This summer I did not eat one good strawberry at the market. Nope, not-a-one. You would think I would be espousing and gushing over the wonderful and incredible produce and ingredients to be found at the Greenmarkets in Honor of National Farmers Market Week. And I could for sure, I’ve had amazing rhubarb, pucker-perfect currants, fairytale eggplants by the bagful, and right at this moment, heirloom tomatoes with the perfume of the full summer sun on their hips, to name a few.
But this spring in the Northeast where I live there was just too much rain. The fields got drenched, and the strawberries came to market late, heavy and swollen with too much water and not enough sunshine in ‘em. To be fair these mild and sensible thumb size strawberries from the Union Square Greenmarket still beat the taste buds off of your average overgrown, hollow and white-centered supermarket clam-shell variety. But in comparison to summer’s past, they just were not as good. And I love that. I love knowing that the strawberries are just not going to be four-star this year. I love knowing and being reminded that our farmers are merely the stewards and that under these less than optimal conditions they are surely working twice as hard to temper and harness the season. It breeds honesty. It necessitates a deeper understanding and connection.
In another all too common transaction, on a planet far, far away, the caricatured chef, upon receiving a crate of less than stellar strawberries might pick up the phone and scream senselessly at an innocent and unwitting dispatcher in a weather-less warehouse they have never seen. I know this, because I too was once an alien on that planet. But because of the mere fact that I now choose to purchase my food in the marketplace, and make meaningful transactions with the same folks that are actually growing my food, I have grown and learned much as a chef. And as a chef after all, I can take the prep work from here. If the strawberries are showing me their best, albeit wet effort I can surely show them mine. In this case: add more sugar and cook down to concentrate the flavor. Add a little more acid from some lemons to sharpen the taste of the fruit. That is my job after all as the chef in a society.
And as a citizen, while I do go shopping at the market to purchase the ingredients I am going to cook with, it is actually not really the point of the trip, and it is not really what I am shopping for. You see, what is really for sale at my local Farmer’s Market every day, sometimes in full sunshine and sometimes under the blanket of rain, is the nexus where the land, the people who work it, and all of us that are sustained by it, meet and get to know one another, basically over a long talk about the weather.
Matthew Weingarten is the New York City-based executive chef at Inside Park at St. Bart’s for Sodexo.