In fall of 2010. my roommate suggested we sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and in our first box of goodies from the farmers market, we got beets. I had never had a beet – not pickled, not cold on a salad bar, not roasted. I had no idea what it would even taste like. And an idea occurred to me: what if I wasn’t alone? What if people all over my region (or dare I say, the world!) received produce from time to time that was entirely unfamiliar to them?
I was craving a way to write regularly, so I pitched the idea to a friend who edits a local magazine. He said yes, and with that, My CSAcation was born, a weekly column at AltDaily.
CSAcation is a hybrid of vacation and education: it’s an adventure, a way to try something new, to take myself and my readers on a trip, traversing the wide wonderful world of cooking local, fresh, seasonal produce; it’s also an education, a way for me to learn about what’s in season, how to prepare it, what it tastes like.
I wrote my CSAcation for almost a year at AltDaily, and continued it from time to time here on my blog. My CSAcation posts have gotten fewer and further between because in the past two and a half years, I have learned, I have tested and tried. Vegetables and fruits that used to be foreign to me are now as familiar as old friends so that when a celery root or an acorn squash shows up in my kitchen, I don’t have to think twice about what to do with them.
That feels good, like my CSAcation was a success. It also helps me end my Virginia CSAcation. You see, I move to California next week. I know I have more to learn, new recipes to try, but I’ll be doing them in a new place, with a new seasonal calendar to keep in mind. This is the end of my CSAcation in Virginia.
With that in mind, I’m happy that on my final CSAcation here, I was given something wholly unfamiliar to work with: Ugli fruit.
Ugli fruit is large, roughly the size of a grapefruit, but instead of an orangey-red peel that hints at ruby red flesh inside, the Ugli fruit is often green and orange, and is, quite frankly, sort of ugly. It could be easy to walk past it in the market and think, “U-G-L-Y, you’re just too ugly to buy,” but you would be wrong. Underneath that ugly duckling exterior is something that offers redemption to every bad, bitter grapefruit experience you’ve ever had: this thing has the size and shape and utility of grapefruit, but it has the sweet-tart taste of a tangerine.
What I’m saying is that Ugli fruit is the Colonel Brandon to grapefruit’s Willoughby, if you’ll follow me into Jane Austen Land.
My grandmother was a fan of grapefruit, and my earliest memory of trying a grapefruit, cut in half, the segments loosened, and sugar sprinkled on top, was in her Florida kitchen. The smell of grapefruit now sends me right back to mornings at her house – the smell of coffee, the radio playing the morning news, her pouring me juice in an old Smucker’s jelly jar.
But for all those lovely memories, here’s the truth: grapefruit is an assault. I don’t care how much sugar I sprinkle on it, one bite tells me that grapefruit is waging war on me, and I will not win.
Enter: Ugli fruit. We cut it in half, loosened the segments, and we tried it without sugar sprinkled on top. It didn’t need it. This was like eating a sweet, juicy (really juicy) orange, but with the added benefit that the peel forms its own bowl.
I have learned a few lessons doing my CSAcation over the past few years, ones I will take with me to California, where I’ll continue learning and cooking:
Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if you’re fairly sure you won’t like them, even if you have never liked them in the past. I may hate turnips, but I haven’t given up on them.
Ask people at the market what something is, how you should cook it. If you have a friend (or several, in my case) who have more experience with cooking, ask for recipes or tips. Most of us like to share.
Always bring your own bag to the farmers market.
Red Delicious apples are good for absolutely nothing but making apple butter. When you get a bag of them, don’t waste time trying to eat them. Just skip to the apple butter.
Hubbard squash is a beast to break into, but it makes an amazing pie.
Kitchens are made for dancing in, no matter what my mother says.
Find out what’s seasonal, what grows near you and when, and try to discover those foods.
Support your local farmers and local markets. You won’t be able to do it all the time, every week, but the more you can, the better you (and your community) will be.
Smell the produce. Try not to squeeze it.
Make friends at the market. We are all eating together, even if it’s not at the same table; these people are your peers. Remember them as you slice your finger trying to break into that Hubbard squash; they are likely doing the exact same thing.
We are all of us on some food vacation, some food mission, trying to educate and enjoy ourselves. That is one of the best lessons I learned over the past couple years, cooking and trying new things and learning what grows around me: we are all getting bags of groceries, putting them away in our kitchens, and then asking the universal question: what’s for dinner? It’s the sharing of the answers that makes up a CSAcation.