karyn and the team and started attending events, I realized it was something I was passionate about,” he said. “It was something I could use my personal skills and passions to give back in a way that I couldn’t with other things.”
He continued his video and documentary work through his junior and senior year, providing New Roots with video content they could share with potential donors and the community, offering a better idea of the different initiatives being offered.
“I filmed an event where they were leading workshops (Veggie Rx) with children to teach them about healthy eating and fitness,” Champelli said. “There was also an interview series with attendees. The last project I did was a New Roots sponsored event called a Food Summit at Bellarmine University.”
As has been the case for others over the years, becoming involved with New Roots led to doors being opened for Champelli. Searching for a college, he stumbled across what turned out to be his dream school, Ithaca, a private school whose tuition might have been out of reach for him if not for his New Roots background.
"New Roots helped provide a path for Champelli."
“Ithaca offers the Park Scholarship to a minimum of 10 high school seniors every year, for students who show a passion for communications and community service,” he said. “It was a combination of the community service I showed through my work with New Roots, and the communication skills, like video production that I’ve been developing, which also helped me in that area. I can thank New Roots on both accounts for helping me get that scholarship.”
The scholarship requires students to continue their community service at Ithaca, and again, New Roots helped provide a path for Champelli.
"I was the graphic design coordinator for an organization called Food for Thought, and they deal with food justice and food issues around the world,” he said. “I did all of the graphic design work for their promotion of an event called, the Walk for Plumpy’Nut, which was a 5K walk for fundraising to send money to doctors who are developing a substance that is similar to peanut butter called Plumpy’Nut. It’s doctor’s preferred substance for treating malnutrition cases.”
Champelli is studying emerging media, which is a combination of video production, media studies, and computer science, skills he hopes to continue to use to help other people.
“Not only was New Roots a great place for me to use my skills in video production and to give back in a way that I cared about, but it also gave me a lot of information and passion to continue working in food justice.”
A few months ago, Ian Herrick, an organizer with Louisville Farm to Table and one of the founders of the Smoketown Fresh Stop Market mentioned the Waterfront Botanical Garden Cultivator Board to New Roots director Karyn Moskowitz. The Cultivator Board is a non-fiduciary board that acts as an advisory council to the Board of Directors and staff. The idea of the Cultivator Board came about when the Waterfront Botanical Garden Board Members came to the realization that they were, well, getting older and that there needed to be a way to recruit, train and retain younger folks with fresh ideas who then enter a pipeline to become eligible for nomination onto the Board of Directors.
“This seemed like a great idea,” said Karyn. “I brought the idea to New Roots Board Member Patty Marguet, who brought it to the rest of the Board for discussion. This led to numerous conversations with Botanica Director Kasey Maier, Chris Nation (previous Chair of the Young Professional Association of Louisville (YPAL)) and other community members. In June, New Roots Directors elected Humana Foundation Analyst and New Roots Fresh Stop Market shareholder Colleen Reilly to the Board so she could focus on creating New Root’s own Harvest Council.
Colleen remarked, “The Harvest Council will operate under the core principle that fresh food is a basic human right. Through this council, we aim to engage young professionals to think and act innovatively in order to unite communities in creating solutions for sustainable and equitable local food economies.” Colleen continued, “We would like to know if you—or someone you know— is a young professional who is looking for an opportunity to share your skills and passion for food justice, engage more deeply with the community, and support a grassroots organization in achieving its strategic goals. We need your help recruiting the founding members.”
The New Roots is recruiting 5-9 highly-motivated individuals ages 22-40 with diverse backgrounds and skillsets who will develop their own objectives to support the strategic goals of New Roots. This group will fall under the umbrella of, and receive support from, the Board of Directors but will work autonomously.
