What makes it “good”?

Thanks so much to all of you who continue to come out to the Highway 2 farmstand!  Suzanne is officially off for the season, so we will be manning the stand ourselves for what’s left of the year; we’ll be going on a week by week basis, and given the mild temperatures, WE WILL be there this coming Saturday.   Thanks as well for all of you who took advantage of our potato deal: it will be continuing.  $20 for a bushel of field run, unwashed white or red potatoes – please bring your own containers/bags and we’d appreciate you letting us know so that we bring enough.

A lot of you asked how to store potatoes.   Well first of all, they should be kept in the dark.  They turn green in the light (they’re still alive after all) and any green spots you ever see on potatoes should be peeled off: it will give you indigestion.  After that, a steady temperature is helpful, ideally about 4 degrees.  For most of you this will be against the warm wall in your garage or mudroom or perhaps in an unheated part of your basement.  We will be selling potatoes over the winter in smaller portions as well, but given the extra handling the prices aren’t going to be so hot, so clearing out a corner to tuck these away will be well worth it.

Another interesting aspect of focusing on potatoes a little bit is that we get a lot of feedback from our customers about our potatoes.  Overwhelmingly, you point out that our potatoes are *much different* than what you’re used to getting at the grocery store – often we hear that they are much “firmer” and that they take twice as long to cook…  What does this mean?

I’m not quite sure, although regardless I am glad to hear that you are enjoying them.  I don’t know if it is anything we are doing in particular, or that we are growing special varieties or anything (we grow very “mainstream” potato cultivars).  If I had to guess, it would be that we don’t really do any crop protection with our potatoes other than an organic spray for Colorado Potato Beetles for our early crop, and sort of let them just grow… and die (which they do rather quickly thanks to a multitude of diseases they are subject to).   This runs rather contrary to industry standards: potatoes are one of the most medicated crops grown in Canada, treated heavily from the day of planting onwards.  This means incredible yields of potatoes – easily double and even triple what we produce on our farm, but also a sort of “puffy” crop that did not have to contend with the gauntlet of nature on its own.   Perhaps most disconcerting about this is that the insecticides and fungicides they rely on to do this are systemic… which is to say that they don’t simply lie on the surface of the leaf or seed potato, but are actually absorbed and integral to the plant itself (which is why they work so well).  You can read about one such product Movento, from Bayer: the world’s largest agribusiness and pharmaceutical company.

I want to make clear to you though, that the reason a potato farmer does this is not because he is dishonest, bent on making you sick or doesn’t care.  It’s economics.  He has a lot of very expensive land and equipment to pay for, and the only way to do this is by growing as much potatoes as possible.   We are all subject to larger forces, and he is told this is the only way; but I am going off on a tangent…

This question of what makes food “good” is currently what is simmering away on the burner in the back of my mind.   It’s certainly distinct but very hard to define.   Especially when you look at something as homely and bland as a potato… like how can there really be that much of a difference?  When I occasionally peruse the produce section of the grocery store, I am often astounded at the condition of the produce and that a manager actually displayed that stuff with a straight face – or that anyone would think to buy it.

I believe that this lies at the heart of why so many of us find it hard to get excited about cooking: the raw ingredients are often uninspiring to say the least – even just to make a sandwich.   Take another bland, starchy staple like bread.   It is extremely difficult to find good bread (nor is it cheap when you find it) – out here in the sticks it simply does not exist.  In the rural grocery store you have either parbaked bread full of sugar and oil, or mysterious products like Wonderbread, which really represent this ideal of the modern era; wherein we take something as simple and perfect as bread, and try to transform it into an idealized, homogenous, universal, shelf stable facsimile of a product which needed no improvement.

There may be no more divine food than fresh bread, and the main “problem” with bread, of course, is that it goes stale.   This is solved quite simply by eating it and buying more. If that’s too much, we can do things like make french toast, bread pudding, or crostini.  Alternatively, sourdough bread resists staleness owing to the rich microbial goop that covers the strands of gluten, but it is more expensive to produce given the prep times and more elusively, the skills needed to make it. 

