Things I Like: Fairview Gardens’ Community Supported Agriculture

We and our housemates joined the Fairview Gardens CSA at the beginning of last year, which means that we get a share of the farm’s produce. Once a week they set out boxes with a variety of vegetables, and we grab some of each or stick stuff we don’t want in the trade box. Then we pull stems and blemished stuff out of the discard box and go feed them to the goats, which is Rebecca’s favorite part of the experience.

I’d been trying to buy more things at the farmers’ market pretty much forever, but that never clicked. Getting a share of food at the farm every week clicked big time, and it changed the way I cook. The first thing is that I got more creative. I have trouble coming up with dinner ideas out of the blue, with the whole world of cuisine to choose from, and anyway, I don’t have time to be consulting recipes constantly. That means that when I got most of my vegetables from the grocery store, I ended up defaulting to the same meals a lot. Having a fixed set of vegetables I need to incorporate gives me a different starting point for menu planning, and it’s one that makes it easier to think creatively.

The CSA also pushed creativity via culinary boredom. After the second or third week of beets, I got tired of eating them in salads and started integrating them into stirfries and curries like I normally make. Now, I’d been worried about just that kind of situation–what if I get sick of having the same vegetables all the time?–but it turned out it wasn’t so much the ingredient I was sick of as the meal I was putting it in. So I started to really think about the flavors and textures of the produce I was working with, so that I could do new things with it. Even when I fucked up a meal, I still felt relatively okay about it. I mean, I was working with constraints, people! I had to use these beets. Most of the dishes I made were good, though, because I’d learned the ingredients’ properties in the course of getting bored with them. One time I made a pumpkin stew that was a cross between curry and mole–both stews thickened with nuts and using some of the same spices–and I have no idea if anyone else has done it before, but it won’t be the last time I make it. The CSA has also gotten me hooked on ingredients I rarely or never used before, like fava greens, turnips, and celery. A lot of new dishes came out of last year, and I’m looking forward to revisiting them this year.

As I become more aware of what my vegetables are doing in meals, I enjoy cooking and eating them more. CSA produce is tastier than grocery store produce maybe three quarters of the time, but I think that the level of attention I’m bringing contributes to my enjoyment more than strict quality difference. That’s probably why farmers’ markets didn’t convert me before.

Then there was another set of changes. Once I started cooking from the mindset of “I have this, let’s see what I can do with it,” I started using radish greens, leek greens, fennel and chard stems, even carrot tops–all vegetable parts I would’ve discarded before. I’m not sure this is always an improvement, per se, but it’s a change in aesthetic. Food from recipes and from restaurants, with their expectations of uniformity, is starting to seem oddly neat and controlled to me, like running into formal gardens when you expect a forest. Being a mother has gotten me less fond of orderly institutional structures and more interested in following processes, in watching the quirky ways things grow. And that points to another way the CSA has changed me: I’m starting to approach vegetables as plants (!) instead of as standardized products that fit into standardized recipes. I’m starting to become much more interested in gardening, too.

I feel silly that I’m only jumping on this bandwagon now, when I have friends who’ve been there for years. On the other hand, I’m not sure that joining the CSA earlier would’ve had the same effect on me. Ever since I was pregnant with Rebecca and then started nursing her, my body has been more particular about its dietary needs, and that (plus the difficulties of childcare) makes the high-end restaurant food I used to idolize less appealing. If a meal doesn’t satisfy me nutritionally, then the flavors are just a gimmick. I’m also more patient with restricted choices now, whereas before I used to bridle at the idea of not getting whatever kind of vegetable I wanted whenever I wanted it. So I see my experiences of motherhood and cooking from the CSA as connected, but the irony is that I’m not sure the CSA is working for Rebecca. I mean, she likes the goats, but she doesn’t eat leafy green vegetables. I really need to be better about remembering to warm up frozen peas and broccoli for her.

Anybody else see resonances between the way you approach cooking and the way you approach other parts of your life? If you’re part of a CSA, has it affected the way you think about cooking?