Some activities may include:
· Community outreach and awareness-raising
· Recruitment and retention of shareholders
· Volunteer activities
· Educational programming
· Fundraising activities
· Making community connections
Please express interest or send recommendations to Colleen Reilly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are few things that speak to the pleasures of summer more than a ripe ear of corn ready to be devoured at an afternoon picnic – unless, perhaps, you are a small, organic farmer.
“It’s a crop that all around is an absolute crowd pleaser, but I would say it is by far the crop that we consistently fight,” said Ben Abell, who runs Rootbound Farm in Crestwood, one of the primary providers for the Fresh Stop Markets. “It’s almost impossible to grow, and it’s a bummer, because it is a crowd pleaser.”
Between growing with organic methods, tough economics, and the predators – both mammalian and insect – who love to eat it, Abell said corn faces the most pressure of any crop farmers like him grow.
“Before we even talk about bugs, there are deer that love the young corn plant, raccoons that eat the ears of corn once they’re pretty ripe – usually the night before we’re going to pick,” he said, with a laugh. “And finally, birds that attack corn and shred the ears.”
He said the modern sweet corn that people like to eat also is more susceptible to worm damage, and there are few tools organic farmers have to fight them, compared to conventional farmers.
“With GMO (genetically modified organisms) corn, the pesticides are genetically engineered to be produced by the actual corn plant,” Abell said. “The corn plants actually generate the pesticides that are toxic to the corn ear worms and European Corn Borer. They have those advantages over us on that front for sure.”
Organic farmers can use naturally occurring pesticides.
“The pesticide that most corn is genetically engineered to produce is BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is actually a bacteria,” Abell said. “That bacteria is the only real tool that organic farmers use to control ear worms. In organic farming, we are allowed to use certain pesticides as long as they are natural, are selective and naturally dissipate in the environment, and don’t harm beneficial insects. Bacterias are some of the pesticides that we use. We use BT to spray our corn, but it’s generally not overly effective, the formulations we use.”
He said the field of organic plant breeding has taken off in the past 5-6 years, giving farmers like him more tools with which to work.
“What really good plant breeding focuses on for organics is developing new corn varieties that have a lot tighter husks around the tip, and that just makes it more difficult for the worms to get in,” Abell said. “There’s little stuff like that that is done through conventional breeding techniques that don’t use GMO, that are specifically focused on organic growers.”
Those tools will help in the long run, but economic realities for small farms like Rootbound and others that grow for Fresh Stops Markets, still make corn a tough crop. Corn lends itself to being grown on a large scale because it can be harvested mechanically. On small farms, crops like corn and green beans – another crowd pleaser, Abell said – are harvested by hand.
“Everything we do is harvested by hand,” Abell said. “If we could invest in machinery, we would get a green bean picker … a smaller one that only picks one row at a time and costs $30,000. To go from hand harvesting to automation, you really do have to make a serious investment.”
Despite the difficulties, Abell said Rootbound has two crops of corn that look promising for the Markets, one during the second week of August, and another in September if all goes well.
Myron Hardesty, PA-C, M.H. is a licensed Physician Assistant and Medical Herbalist (M.H.) and has been practicing Clinical Herbalism through Weeds of Eden for over 15 years.
Are fruits an important part to the human diet?
Food diversification in general is a crucial part of all dietary recommendations. Fruits constitute a major food category so they are certainly important and valuable for human health. Phytochemicals and fruit-nutrients are of a particular variety that you can’t find in vegetables and protein. It’s this “rainbow of colors” that provide so much of the nutritional value in fruits.
How have fruits changed over the generations? Have they gotten sweeter or stayed the same? Why?
