I recently visited the Milwaukee Public Museum with my family. I enjoyed the displays showing the many various cultures of the world. From the Masai of Africa to the Inuit of the North, many successful cultures have had many different traditions and diets. This fact shows the incredible adaptability of humans to their local environments and available food choices. Is there any other species who can thrive on such a wide variety of foods? In the Native American display, I was struck by the abundance of foods from the Americas or “New World.” The display below shows corn, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, legumes, squash and other fruits alongside the grains of Europe.
Even this display does not reflect the full diversity of what was once available to nourish human bodies and palates. So many thousands of foods have already become extinct in our current homogenized culture of refined foods and standard varieties of fruits and vegetables. A smaller percentage of people are farming or even growing gardens than ever before. As more people rely on supermarkets for their food, food scientists have stepped in to create varieties of fruits, grains and vegetables that can be mass produced, stored and shipped long distances.
If you are reading this blog, you have probably already decided to improve the diversity of your diet. This is where farmers’ markets can help. Many heirloom varieties of potatoes, apples, tomatoes, etc. only lost favor because they didn’t ship well or store well. Many of these plants were not only nutritious but also tasty and versatile for home use. At a farmers’ market, shoppers can purchase foods that were just picked within the last 24 hours. These products will be at their peak of flavor and nutrition. The market also allows farmers to grow and sell heirloom varieties that may not be found in regular grocery stores.
Another benefit to heirloom varieties, is the ability to save seeds from one season to the next. Heirloom fruits and vegetables come from seeds that have been saved from season to season over many years, rather than hybridized. This gives farmers both independence and cost savings. The direct farm to consumer interface that occurs at farmers’ markets gives us the opportunity to offer suggestions, an opportunity we don’t get at most grocery stores. If you liked that tart strawberry or juicy tomato you got last week, be sure to let the farmer know. You as a consumer can participate in promoting species diversity by choosing heirloom varieties and offering helpful feedback. You can also ask questions. “I like the look of this tomato, but will it make good spaghetti sauce?” “I don’t plan to eat this right away. How long will it keep?” Since most farmers eat the produce they grow, they can be valuable resources for questions related to cooking and preserving food.
With the Janesville Farmers Market less than a month away, I can’t wait to see what kind of variety our farmers will have in store for us this year. Follow this blog for seasonal recipes and tidbits throughout the coming season. See you at the market!