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HAIL THE FRESH PRODUCE OF SUMMER

Humans have to put food in their mouths and digest it in order to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to survive. One of the sensible things humans have done is turn this necessity into entertainment.

It would be dull if we provided our bodies what they need with pills or fed ourselves through tubes and needles. We have a good time eating. Except for the food nuts, who don't live any longer than anyone else, people are more concerned with how food tastes than whether it's giving them all the nutrients and vitamins they need.

Most of us are happy eating, but there are also people who are happiest preparing food. We all know the good and the bad cooks in the family. We encourage the good ones with effusive praise and try to keep the bad ones out of the kitchen until it's time to clean up. Every good cook has some bad days, but the bad cooks never have a good one.

My mind often turns to the subject for a column the day before I have to write it. Yesterday, I was in upstate New York and my mind settled, as it so often does, on food. That part of the state has a relatively short growing season, but the Hudson Valley and parts north produce some of the best fruits and vegetables in the world.

Last weekend was the beginning of strawberry season. It reminded me again of how good locally grown food is compared with food shipped in 12 months a year from parts of the country where there's seldom a frost and the growing season is endless. Last winter, strawberries from California were the size of apricots. They looked great bulging from their baskets but were tasteless. The agricultural scientists at the University of California at Davis did it again. They produced a fruit that survives being shipped, looks terrific and is not good to eat.

Many years ago, these researchers came up with a tomato that grew in clearly defined quarters so it was closer to being square than round. This made it possible for shippers to fit more in a box. These were the kind of tomatoes bad cooks put in salads to make them look good. Never mind that they have no taste.

In a grocery store, I'm an incurable optimist. There are mistakes I make repeatedly in my life and one of them is being unable to resist buying what looks like a good melon. There are four or five varieties in most stores now - cantaloupe, honeydew, casaba, Persian, crenshaw, Spanish. I had half a dozen disappointments with cantaloupe from southern Colorado last winter, so when the store advertised Florida melons, I thought they were telling me something. I took one home. It was ripe but tasted like wet white bread.

I'd like to give a melon farmer in southern Colorado a ripe melon grown near our home by a farming family named Hand. Hand melons are what cantaloupes were meant to taste like. Many former presidents had a box shipped to the White House.

If I had all the money I've wasted in my search for a ripe melon, I'd recoup what I've lost in the stock market this year. One problem is that cantaloupes, contrary to what you'd expect, do not ripen and improve once they've been picked. Honeydew melons do improve.

Occasionally, I try a crenshaw, casaba or Persian melon. (Most of them originated in Iran - Persia 2,500 years ago.) They're all more expensive than cantaloupes, but I don't have any better luck with them than with cantaloupes. One of them tastes like cucumber, and I always forget which one it is.

I'm looking forward to a summer without the mediocre fruit and vegetables from out of state. There will be great corn, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries and melons. For a brief six weeks, the proclamation tacked to the tree in front of the local roadside stand will read, HOMEGROWN!

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