Baptiste's produce

Baptiste’s produce at last week’s market

What a week. My eldest, Joseph, was home briefly to accompany my youngest, Fiona, to college. There was packing, unpacking, parties, hellos, goodbyes, car trips and ocean swims. Amidst it all, I was feeding everyone.

One night I set a plate of tomatoes on the table, dressed simply, with finely sliced shallots, extra-virgin olive oil, fleur de sel and basil leaves picked from outside the kitchen door. We all served ourselves and, bread in one hand and fork in the other, began to eat.

cherry tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes fresh from the market

“Mom,” Joe said, sitting up even straighter than he usually does. “These are the best tomatoes I’ve ever had. If I could get tomatoes like this I’d eat them every day.” “You don’t know how hard it is to get good food like this in America.

He had it right and wrong. They were the best tomatoes, and I do know how hard it is to find anything like them in the U.S. I remember when I lived there spending hours in the car in search of gorgeous ingredients. It’s what led me to write a book called the Farmhouse Cookbook in 1987.

DOING THE RESEARCH

To do the research I tried to learn everything about agriculture (from forever until now), then I set off in a small car across the U.S.A. to meet the American farmer.

I was focused on small family farms, yet I wanted to tell the farming story so I visited industrial farms too. I sat with a biodynamic farmer in North Dakota as he explained about vortex’s and cow horns, picnicked with communal farmers in Arkansas eating hamburgers made with meat from their cows. I learned about sorghum and tasted it in cookies, discovered that there are dozens of lentil varieties and you can get kids to eat them by putting them on pizza.I learned about “farming by telephone” when I heard a man in a suit and tie who called himself a farmer make a call from his corporate office to tell the farm manager “Remember it’s May 14, field 23 needs a shot of pesticides “I visited a farm in Maine where ingenious systems made it possible to farm year round (http://fourseasonfarm.com/) and farms in Florida where a strong wind blew over fruit tree because there was so little soil to keep it upright, because trees aren’t supposed to be grown in what used to be swamp.

I learned about “farming by telephone” when I heard a man in a suit and tie who called himself a farmer make a call from his corporate office to tell the farm manager “Remember it’s May 14, field 23 needs a shot of pesticides.

I visited a farm in Maine where ingenious systems made it possible to farm year round (http://fourseasonfarm.com/) and farms in Florida where a strong wind blew over fruit tree because there was so little soil to keep it upright because trees aren’t supposed to be grown in what used to be a swamp.

I learned that you could sustain a family on 80 acres, met farmers who had grown up on their farms, others who eschewed the urban life to discover early mornings, little sleep, mountains of paperwork, and chance.

I weathered a freak snow storm on a Montana farm, playing cards and eating home-made caramels, and went to farm conferences. I ate sunflower seeds in a tractor cabin to stay awake hour after tedious hour as the farmer tilled miles of fertile soil. I learned about subsidies and justice, big tractors and hard packed soil, pesticides and the aftermath of World War II on agriculture, prairie land and good hearts.

THE BEGINNING OF THE FARM TO TABLE MOVEMENT IN AMERICA

That was a time when farm to table was what happened in FrancE.  Organic food was generally considered dirty, and local and seasonal were trends yet to be revived. Alice Waters had begun her food and garden pilgrimage, and farmer philosophers like Masanobu Fukuoka and Wendell Berry were beginning to be heard.By the end of my

By the end of my research I was filled with hope and burdened by discouragement. Hope because so many were working so hard to revive tired soil, farm sustainably, make a difference, talk about sustainable agriculture and issues associated with it. Discouragement because of greed.

I think of all this because of that plate of tomatoes. And because Joe said he was resigned to the food that he can get easily because he just doesn’t have time to do more. And because his is the plight of many.It motivated me to write this and offer the few tips I can, the same ones I gave to him, along with the suggestion to do the best he can. He argued that good ingredients are expensive even if he could find them. I agreed and wish they weren’t. And suggested they will not always be if we keep putting our money in the hands of the producer.

It motivated me to write this and offer the few tips I can, the same ones I gave to him, along with the suggestion to do the best he can. He argued that good ingredients are expensive even if he could find them. I agreed and wish they weren’t. And suggested they will not always be if we keep putting our money in the hands of the producer.

And then I left him with a quote from Wendell Berry: “I’m more and more concerned with the economic values of such intangibles as affection, knowledge, and memory. A deep familiarity between a local community and the local landscape is a dear thing, just in human terms.”  And a picture of and suggestion for how to make a simple Tomato Salad!

Here are some suggestions, which I hope you’ll find helpful.

Bonne Chance et Bon Appetit!

To find a local farmers’ market: https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets

To join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA where you subscribe to local and seasonal produce) https://www.biodynamics.com/content/community-supported-agriculture-introduction-csa

Join a local food cooperative http://foodforchange.coop/featured/u-s-food-co-op-map/

Shop at stores with a commitment to sustainable, local food

Make a beeline to the local, sustainable produce section of your supermarket and ask questions of the store managers if you don’t find what you want. http://www.gracelinks.org/media/pdf/questions_to_ask_store_manager_ho_20100112.pdf

Simple Tomato Salad

First, find the best tomatoes you can find.  They’ll be great in most regions until the beginning of October, so make this salad now!  And remember the baguette…it makes everything better.

Tomato Salad with Baguette

Tomato Salad with baguette

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Simply Delicious Tomato Salad
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8 medium tomatoes, cored, cut in eight wedges
1 large shallot, sliced paper thin
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fleur de sel
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves

  1.  Arrange the tomatoes on a platter.  Strew the shallots over them, then drizzle the whole affair with the olive oil.  Strew the fleur de sel over it.  Either place the whole basil leaves atop the salad, if they’re not too big, or tear them into small, bite-sized pieces and strew them over the salad.    This will serve 4.
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6 Responses to Truth in a Tomato

  1. Nancy Swenson says:

    Thank you Susan for writing about tomatoes. As I live in Seattle, it can be a little dicy getting the kind of dense, sweet tomatoes that we grew on the farm in Iowa many decades ago. I pine for them…just the memory of plucking them warm from the vine, cutting them up into a bowl, adding a sprinkle of sugar and a douse of whole milk…eating them like the fruit that they are. I hope your son comes across some wonderful, homegrown tomatoes when he’s here in the U.S. (By the way, I’ve tried a few recipes from The French Farmhouse Cookbook and they’ve all turned out delicious.) Merci!
    Nancy Swenson

    • Susan says:

      Nancy – keep looking, they have to be there. Funny you mention sugar and milk with tomatoes – my mother always served tomato soup with baby marshmallows and milk. Loved it!

  2. Mark F. says:

    I’m lucky to live in New Jersey (you don’t hear THAT said very often!) because, believe it or not, we really ARE the Garden State! Far away from the refineries and congestion of the northeastern part of the state, we’re famous for our “Jersey Tomatoes”, “Jersey Corn” and “Jersey Peaches”, etc. There’s nothing like ’em! A New Jersey farm market and/or farm stand is a long anticipated site every summer. And, like you, I had a bowl of cherry tomatoes (more like grape tomatoes) and every time I walked passed, I’d eat them like candy. See you for class in April!

    • Susan says:

      Mark – I remember some lovely spots in New Jersey when I worked on the Farmhouse Cookbook, and the tomatoes too. Looking forward to seeing you too!

  3. Carol Guess says:

    This week I will search for best tomatoes I can find at our local Sunday Farmer’s Market ! Thank you for the recipe AND the encouragement !
    Carol G. 🍅 La Jolla

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