When I first moved to New York I loved everything about it—the energy, the opportunity, the ability to get whatever I needed 24/7. The only thing it was lacking in my mind was a decent grocery store. In fact, the first time I walked into a market near my campus, I was struck by the low lighting, the bruised, paltry produce sitting sadly on the shelves and an overall dinginess that seemed to emanate from aisle to aisle. It was so depressing. Where was the well-lit, expansive Stop & Shop I had grown up with? (This was 1996, years before Whole Foods Market would come calling. At that time the higher end stores like Balducci’s or Citarella were way too expensive for my college student budget.) But seeing as I had few options, I made do with what I could. As my years in New York went on, I began to cook more—for my friends, for my boyfriend, for my colleagues—but I judged my ingredients based on how they looked and what they cost—not on how many miles they traveled to get to me.
Then a couple of years ago, I got an assignment to write about a store in Connecticut called The Smithy, which only sold items that were produced within 30 miles of the shop’s doorstep. While I was doing research for the article, which would also delve into the “eat local” movement, I came across some surprising statistics. For example, locally grown produce is usually sold within 24 hours of harvest. Fruits and vegetables from other states and countries can spend as many as seven to 14 days in transit before they arrive in the supermarket. And while farmers’ markets are on the rise—from 1994 to 2006 the number grew from 1,755 to 4,385 according to the USDA—there are nearly five million fewer farms in the United States than there were in the 1930s. This gave me pause. Then, while I was working on the story, I needed green apples for a turkey burger recipe. The only ones I could find at Whole Foods in mid-July were grown in Chile. I bought them, but I felt really guilty for doing so.
The reason I mention The Smithy story—and my crisis of conscience in the produce aisle—is because both of those experiences completely changed the way I think about the food that my husband and I eat. It wasn’t an overnight shift—I didn’t throw out everything in my kitchen that wasn’t locally grown or organic right away—but I slowly began to make changes. When I shopped at Whole Foods, I actually started to read the signs that identify where all of their produce was grown. If I can buy a tomato that was harvested in New York or New Jersey, rather then one that came from Canada, I do it. (To see what fruits and vegetables are in season in your part of the country check out Sustainable Table). I started frequenting the Greenmarket in Union Square Park and buying produce from local growers. I began eating organic whenever possible. I learned what GMOs are (genetically modified organisms) and I try to support companies like Kettle Foods, Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm, who are committed to producing non-GMO products. Whole Foods Market’s 365 Everyday brand is also a fantastic and affordable way to buy organic, non-GMO foods. (For a list of brands that don’t use GMOS, download The Center For Food Safety’s Non-GMO Shopper’s Guide.) I also, little by little, stopped eating processed foods. And by this I mean anything that comes in a box, bag or a can and doesn’t have a whole food, like potatoes, listed as its first ingredient. You’d be surprised at how many common brands are loaded with chemicals. Next time you’re at the supermarket, read the label on everything you pick up. It’s frightening.
But aside from the positive effects eating a healthy diet has on my body, this “back to basics” approach of baking from scratch rather than a mix, or roasting a vegetable rather than eating one from a can is, for me, an anchor in this fast moving world. I don’t call someone if it’s easier to email them, or write them a letter when I can message them on Facebook, but there’s something soothing about taking the time to roll out dough that I made by hand and then tasting the butter and fresh eggs that went into every bite. I realize that not everyone has the time to bake at whim, but my point is that every little bit helps. If your state is known for its apples, buy ones that were grown there, rather than halfway across the country. Start reading labels. Make the cupcakes from scratch. Get your kids to help you.
As my interest in food piqued, I started a blog, Made By Michelle, where I often post recipes for whatever I’m cooking that day or week. I also let my readers know when I come across a product that I really like or a company that gives food the respect it deserves. Late summer is a particularly plentiful time to visit farmers’ markets in the Northeast and as a result my kitchen has seen an abundance of corn and tomatoes. I used them to make this delicious salsa among other things. Eating local never tasted so good.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I visited the town I grew up in for the weekend. It’s a small town, full of family run farms. When I lived there, I couldn’t wait to leave—to shake off the limitations of small town life, and its faint smell of manure, in favor of the excitement of the big city. But now, I love going back. I love frequenting those farms and perusing the baskets of tomatoes, eggplants and corn, as I think about what I’m going to prepare with my bounty. I don’t even mind the manure.
Tomato Corn Salsa
4 ears of corn, boiled or roasted
2 or 3 heirloom tomatoes, diced
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons red onion, diced
1 teaspoon cumin
A pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 a lime, juiced
1/2 a small jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
Shave corn kernels off of each cob into a bowl. Add the tomato, cilantro, red onion and jalapeno. Then add spices and lime juice. Adjust ingredients to taste. Let sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Serve with tortilla chips.