Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Meet Your Vegetables: Grapes and Things That Taste Like Themselves

GRAPESWhen I was a freshman in college, a friend of mine wrote a play for her senior thesis, a play about, I think, Samuel Coleridge and his sister and another poet. (I'm not looking it up because let's see what I remember from those frighteningly many years ago.) Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were also characters. (This friend is now a successful playwright, so well done there.) There was a lot about writing, and a little about an asthma attack, and also, at one point, Gertrude said to Alice, or Alice said to Gertrude, "Salt makes things taste more like themselves."

I realize now that this was not the first time that idea was put together, but it was the first time I'd heard it, and my eighteen-year-old mind was, if not blown, then struck pretty strongly. I still think of it often. Not even so much in context of salting things, although I do that pretty often, and often intone that the secret to making vegetables delicious is salt, oil and heat (Brussels sprout season is coming so soon!), but more in terms of the fruits and vegetables at the farmers market, and the broader idea of when foods taste more like themselves.

(I think I even invoked this back in my past life, you know, in 2008, when I spent as much time doing my work as defending it, dramaturgs being, to people who know what they are, much maligned. Evil agents of theatres that want to dilute plays until they are spark-less and sucky, turning them into what Artistic Directors think their audiences can stomach rather than what the playwrights want them to be. But all I was trying to do was help playwrights write the best version of their play. And I think I did, sometimes. But maybe it was all about vegetables. Like a successful play tastes more like itself.)

I think, before I started being like, holy shit this green pepper tastes like a green pepper!, I'd encountered this idea by way of hearing people talk about grass-fed, pasture-raised, generally happy chicken. It might've been in The Omnivore's Dilemma, because why not give that book yet more credit, where Michael Pollan helps slaughter a chicken, and then eats it, and then is like, holy shit this chicken tastes like chicken! (It's something like that, I think.) We've spent all our lives thinking we know what chicken and green peppers taste like (in both cases sort of bland and inoffensive, bordering on flavorless), but then we meet a chicken that's eaten what chickens are supposed to eat, or a green pepper that hasn't been on a truck for a week, and we're like, holy shit, I had no idea.

But so I'd heard and/or read that grass-fed chicken tastes like chicken, like something. More powerfully like itself. And I bought some greenmarket apples and not only were there more options than supertart Granny Smith, mushy Golden Delicious, or gross Red Delicious that makes my tongue feel all dry (does that happen to anyone else?) but these apples had all sorts of flavors! Flavor profiles, you could even say, assuming that phrase refers to the sorts of complex flavors we're told can be found in wine, cheese, coffee and things like that. (I bought a bottle of wine the other day, and the wine store guy kept trying to translate my "I like Pinot Grigio and hate Chardonnay" into preferences of tropical vs. stone fruit, issues of richness and fullness and finish and I was like, dude, I have no idea, I just have the DVD of Bright Young Things to get home to, and let's keep this around ten bucks.) But back to apples. It was like, Oh! So this is what apples taste like!

(There is the sad flip-side of this, around January when there's nothing left at the farmers market other than apples-still delicious, if tiresome-onions and potatoes, and I get a bunch of overpriced kale from Whole Foods, or some broccoli from the supermarket by me, and it's like, bleh, this tastes like nothing. I've been gorging on vegetables this summer, as if that can somehow stave the winter off.)

After, what, three years, I consider myself an old hand at this greenmarket thing. The produce tastes better, is fresher, I say "hey" to the farmers and most of the time it's cheaper. I only rarely, any more, try new vegetables. There are rarely any more any new vegetables to try. I got pretty excited this summer about, though I'd seen them summers before, purple carrots (taste mostly like regular carrots, are prettier), and yellow-white and purple bell peppers. (The purple ones were a little bitter, the yellow-white ones looked ghosty and turned orange as they went overripe.)

