Illustrations by Eric Palma.
I met my first New York foodie over twenty years ago, when I was seventeen, hawking “local bananas” at a roadside produce stand in rural New Jersey. It was my first job, and I worked all day on my own. Arriving early in the morning at the little wooden hut, ten miles from the nearest town, I stocked the displays from the refrigerated trailer behind the stand, building tomato and peach pyramids, lugging out watermelons one by one, and wrestling sixty-pound burlap corn sacks. Customers began arriving before I’d opened the shutters; I weighed, bagged and rang up purchases on an old cash register.
My instructions were to claim that all the produce was local, although nothing was or could be local: It was early June in northwestern New Jersey’s Kittatinny Mountains, and the produce had been shipped from warmer parts of the world to the distributor who’d sold it to my boss. But “local” was the magic word hand-painted on our signs; it was what made our customers, most of them New Yorkers driving to country vacation cottages, slam on their brakes and pull over.
For the first time in my life, I heard about the naturalness, tradition and superior flavor of New Jersey produce. “Taste-wise, nothing compares to Jersey Silver Queen,” the New Yorkers declared, clawing at ears of a fat-kerneled, North Carolina-grown supersweet hybrid, all sugar and no corn flavor, nothing like Silver Queen. They tossed the husks on the ground for me to rake up.
“Give me Jersey peaches over Georgia peaches any day.” Those were Georgia peaches they were palming to their kids, whispering, “eat up,” before the fruit had been weighed and paid for.
“I wait every year for the real Jersey tomatoes. You can’t get that country flavor in the city!” They couldn’t get it here, either: These were New Mexican beefsteaks, greased with mineral oil to an enticing sheen and petroleum fragrance. Didn’t they notice the absence of any roses-and-resin tomato-y perfume?
“I hope ‘fresh-picked’ means you picked them yourself.” I looked around me: Did they think I’d gone picking in the state forest, or in one of the new commuter developments?
Not all our customers were like that. I appreciated the friendly, forty-strong motorcycle gang who strapped six sacks of corn and ten watermelons onto their bikes and rode off to a Stokes State Forest picnic. I liked the trucker who always bought ten pounds of fruit to eat on his bi-monthly West Coast crossing; I happily sorted ripe and less ripe fruit into “Eat Today,” “Eat Tomorrow” and “Eat In the Following Days” bags for him.
But I dreaded the New Yorkers. They were my first foodies, a type that, until then, I hadn’t known existed. Growing up in a middle-American, meat-and-starch-eating household, I had never before met people with strident opinions about vegetables’ quality, freshness and origins, who would use their children as mules to smuggle forty-cent nectarines to their cars.
Their foodie-ism was the worst kind, all about visual aesthetics, immediate gratification — and bargains. They fetishized the ideal forms of Jersey produce, but had no idea what the real thing looked, smelled or tasted like, much less the state of agriculture in that rapidly developing part of the country. In their quest for perfection, the foodies tried to haggle with me. They squeezed and bruised the tomatoes. They pawed through my displays to find the two prettiest peaches at the bottom, dropping the rest onto the ground. They asked me to pick a pound of the best cherries one by one, to wrap each tomato in a separate plastic bag. They sneaked extra corn into their shopping bags and paid for only a dozen; when caught, they protested that the stand down the road sold baker’s dozens. “Fourteen’s not a baker’s dozen,” I told them. They grumbled all the way to their Mercedes.
Yet I didn’t like cheating them. When questioned about the produce’s provenance, I told the truth. “The tomatoes aren’t from around here, but they did arrive this morning. Local tomatoes won’t be ripe until July.” “The corn’s not local, but it was fresh-picked this morning. Local corn won’t be available until July.”
The foodies argued. “But I bought local Silver Queen from the stand down the road last week!”
I said, “The stand down the road is lying. Local Silver Queen won’t ripen till August.”
They didn’t believe me. They couldn’t bear the challenge to their connoisseurship. Or perhaps they’d rather believe that I was maligning the competition than confront the possibility that they couldn’t buy anything they wanted, whenever they wanted it. They had traveled to Jersey in search of an authentic country food experience, and they’d be damned if they didn’t get it.
Their quest for authenticity didn’t stop there. They asked me, “What are you people doing here? Last year, an American owned this stand.” He still owned it. He had hired me – an Asian-American who didn’t look the part of the rustic local – and a bunch of other kids for the summer. One New Yorker opined, “I’ve been summering here since I was a kid, but people like you keep coming here and buying up the local businesses.” They wanted to know where I came from, originally, and how selling them melons fulfilled my American Dreams. None of the other employees got these questions. Perhaps I spoiled the New Yorkers’ nostalgia for the countryside. To some of them, my provenance was far more suspect than that of the produce.
