Have you ever gone to a farmers market and thought 'this is awful'? It’s highly unlikely. The bounty of colourful fruits and vegetables naturally trigger a reaction in our minds, something usually akin to joy, security, wonder, fascination. Intimidating? Yes, probably. Worth the effort? Beyond measure.
I grew up a native Texan and an extremely average consumer of processed foods. Now I work as a food activist supporting local growers, and between then and now I was a chef. The reason I say that in past tense is to intentionally suggest that cooking is for everyone. I still cook every day of my life and often I am compensated for it, serving many guests many creations. Chefs entertain mouths and cooks feed people. I prefer the latter, and happen to be able to do both.
Each day, before I begin my work in the kitchen, mother nature and agricultural artists (farmers) have done most of the hard work. Together, people and the land work all day and night developing nutrition through nurture and nature. Cooking is the conduit, the connection and pivotal point between new energy created by the sun, soil, air and water and us humans living and sustaining our lives - all the while entertaining our senses. So the first lesson in cooking is that ultimately, it is not how you cook, but what.
My culinary achievements advanced overnight when I began to rely on the vibrant Union Square farmers market in NYC. I learned one day that if I make two carrot soups using the exact same recipe - one with carrots, garlic, and onions from an average grocery store and one with the same ingredients from the farmers market, in the end I'll have two completely different soups. The soup with the locally grown vegetables will be brighter and more flavourful than the other, with brightness and flavour representing nutrition density. It will be in that moment - the best carrot soup I’ve ever had. And that will be true until I make it again.
Because cooking is so much about living in the moment, the season, the intensity of the sun or the rain. Cooking is also about growing up and acknowledging that brussels sprouts aren’t your worst enemy, such as the proverb will have you believe. It's about learning to treat something in the right way to bring out its best qualities.
I’ve come to the conclusion that many chain stores are full of lifeless food items, nearing dust and death. Preservatives may maintain foods so that they are edible, and salt and sugar can make them palatable, but they will not make you vital and powerful. They will not speak to you the wonders of the world. If you want to begin to know the wonders of the world, talk to a farmer.
Aimee Hunter is the founder of Hunter California and manages the Atwater Farmer’s Market.