Modern fruits have little resemblance to their more Paleolithic forebears. Now we have all these hybridized versions of fruit. Take for example a modern apple: Granny Smith or Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. Comparatively, what our ancestors used to eat resembled more of a tiny crab-apple. This was a sweet treat and highly valuable as a caloric resource for communities that were more concerned with survival than flavor. Actually, probably more sour (phytonutrients) than sweet. Also, when you think about seasonal eating, we probably weren’t exposed to all that much sugar during the winters. From this aboriginal perspective, we are consuming the caloric equivalent of “sugar bombs.” However, putting things in a more modern perspective we have to admit that the greater issue is the amount of refined sugars in soda, candy, cereals and the like that are the major contributors to heart disease and diabetes. So, Yes, compared to those Fake Foods ( there were no Pepsi streams , there were no Skittles bushes or Crunchberries) apples and bananas don’t seem so bad. The modern world has a VERY perverted sense of “sweetness.” We just don’t realize it because we grew up with it.
What fruit has the most excess amount of natural sugar?
That’s a good question. I would say ounce for ounce…well, try intuitive eating: What tastes the most sugary? My guess is that a date has probably the highest sugar content. Mangoes are probably loaded with sugar. But health always depends on context. The most healthy fruits are the ones with highest phytonutrient to sugar ratio. Meaning that they have more nutrients and less sugar. We want to eat the rainbow so for example, blueberries have stilbene which is somewhat like resveratrol that accounts for the French paradox of wine. Both of these PhytoNutrients have been shown to be powerful sirtuin activators that combat diabetes. They are highly antioxidant and help regulate the inflammatory cascade. Nutrient density offsets caloric excess in these cases. White bananas less so. White-interiored apples (hybridized for sweetness and calories) less so. Sugars (generally speaking fructose+glucose= sucrose) are a fuel rather than a structural component like fats and proteins. We need calories in the forms of these sugars to generate the energy to carry out bodily functions and the reconstitution of our bodies. The phytonutrients complexed with these carbs and sugars ensure that that fuel doesn’t cause the mitochondrial engine to “run hot” or oxidize and break down, like it does with strictly added sugars. We are simply running on WAY too much fuel in the industrialized west.
The real problem in the modern food climate or environment is that we are way overloaded with sugars primarily coming from grains. And these grains are not colorful; they are the “browns.” They are carbs without phytonutrients. So what you’ve seen is a gravitation of otherwise nutrient dense fruits becoming more like the carbs that are found in grains that are instead calorically dense. Grains don’t have the phytonutrients to cool down the engines when all these excess calories get dumped into the system because of our addiction to sugars – even fruit sugars. The cells become insulin resistant and that leads to Type 2 Diabetes. And while insulin resistance is actually an attempt by the body to keep all of these excess sugars OUT of the cells where they damage the mitochondria the health effects of all this fuel still take a terrible toll (– and one capable of bankrupting the American Health Care system). It is like our cells are engorged with too much sugar and there is too much fuel and not enough phytonutrient coolant to cool it down.
What about eating fruits out of season?
I encourage people to eat fruits in season. We need those phytonutrients to cool us down. The earth will provide but our grocery stores lack seasonality. Normally we would eat according to the season because there is a natural intelligence to it. When it is hot, we need to eat foods that cool the body, and vice versa. That is why trees generate fruits in the summer and not the winter. Fresh Stop Markets are leading us in the direction of seasonal eating, and that is a great thing.
When it comes to farming, the most common story told is one of land that a farmer can trace back through many generations of his or her family.
Growing up on the land you farm gives you an advantage when it comes to farming because you have long-standing knowledge of what that land has done in the past, how it has been used, and what it is capable of. But what happens when you are brand new to a piece of land?
For Joseph Monroe, he’s not new to farming but he is still in the getting-to-know-you phase at his farm, Valley Spirit in Henry County, which he has been on for just three years.
“I didn’t do much the first year, but I did grow up in the region so I knew a lot about it,” he said. “I knew a lot from similar properties. I knew what the soil types could do. There are definitely some special things about this farm that I had to figure out that were different, but I had a good start, I had a good leg up.”
He said farmers need to be observant in the beginning and listen to the land rather than try to force their will on it. Doing so allows them to learn where it floods, where the wind blows in, and simply how it works under various conditions. Having that knowledge can help you avoid preventable disasters.
