Chasing Flavor

Isn’t it all about the taste?

My connection to food is rooted in my connection to the garden. Whether I’ve had a half-acre to cultivate or a few pots to fill with bagged soil, I’ve always grown something edible. I value it as a gift from my grandmother and my father, both dedicated gardeners whose different styles yielded similar results. My grandmother Millie’s relationship to the garden was a pragmatic one. It made little sense to her that anyone would settle for a flavorless tomato picked green, trucked across the country, and ethanol-ripened when all that’s required for fabulous flavor is sunshine, water, and a square foot of dirt. I spent many childhood summers tying Millie’s tomato plants to stakes, picking buckets of berries with her at local u-pick farms, learning to use my nose to detect ripe produce at roadside stands, and climbing the back yard apple tree so she could sauté apples to serve with dinner’s roast.

My father, a talented artist, created gardens that were nourishing to both palate and eye: gorgeous communities of vegetables, herbs, and flowers integrated with sculpture, including a 12-foot totem pole that he hand-carved and painted. I found solace in his carefully planned “rock garden” (similar to a Japanese Zen garden), discovered edible flowers in his English-style cottage garden, and devoured books in the afternoon sun while snacking on cherry tomatoes or bell peppers amid his gorgeous herbs and vegetables. One late night, I accidentally burned down several of his prized tomato plants. (I’m sorry Dad, it wasn’t “neighborhood vandals.” The truth involved grilled cheese over an open fire.) I had never seen anyone so miserable about having to eat a grocery store tomato in August. Maybe that’s the way we should all feel.

At the moment, our culinary culture is filled with a vernacular of folksy buzzwords—garden-to-table and locavore among them—meant to define an emerging eco-consciousness that unites our love of good food with a growing awareness of how it impacts environment, health, and economy. The number of operating farmers’ markets across the country has increased dramatically over the past 15 years—200 percent according to the USDA—and “seasonal” has become the rallying cry among restaurant menus (though for some it’s clearly more a selling point than a commitment to flavor). I respect and applaud these concepts, I do. I’m motivated to shop farm markets as a civic booster for the local economy, and as someone concerned both with nutrition and the environmental impact of mono-crops. But these aren’t the reasons I line my city deck with pots of basil and tomatoes, or get to Findlay Market early on the weekend to ensure I get a bag of just-picked greens or a chubby bundle of asparagus. It’s flavor. I’m a firm believer in the notion that cooking begins in the garden and is finished in the kitchen. The garden provides me a lens through which I perceive the world, and in that view is a return to food where optimal flavor is something we are all used to.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue.

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