By then, I had learned to fill a bag of green beans or bulky peaches to the specified quarter pound without a scale. I could pick out flawlessly plump corn cobs without stripping them and smell when cantaloupes had turned from perfect to overripe. But the foodies weren’t interested. They ignored me when I said that, if dewy fresh corn was what they wanted, the best way to keep it so wasn’t to husk it and stow it in the hot trunks of their cars to dry out for the long Sunday night drive back to Manhattan. The idea that I might know something about vegetables that they, with their sophisticated-yet-earthy palates and vaunted vegetable-selecting skills, didn’t, was a disruption to their foodie performance. They never even learned that, if you hector a nonwhite teenager about displacing white people’s jobs, she’s going to hide rotten tomatoes in the bottom of your bag.
I started wearing a big straw hat to work. Sales improved.
So, when my boss’s son put up the “local bananas” sign, I let it alone. A few foodies laughed. A few questioned me accusingly: How could the bananas be local? “Greenhouses,” I said one day. “Miles and miles of greenhouses. In Andover Township.” The word “township” got them; it was so quaint.
For a long time, I despised New Yorkers. I almost wound up despising fresh produce, too, because the foodies’ swooning over flavors and experiences was so pretentiously ignorant.
But a few regular customers came to my rescue. It started when an old man in dungarees and a baseball cap parked his pickup truck and asked me, “How local are these local red peppers of yours?”
I sized up the way he was sizing me up and said, “They’re local to Mexico.”
He laughed, then bought one. He told me he was a retired farmer.
I started looking out for, and chatting with, other farmers, most of them retired. They knew that the stand was a fraudulent imitation of the farm stands that used to belong to the Garden State’s mostly vanished family farms. They knew that the cherries came from Washington, the grapes from California, and that they were grown on corporate holdings, not family businesses. They also knew that, until the Jersey produce ripened, they would have to buy what was available. They didn’t ask stupid questions, interrogate me on my immigration status, or steal; they had every reason to hate my job and what it stood for but always treated me with kindness and humor. So I always fetched them the ripest, most perfect fruits and vegetables.
In August, the farmers returned for the first fruits of the Jersey harvest: irregular yellow peaches, all pit surrounded by a skimming of delirious, complex flavor. Jersey tomatoes, lumpy, gold-and-red, cobwebbed with scars, bursting with winy juice. And when the Silver Queen finally ripened, my first old farmer paid me for a single ear, then neatly wadded the husk into the trash bin, and bit into the corn like an apple: raw, sweet, milky and unadorned.
The New Yorkers thought that the Silver Queen was too small and skinny, the price too high. They were used to blushing peaches; yellow ones looked unripe to them, regardless of the ambrosial fragrance. The tomatoes were ugly and weird, and they were sick of raw tomatoes, anyway. At closing time, the farmers brought buckets to buy the squeezed, unbought, unloved Jersey fruits for canning.
The farmers knew food. They taught me about seasons, vegetable varieties, sugar content, and that you could knock on a watermelon all you pleased, but the mark of ripeness was the big, pale, dirty spot. They taught me that there was, in fact, something special and ephemeral about fruits and vegetables rushed to the table from the field. Those harvests were worth celebrating, and so was delayed gratification, patience with the seasons, and making do outside them. The farmers taught me about Slow Food, a decade before I ever heard of the movement.
By the time I myself became a New Yorker, I was lucky: The farmers were teaching and collaborating with urban foodies at community-supported agriculture groups and the widely expanding greenmarkets. The New York locavores taught me that “local” didn’t mean a quasi-mystical authenticity, or, for that matter, only a special kind of deliciousness, but also a relationship with the people who’ve produced the food, in a sustainable, equitable, regional network of labor and land stewardship. I could now buy honey and stone fruits from a farm just outside my hometown, whose existence I’d never even suspected. I got involved in the day-to-day work of CSAs based in upstate New York and Pennsylvania; the farmers delivered to Brooklyn, redefining “local” again.
Working at the stand, the best moments happened on long, hot, slow Mondays and Tuesdays, in the quiet hours between the lunch and dinner rushes, when I had nothing to do but eat. We were allowed to snack all we liked, so I used to sit on my stool eating a pound of black cherries. Then three slushy, luscious nectarines. Then, for a change, a half pound of green beans, and two cucumbers. There was no bathroom, no hose to wash with. My hands were filthy from the corn sacks and road dust; I ate the dirt along with the fruit. I don’t know how I lasted those all-day shifts without giving myself a desperate case of the runs, but I did. I learned that, notwithstanding William Carlos Williams, a plum straight from the icebox is not nearly as delicious as a sunned, blood-warm plum. And that nothing smells as good as a heap of thin-skinned, bursting tomatoes in August, except a cantaloupe when the softened stem end exudes a droplet of honey-like juice.
Thanks to the farmers who have taught and fed us with such patience and skill, we New Yorkers can have that experience in our own city. But now, the produce really is local.