“It’s so many little things that compound” Monroe said of learning your land. “One of the things I learned about this farm is that I had to do raised beds; this soil just doesn’t drain very well. If I don’t do raised beds, things might get flooded once or twice (a season).”
Working the soil deeply and raising it up allowed him to avoid losing any plants when several days of rain bucketed his farm in late May.
“I didn’t lose any crops,” he said. “If someone was growing on flat ground on this farm, their crops would have been under water. So just draining the water off, finding a way to do that was important.”
Monroe said he is slowly learning the best way to use his 118-acre farm.
“Most of this farm is pasture, it’s good for animals,” he said. “Only one acre is set aside for vegetables, and 117 acres are for cows and pigs. I had to learn how grass grows and how to mob graze, and how to finish beef with only grass.”
It’s been quite an education for someone who had never owned a cow before. “Now we have 50-60 in a year-and-a-half, which is going from zero to 60 really fast,” he said. “It all came from observing for a little bit.”
Water also has been part of Monroe’s learning curve.
“We don't have city water out here, so just figuring out how to get water from the pond into a drip irrigation system,” has been a challenge, he said. “I had to set the whole system up; I didn’t know how to do that.”
Monroe said community has been invaluable in getting his farm up and running.
“Another important thing was learning how important it is to have neighbors and a community when you come to a new place,” he said. “There are just some times when you need help, you can’t just do it alone.”
Like any treasured family keepsake, seeds for heirloom fruits and vegetables have been preserved, protected and passed down through generations so others may continue to enjoy them the way they were meant to be.
“Heirloom fruits and vegetables are a sequence of genetics that haven’t changed in 50 years, or 100 years, or 200 years,” said Josh Orr of La Minga Cooperative Urban Farming in Prospect. “The genetic composition of that vegetable is the same as it was a long time ago.”
He said farmers will look for certain traits when growing produce and when they find them, they work to continue to reproduce them season after season.
“The reason that is important as a trait in fruits and vegetable, those genetics often have the ability to produce, for example, a tomato, which has such a different flavor than any tomato you will find at the grocery store,” Orr said. “It was bred over 1,000 years and when they finally found something really amazing 100 years ago, the Cherokee Purple tomato for example, instead of changing those genetics any further, someone said, ‘Hey, this has amazing flavor, it has amazing color, it grows really well, it has amazing disease resistance, let’s keep this, let’s preserve this genetic code.’”
Jenny Vaughn of Pink Elephant Farm in Henry County, said it is difficult for heirlooms to be grown on a large scale.
“In most cases, the varieties we know as heirlooms were saved and selected for flavor and/or regionally specific adaptabilities,” she said. “As gardening and agriculture changed, other considerations such as durability in shipping and yield became more prevalent, while flavorful heirloom varieties usually do not yield as well as newer varieties and can sometimes be more susceptible to diseases.
Orr said produce grown in an industrial setting are bred for different traits. “Can these things be grown in massive quantities, to withstand being sprayed with very toxic chemicals? Can it withstand being in a truck for 10 days, and can it stand being refrigerated,” Orr asked. “Those are traits that are really important to an industrial system, but are those traits important to the people eating the food? Often times it’s not.”
He said heirlooms weren’t bred to be that way. “They were bred to be an amazing tomato that’s really good to eat and really good to grow with organic methods. It’s really just the difference in intentions.”
And when grown where they were bred, heirloom seeds can produce amazing results.
“In Kentucky, there are a lot of these varieties that produce much better,” Orr said. “At La Minga for example, we grow an heirloom garlic that my friend Brian grew for five years in Kentucky, but he got it from his neighbor who had grown it for 20 years in Kentucky, and they got it from their neighbor, but they don’t know how long they’ve had it. Since the story for this garlic began, we haven’t bred it, we haven’t changed it, we haven’t bought new seeds from Maine, we haven’t crossed it with anything else, and it grows so much better than any other garlic I’ve tried.”