I'd also seen grapes before, but hadn't bought them before this year. They show up in late summer, in crates with cardboard "NO SELF-SERVE" signs, with little baskets of samples and a cloud of hovering bees. I'd even tasted grapes from the sample baskets, and loved them, I'm sure, but this year for the first time I've been buying grapes. Taking grapes home and then running to whomever's around saying, "Oh my God, you have to try this," and then expectantly watching their face for the moment the grape bursts open in their mouth, and the taste hits them. I don't expect anyone to be as excited as I am, though that would be nice, but I worried that some of the wows were for my benefit.


But how can you not be wowed? I'm sure they, like me, especially in the case of my sister, where I know for sure, have grown up on supermarket grapes. A little sweet and refreshing, but miles away from the sweet smack of grape juice. Maybe we've wondered at this, but no more seriously than we wondered about the distance between grapes and grape candy (or Dimetapp), not much more than we faced the Slurpee machine and wondered where actual raspberries came in blue.

Maybe, a little older, we wondered about the distance between the grapes we've known and the taste of wine. Could fermentation be doing all the work, coaxing complexities out of these innocuous things we've picked from fruit salads our whole lives? Maybe we didn't wonder about this. I'm not sure I ever did, but I should have.

Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in wine country, have maybe never seen grapes on the vine. My grandfather fed me carrots straight from the garden, and I remember how sweet they were, but I never got the chance with grapes. (I think the only raspberries I ever ate as a kid were from his backyard, but almost nothing meets that standard now.)

But so now, this year, I have been buying New York State grapes, tiny little grapes with names like Jupiter and Mars. They obviously come in varieties beyond "green" and "red." They come in red and deep black-purple, and burst tart and almost cloyingly sweet at once, with that complexity of flavor that is what the guy at the wine store was probably talking about.

And my first thought, the thought I'm trying to spark for all the friends whose faces I'm shoving these into, is a revelation: Oh my God. This is what a grape really tastes like!

And at first it's thrilling-grape juice finally makes sense-and it's delicious and this long-lost secret is back, and in my fridge, and I'm so excited to have these in my city, to savor the month or two of their season.. But then I start to wonder, where have these grapes been my whole life? Why are they selling the flavorless grapes, telling us that those are what grapes are? (Something something, simulacrum. Something something, The Matrix.) I can't help feeling like I've been had.

Previously: Radish Chips
Asparagus is Here!
The Farmers Market in Winter

Jaime Green hopes you're even half as excited about Brussels sprouts as she is.

24 Comments / Post A Comment

alison (#14)

Yay this series! Looking forward to a turnip and/or rutabaga post…

Fruit is engineered for appearance and surviving transportation, taste is not even in the equation anymore. I keep imagining Mcintosh's are a natural variety and insist on only buying god's apples in the supermarket, though I'm sure someone will correct me and point out that it was just a variety bred for mass production before techniques were advanced.

jaimealyse (#647)

My understanding from the apples chapter in The Botany of Desire is that apple "engineering" is still done the old-fashioned way, by hybridization. (Or grafting.) Apples are insanely diverse, phenotypically, if I can use that word that way, and their sexual reproduction is totally unpredictable. Also, the "original" apples were tiny and bitter, or sour. Gross. So all apples we know are equally engineered. The difference is in the aim of the selection process – is it for pretty uniformity and shelf life? Or is it for flavor or texture? Those being, most of the time, mutually exclusive.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Back when I lived in Chicago, I used to buy these tomatoes called Ugly Ripe at Whole Foods. They were ugly as fuck, but they had this amazing taste, you could eat just them and nothing else and feel like you had a great meal. After a while, Whole Foods stopped selling them. I was bummed. Then, I read a story of what happened to Ugly Ripe. The state of Florida banned the ram that grew them from exporting them out of state because they were not up to state's standards of LOOKS! Yep, that's right, they literally said that the tasty, healthy tomatoes were damaging the state's image because they did not look pretty enough. When the reporter asked the state official "what about the taste? they taste great?" the person replied "well, taste is a subjective thing, you can't measure taste, but the shape and color is something that you can measure and so we have to have standards for it". I am shitting you not.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"the ram that grew them" should be "the farm that grew them"

facepunches (#7,757)

