When I travel, I seek out farmers’ markets and food shops as much as museums and historic sites, hoping for the unique and telling glimpses into a culture offered by hanging about where people buy their food. And so in Montreal this past weekend, yes, the unforgettable Jean-Paul Gauthier show at the Museum of Fine Arts was high on my list of must-do stops, as was the incredible Botanical Gardens, but the Jean-Talon and Atwater Markets as well as the Middle Eastern grocery store, Akhavan, were right up there as well. But unlike my visit to farmers’ markets in LA a few months ago, or the NYC green markets, or the famous markets of Barcelona or Bologna or the street vendors of Fez or Ottavalo, I found myself dismayed as I was being dazzled.
Rarely have I seen such carefully displayed farm products as lined both Jean Talon and Atwater. Cheeses and eggs, berries and beans all primped and ordered, all put together in colorful, pleasing ways. They looked perfect. Unblemished. Ripe. Deeply hued. Every cherry, every pepper.
Vendor after vendor offered what looked to be virtually the same cabbage and cauliflower, strawberries and blueberries, distinguishing themselves by the way they displayed their wares. And how fun it was to look. Even here, where the focus was not on spectacle, as it was in the museum, the urge to entice the eye was in full force. Mind you, most of the vendors were not the growers themselves, and I bet that has something to do with my unease.
For something was wrong.
When I asked whether the vegetables were organically, ecologically grown, the vendors said, no no, to find that sort of thing I must go there, and they pointed to a single stand in the midst of the enormous market. One stand. As I watched the crowd buy all those sprayed strawberries, it was all I could do not to warn them. Not strawberries! Fortunately my French was feeling a bit rusty this weekend, and I wasn’t quite sure I could muster an impassioned speech without sounding like a complete lunatic. And so I just watched. And took some photos. And got steamed.
How complicated it is.
To scold people or inform people or plead with them about the state of our poisoned earth, about the toxins that coat much of their food, (their clothes and their bedding) means little if they cannot afford to buy anything but that which is pumped out by agribusiness. I know this is a problem in my town. In every town. Elizabeth tells of going to a little organic-foods shop in Bologna, walking by an incredibly expensive organic fennel bulb and returning to the big market where she could buy eight for the same price. As a student on a tight budget, she felt she had to buy (and then wash very very carefully) the non-organic. She felt trapped.
But if you have a patch of earth, or a few pots and some soil, you can at least grow your own herbs, perhaps your tomatoes and salad greens. If you have a garden, you have more choices, you can exert some control over your health. And that’s a start.
In addition to expanding and adding much-needed community and neighborhood organic gardens and developing seed-sharing (and seedling-donation) opportunities, we need more local networks of organic gardening mentors, volunteers in the community who will help anyone start a garden, big or small, care for it and then put up the harvest. Although that’s what I do blogging at Eating Well magazine and here, I need to do more than write about food issues and do what I do at Open View Gardens. I’ve got some ideas…more on this soon.
But first things first. When I got home last evening from our trip, I strolled through my big garden and thanked it and my ability to have such a wonderment. And then I made soup. From organic ingredients only, cucumbers and garlic and herbs from the garden that didn’t look as perfect as those at the markets (indeed–they looked real and flawed and fabulous). A cooling soup. A nourishing soup. A calming soup. An incredibly simple one. And it was delicious.
An Organic Riff on White Gazpacho
Ingredients (ALL ORGANIC, if possible)
NOTE: The proportions are meant as a guideline only–switch them around according to what you have on hand and how you like things to taste.
6 cups peeled, seeded cucumbers, cut into chunks (I used several varieties)
1 cup plus 1 TB blanched almonds
1/2 honeydew melon, seeded, peeled and cut into chunks
3/4 cup green or red seedless grapes, plus 2 grapes reserved
2 cloves fresh garlic
dash of champagne vinegar
1 TB minced dill
2 tsp minced mint
zest of one lemon, finely chopped
Optional: half a ripe avocado
1. In a food processor, grind all but 1 TB of the almonds until a fine but loose-grain powder
2. With a mortar and pestle, mash together the garlic with a pinch of coarse sea salt until you have a paste; add a couple of TB olive oil and keep mashing until smooth
3. Into a blender or food processor, place the cucumbers, ground almonds, grapes (keep the 2 reserved aside), melon, garlic paste, dash of vinegar, optional avocado, dill, and mint. Puree until smooth.
5. Toast the reserved almonds in a pan with a little olive oil and hot pepper if you like.
6. When serving, garnish the top of the soup with thin slices of the reserved grapes, shreds of lemon zest, and the toasted almonds, slivered.