Vaughn, who farms with her partner, Justin Owings, said heirlooms are more than just a great tasting alternative.
“We like the idea of participating in the historical aspect of heirloom vegetables, learning the stories behind certain varieties, and learning the culinary traditions that often surround them,” she said. “In a small farmstead, it’s helpful for us to learn which cabbage was understood to be a fresh eating cabbage, or a storage cabbage, or the best one for turning into sauerkraut.”
Beyond the Dinner Table: Childhood dreams realized through New Roots Fresh Stop Markets and Community Unity
With the expansion of fresh food insecure communities in many neighborhoods in Louisville, community organizing is more important than ever. Community organizing is what brings people together to create something greater than themselves—a collective of willpower capable of creating the progress that gives a community life and good memories. For Smoketown Fresh Stop Market Farmer Liaison and renowned chef, Mark Hoosier, the collective for him is New Roots. This is a story of how a chance meeting between a 17-year old budding chef and a food justice organizer worked to have an impact beyond the dinner table.
Mark was twelve when he first started cooking in his own kitchen. Although, culinary arts peaked his interest long before. “As a toddler my mom was going to school and working so I stayed with my Aunt,” Mark said. Mark spent his time with his Aunt sifting through cookbooks and writing down recipes that he wanted to cook at home. “Eventually I took it upon myself to get into the kitchen on my own. I would go grocery shopping on my own and point out the ingredients I wanted to use to my mother.”
Shively is Mark’s childhood home. He grew up there after moving from City View with his mother. “Like anywhere [City View] had its own issues,” Mark said. One could say moving to Shively was Mark’s turning point. He attended Western High School and enrolled in the culinary arts program where his love for cooking peaked. “During the introductory course, you’re learning things like how to make cookies and brownies. As you go through the years, the class gets smaller. The chef instructor decides who’s ready to be in the program—who is actually learning from this, and who is just here to eat.”
As Mark approached senior year, he was excited to take up a cook position in the mock restaurant just across the hall from the cooking classroom. Here, the students, typically seniors, would create a menu for the week, and sell the food to teachers and faculty members. “One thing that stood out the most was the raviolo that I had made,” Mark said. It was my first time making it. It's a larger ravioli with a mixture of feta cheese, herbs, cream.”
The Western High School Culinary Arts Program is also where Mark met his longtime friend, Nikkia Rhodes. During their junior year, New Roots Director Karyn Moskowitz met with the class and invited them to do a cooking demo at then Wellington Fresh Stop Market.
Mark explains, “The very first Fresh Stop Market that I cooked at would be the Shively Fresh Stop Market when it was still at the Wellington Elementary location. I was there cooking with my high school since we had a culinary arts program and it was my junior year; I was 17.” Mark, with the help of his culinary peers made a butternut squash pasta dish. “We don't produce anything that tastes poor,” Mark laughs. “Everyone seemed to love the dish. It was likely the most labor intensive dish I've seen prepared for a Fresh Stop Market.”
Soon after, Mark was tagged for an internship at Texas Roadhouse. But Karyn and her colleague at New Roots, Angelo Boone, saw something different in Mark’s future. Angelo remarked, “He was only 17 and making zucchini sushi. I could see this was a special young man, who just needed the right mentor to unleash his creative potential as a chef.” Angelo connected Mark to Hillbilly Tea Chef Karter Louis. Mark started as a dishwasher, but under the tutelage of Chef Arpi, he soon advanced to sous chef. That gig led him and Nikkia to the kitchen of Chef Ed Lee (of Milkwood and 610 Magnolia), and YouthBuild, and a yearlong culinary internship. Nikkia and Mark ended up working together at a restaurant called Millwood, owned by Chef Ed Lee. There was a single day where two of the cooks we absent—no call, no show. Both Nikkia and Mark stepped up to the plate, together. “It was the busiest time of the year. We were both forced onto the hotline, and it was absolutely hellish.” Mark said. “But we got through it. From there it was just really rigorous and we were there to be each other's rocks and keep each other safe. It really showed how hectic and stressful the restaurant industry could be.”