Products like Wonderbread, along so much of the modern culinary landscape, is a rejection and (failed) transcendence of basic physical reality.   Bread goes stale, fruit is seasonal, meat and eggs are expensive to produce.  Blights kill potatoes, you need talented people to make good food, and a just in time global food system is really efficient… until it isn’t. 

I like to make shepherd’s pie.  It’s a great dish for winter when I actually have time to cook and it’s something, other than the worcheshire sauce, I can make entirely with ingredients from our farm in the middle of winter: potatoes, hamburger, onions, garlic and carrots.   Just how you prepare this mix of very simple ingredients can produce quite different results.  I don’t try to embellish it too much, just a steady pursuit of the Platonic Ideal of shepherd’s pie: how the meat is browned, how the potatoes are mashed and spread, how much “crust” you put on it in the oven…

Outside of oven temperature, the most important variable here may be our intent.  Am I paying attention?  How do I feel about the eaters of this meal?  Am I thankful for my daily bread?  The answers to these questions will largely inform how we approach our food: both from a practical standpoint in terms of how much we can be bothered to learn about our ingredients and refine our techniques, but more importantly, how much we enjoy the meal itself (and the company we share it with).

Julia Child’s seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, whose dedication reads:

To La Belle France

WHOSE PEASANTS, FISHERMEN, HOUSEWIVES,
AND PRINCES – NOT TO MENTION HER CHEFS –
THROUGH GENERATIONS OF INVENTIVE AND
LOVING CONCENTRATION HAVE CREATED ONE
OF THE WORLD’S GREAT ARTS

is a must if you are interested in this careful and thoughtful handling of simple ingredients.  From the foreword:

Pay close attention to what you are doing while you work, for precision in small details can make the difference between passable cooking and fine food… You may be slow and clumsy at first, but with practice you will pick up speed and style.

Allow yourself plenty of time… If you are not an old campaigner, do not plan more than one or complicated recipe for a meal or you will wear yourself out and derive no pleasure from your efforts. 

A pot saver is a self hampering cook.  Use all the pans, bowls and equipment you need, but soak them in water as soon as you are through with them.  Clean up after yourself frequently to avoid confusion.

Train your hands and fingers; they are wonderful instruments.   Train yourself also to handle hot food; this will save time.  Keep your knives sharp.

Above all, have a good time.

I find it quite telling that most cookbooks and food trends these days are focused on restrictive diets (vegan, keto, carnivore, you name it) and the overcoming of our bodies, or ideological pursuits, rather than *actually cooking food properly* so that you enjoy eating it.  It is a measure of this same disconnection from physical reality that produces Wonderbread or horrific products like SQAUREAT (I’m sorry if I am the person to show you this abomination):

What I find funny (and sad) about these sorts of products is the idea that we need to free ourselves from the perceived drudgery of food preparation and proper meals.  What exactly is so important that you think you are doing with your time, that you believe eating these pucks is going to give you the edge?  I guarantee you that the people to whom this is attractive are extremely physically awkward and very much stuck in their own heads.

Watch Julia Child make an omelette here.  You really cannot do that without being present in the flesh, connecting your eyes, mind and hands to a very careful and time sensitive task.  You actually have to climb out of your neuroses and use the body God gave you to interact with Creation – also known as Normal Human Life.

We have to eat, we ought to do it as absolutely well as we can.  While we’re at it, why not enjoy it and share it with the ones we love?   I double dare you to drop $40 on dirty potatoes, stick them in your garage and absolutely perfect scalloped potatoes (or whatever you like) this winter.  Observe the differences between the white and red potatoes, notice how they change in character in storage, and play with how you treat and handle them and the way it changes your dish.  I mean, what else are you doing?

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