By Rob Gray
OK, OK, I admit it. I’m a snob, a food snob, more specifically, a food ingredient snob. I’m not sure how it happened, but I blame my mother. You see, she grew up on a farm in an age before the use of chemicals, container transportation and warehouses, and GMOs. Living on a farm, she learned as a child what each food ingredient was supposed to taste like.
To this day, mom will tell you that the tomatoes grown in California (where my mom lives) are no match for the tomatoes that grew in New Jersey when she was a kid. Heck, they used to eat tomato sandwiches. Can you imagine? Today, nobody would even think to eat a sandwich with only those tasteless, flavorless red thingies that look good and pretend to be tomatoes. Ah, there I go again, being a snob. But you see, it’s not my fault.
My mom was a good cook. I know, I know, every kid says that about their mom, but mine really was, in very special ways. First, she shopped differently than most of the other moms. When I was a kid, I saw many moms pushing these huge overfilled carts up to the cash register. My mom shopped more often and in more places, and usually only purchased a small number of items.
My mom wanted to eat fresh food, not week old stuff. Second, other moms planned their meals well in advance and bought the ingredients necessary to make them. My mom certainly had a list of necessary items to buy, but she examined the fresh produce, meat and dairy offerings and determined what was good, before deciding what she would make for dinner. Third, some of our food was grown in our own backyard. Like my mom, I learned what fresh produce tasted like. (Was I just supposed to blot it out of my memory? And anyway, it was my mom’s idea.) I don’t recall any of our neighbors having a backyard garden. Fourth, even 50 years ago there were frozen dinners and processed foods that many families bought to save time. My mom served mostly fresh food: meat, potatoes or other starch, steamed vegetables, and a salad. And fifth, my mom prepared our meals without all of the fancy sauces and flavorings. She thought that if your meal was made from fresh, delicious, high-quality ingredients, you didn’t need to hide it under ketchup, BBQ sauce, mayo, heavy dressings, etc.
So with all of that going on every day at home, how was I supposed to turn out? Was I supposed to pretend that spraying neurotoxins and dumping chemical fertilizers on food was somehow good for people or maybe the soil? Was I not supposed to notice when the peas weren’t sweet, but old and crusty? Should I just ignore it when fruits and vegetables are picked under-ripe, or worse, some awful mixture of under-ripe and over-ripe? How about when the stuff is just plain old? I’m sorry, but it looks like dreck. I’d have to be starving to get that into my mouth. You can plainly see that this is all my mom’s doing. And since I was a kid, I’ve gotten worse because it has become more and more difficult to find good food.
Food supplies have gone from being locally produced without chemicals to needing chemicals and a national/international distribution system using trucks and containers for transportation to and from refrigerated warehouses. How does this affect the quality of your produce you may ask? The answer is that the seeds for the delicious high-quality produce that had been developed over generations didn’t work so well with this new distribution system. So, new varieties were developed, that could endure rougher handling with increased shelf life, to replace the delicious high-quality ones. These new varieties may have looked a lot like the older varieties, but they surely didn’t taste nearly as good. In fact, they were often rather tasteless which makes me wonder if they lack the vitamins and minerals of the older varieties.
The wonderful complex flavors, aroma and overall deliciousness were thus sacrificed for durability and shelf life. (Translation: The new system replaces our beloved varieties delivered fresh, with bland or tasteless ones that look fresh, but in reality, are old.) Really, how stupid are we? (I don’t think I need to answer that.) Is it any wonder why little Johnny doesn’t want to eat these newly created varieties? Heck, I don’t want to eat them either. Does that make little Johnny a snob? And maybe that explains why more and more people are eating more and more highly processed, highly flavored, highly salted (or sugared) foods.
So what’s a father to do, especially if his kids have serious food issues and the foods he knows his kids should eat no longer have the rich, delicious taste and aroma he remembers when he was a kid? Should he just pretend that everything is OK with the lousy low-quality foods that are mass marketed today? NO! You see this snob (Did I just say that?) decided to do something about it. I wanted to live in a place where a wide variety of delicious high-quality crops would grow using some of the heirloom seeds that I grew up with.
A few years ago, I started looking for a place where I could develop a sustainable commercial permaculture farm. After a long search through California, Central America and finally South America, I decided to do the project in Ecuador. (See “What was I thinking when I decided to move to Ecuador”) One of the big draws for me in addition to the Ecuadoran people and the beautiful weather and landscape, was the promise of all of that great produce that was featured on multiple expat blogs. It was only later that I discovered the reality of that promise to be quite the opposite and you didn’t need to be a snob to discover that.
Starting a farm is no easy task and early on I did a lot of traveling around Ecuador looking at farms, fruit trees, vegetable crops, you name it. I visited many different mercados and shops in many areas of the country and surprisingly found that the produce everywhere I went was remarkably similar and mostly of poor quality. In general, low-quality varieties were grown using chemicals, much of it was harvested either under-ripe or over-ripe, it often looked like it had been dragged behind a truck, and, for a small country, the produce seemed remarkably old, frequently rotten. I would say that much of the food I saw in the shops and mercados would not even be put on the shelves in the U.S., and Europeans are even more demanding. And, now that I think about it, I realize that my mom is even more demanding than that, which she then passed onto me. So you see, it was all her fault.
Now, let me be clear about the quality of produce in Ecuador. What I said above does not apply to the Ecuadoran fruit that goes for export. My son Jourdan, who is in the export business will tell you that Ecuador has some of the finest fruit in the world. And believe me, he knows. He wouldn’t export fruit he didn’t like. Now that I think of it, he is a lot like me, kind of a chip off the old snob. Now you may want to blame me for that. But from the examples above, you can plainly see, I didn’t start it, I just kind of passed it along. And, by the way, what we’re looking for isn’t unreasonable. We are only asking for four measly things from our food:
* Sustainably Grown – Grown without chemicals in soil that improves over time
* High Quality – Flavorful, delicious and nutritious, a delicious way to eat healthy
* Fresh – Tastes like it was picked out of your own backyard garden
* Ripe – Picked properly when it is ready to be harvested and handled with care
See, is that so unreasonable? OK, so maybe it is a lot to ask. But that’s what we want.
So now you have the whole picture, three generations of snobs and, of course, you know where it all started. I have only one more thing to say, “Thanks Mom, you’re the greatest!”
Rob Gray runs the Gran Roca Project, (www.granroca.net), a sustainable commercial permaculture farm on a landmark property in the Yunguilla Valley, southwest of Cuenca. High quality tree fruits, berries, and a large variety of both native and heirloom vegetables and herbs are produced with animals also integrated into the mix.