Today, Mark is getting ready to become executive chef at Ed Lee’s new restaurant on 4th Street, Whiskey Dry. To tithe back to New Roots as a volunteer farmer liaison made perfect sense to Mark, not only to “pay it back,” but to also pay it forward by becoming a representative for his Smoketown community. “I have learned a great deal about community organizing from New Roots,” Mark said. “I find that oftentimes it's easy to perceive a community as disconnected within itself but it's very much the opposite.” In other words, New Roots is the glue that often times works to bring the connectedness that does exist out into the open, and leverage it to not only build a food justice movement, but to build careers as well.
Beyond the Silo: If grocery store tomatoes had their own soap opera, it would be called “The Bland and the Beautiful.”
Grown for looks and not taste, these tomatoes are often the opposite of home-grown and organically grown tomatoes – sometimes “ugly,” available in every shade of the rainbow, and with a taste that can only be authentically produced in the summer.
Sherry Hurley, owner of Farm to Fork Catering, said the reason for that is that store-bought tomatoes may have been harvested as long as three weeks before actually making it to someone’s plate.
“A lot of tomatoes, because they need to be ripe when they arrive at the grocery store, are actually harvested when they’re green and then they’re refrigerated, which can also affect the texture, the smell, and the flavor of the tomato,” she said. “When people say it has that mealy texture or it tastes like cardboard, that’s how that happens.”
Alaina Tobbe, produce manager for Ashbourne Farms, said when tomatoes are picked before they are ripe, it means their sugars have not had time to develop, robbing them of much of their cherished flavors.
“They’re really pretty and they’re flawless, but their taste isn’t the same,” she said. “The ones you grow yourself, even if you pick them when they’re starting to turn red, they have more sugars, they’ve had more time to develop and ripen, and that helps their flavor so much. And even if they have flaws, like their skin starts to split, they may not look as pretty, but they taste so much better.”
Tomatoes, like many fruits and vegetables, are 70-90 percent water, and once they are removed from the vine begin to lose moisture and nutrients.“So the goal, in terms of flavor, food safety, and nutritional value, is to eat a tomato that is harvested as closely to the time you are going to eat it as possible,” Hurley said. “Obviously, if you have a garden at home, you can harvest it and eat it immediately, which is by far the best when it’s still warm and at the peak of ripeness.”
She said in her experience, tomatoes brought to markets like Fresh Stop Markets and farmers’ markets are generally picked the previous day, making them the freshest option next to growing your own.
“And ideally, you want local, organic tomatoes,” Hurley said. “Again, because tomatoes are made up of so much water, the pesticides can be more prevalent in vegetables that are thin skinned.”
And being able to get beyond the 4-6 types of tomatoes typically offered in stores is an even bigger incentive to grow your own or look for them outside of grocery stores.
“There are hundreds of varieties available and to limit yourself to 4-6 red kinds that don’t have much flavor in the grocery stores, really, is to not experience tomatoes in my opinion,” Hurley said.
Tobbe said Ashbourne specializes mostly in heirloom tomatoes, of which there are endless varieties, from slicers to cherry tomatoes to Romas – and the demand is growing.“Looking at the orders we’ve gotten this week, I’m definitely going to try to up production next year if I can manage to find the greenhouse space,” she said.
And when it comes to the best way to eat tomatoes, that question has as many answers as there are varieties. Tobbe said she prefers hers either diced up on a taco or sliced on a turkey sandwich. For Hurley, it’s hard to beat a good BLT – unless, as she said, you fry an egg to put on top of it and make it a breakfast sandwich!