Florida can be a terrible, hateful place like this

@Niko: Holy shit, I had no idea that is what happened. I had noticed they stopped selling them, but I thought it was maybe just my supermarket that stopped buying them, or something. I really loved them, because not only did they taste fantastic, but they were mostly flesh. I HATE the cluster tomatoes they sell now, which, although they taste marginally better than whatever else the supermarket is selling, are way too watery. I make a salad and can't even taste the dressing because it gets all watered down by the liquid that leaks out of the tomatoes. Gah, I'm so pissed off now!

Smitros (#5,315)

I remember reading about that. I may still have the indentation from where I slapped my forehead.

Liisa Murray (#7,956)

How is it possible for this article to give me cravings for a taste I've never experienced before? I want good grapes!

propertius (#361)

Muscat grapes are super, especially the pink-blushed ones. Sweet as candy, but with the most amazing floral/spicy flavor.

I got to try grenache grapes once. The tannin is so high it is hard to taste anything else. Like some wines when young.

hazmathilda (#839)

YES GRAPES. Let me try to restrain myself re: grapes.

Make jelly out of them! It's easier than I thought it would be and the hot jelly right off the ladle is the BEST and I made a batch with some heirloom Concords we found growing behind a house and then with some muscadines.

And muscadines? If you can get them, make yourself a hull pie! Google it.

jaimealyse (#647)

Okay, I tried muscadines (and "scuppernogs"?) when I visited my dad in North Carolina, and WHAT? Maybe they weren't ripe, but they were like pure tannins and a weird, vegetal flavor. I was so confused.

hazmathilda (#839)

Scuppernongs, which it turns out are a type of muscadine. Maybe yours weren't ripe? But I do have to admit I ended up eating most of mine jellied or pied because the skins are so tough.

Smitros (#5,315)

And I'm about to go to a farmer's market after work.

Harmonic convergence.

iantenna (#5,160)

this summer has been a fruit revelation for me as well, due to all the trees in my new backyard. quince, and pears, and plums, and figs, and some delicious as yet unidentified citrus, but mostly QUINCE. what a fruit! quice pie, quice glazed pork tenderloin, quince paste (aka membrillo). if you have not yet had membrillo with manchego cheese, holy shit are you in for a treat.

The unidentified citrus could be persimmons?

SeanP (#4,058)

Persimmons are not a citrus fruit.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

This is how I felt the first time I ate a grape from my garden, which besides basil and thyme and srsly sad tomatoes is pretty much the only edible thing I've ever grown.

metoometoo (#230)

I'm pretty sure my mom has uttered basically this exact sentence about her own garden approximately infinity times.

mishaps (#5,779)

Cream from Ronnybrook Dairy, at the Greenmarket, gave me that exact same "holy crap!" moment. THAT is what heavy cream is supposed to taste like. Goddamn.

Annie K. (#3,563)

I am exactly — I think — as excited about Brussels sprouts as you are. I appreciate this post deeply.

Brussels sprouts can give you some wicked farts.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

Brussels sprouts roasted with a bit of almonds = so good.

To the writer:
You ever tried those grapes with…
(Seriously – halve a grape then rub the cut part in a sprinkle of sea salt. It's even better than Brussels sprouts with almonds.)

SeanP (#4,058)

Growing up in Wisconsin we used to make the most fantastic jelly with the wild "fox" grapes that grew all over the place. They look and taste somewhat like Concord grapes, although they're smaller. They turned into a very soft, tart, flavorful jelly with the most fantastic color. It was a very nice accompaniment to roasted meats (instead of, say, cranberry sauce), and of course, in a peanut butter sandwich.

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