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I have friends who hate grocery shopping. They complain about it, do it as seldom as possible and as a consequence tend to eat poorly. They eat more restaurant food, more fast food and less fresh produce. I believe they just don’t know where to shop. Buying local items and local food from local producers is more than a mere financial transaction; it’s a soulful act that feeds the spirit as well as the body.

It’s much more fun to shop at a local farmer’s market than it is to shop at a supermarket. You meet and buy from local artisans who create their own unique products. They all have stories about how they started their businesses, how their items are lovingly made, where their inspiration comes from. Sometimes it’s a family affair. My friend Susan who makes beautiful hand-spun and hand dyed yarn from the wool of her own sheep is ably assisted by her 9 year old granddaughter.

There is a profound satisfaction in buying from the source and having something unique and special. Handmade objects have a quality that is not found in mass market items from China. Shopping like this is a social experience which helps ameliorate the feelings of isolation and impersonality plaguing modern life. Spending money at home supports the local economy and gives back to the community in a way that giving money to a chain store does not.

Locally grown produce is healthier because it doesn’t have to be picked early so it can be shipped for 1500 miles. Food that matures on the vine has more time to absorb minerals and nutrients from the soil. It’s juicier and more flavorful as well as more nutritious. You are a lot more likely to find vine-ripened produce on a table at a local farmer’s market than at even the most expensive specialty grocery stores.

More than that, you can talk to the people who grow your food. You can find out what type of plants they grow, what kind of pesticides they use, what their attitude is towards the environment.

Two years ago, I met a delightful couple at our local farmer’s market. Their passion was heirloom tomatoes and they had tomatoes I did not know existed. They knew the origins and history of each of their heirlooms and were eager to share their knowledge. They also shared how to prepare and save the seeds for planting.

I bought six of their beauties and took them home for dinner. The tomatoes were all shapes, sizes and colors ranging from light pink to a deep dark greenish-purple. I carefully diced them and extracted as many seeds as I could. That night we dined on the most flavorful fresh Pico de Gallo I have ever tasted.

I prepared the seeds following their directions and refrigerated them for the winter. In the spring, we started some of these precious seeds indoors in small pots.   Big Rainbow, Caspian Pink, Hungarian Ox heart, Paul Robeson, 117 and Black Krim plants emerged from the soil, strong and vigorous. Having never planted these heirloom tomatoes, I did not know what to expect.

What I got was the best tomato harvest ever. Our pride and joy was a 26 ounce Big Rainbow with beautiful stripes of pink, yellow and green.26 oz big rainbow tomato

The tomatoes were sweet and succulent and juicy and amazingly flavorful. The plants kept bearing fruit until frost and I filled the freezer with enough tomatoes to last until the next year’s harvest.

Family and friends enjoyed the heirlooms too.

Of course I saved more seeds. After that experience, I started seeking out other heirloom varieties. This year we added Cherokee Purple, Coustralee, Golden Sunburst, Green Sausage, Pink Brandywine and Mr. Stripey. Commercial hybrid tomatoes have their own strengths and uses but the flavor, variety and fun of heirlooms is unmatched. I probably would have discovered heirlooms eventually but meeting this couple at the farmer’s market jump started the process and shortened the learning curve.

When is the next farmer’s market in your area?

Pico de Gallo

6-8 fresh tomatoes, finely chopped

½ Vidalia onion, finely diced

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced

½ cup chopped cilantro

Juice of 1-2 fresh limes

Salt to taste

Add all ingredients to bowl. Refrigerate. For best flavor, let sit 2-3 hours before serving. Pico keeps several days (although it never lasts that long at my house)