by Jaime Green
I texted my sister: I’m realizing I need to invest in a food processor with a shredder wheel. This is pioneer cooking kugel, and she replied, hahah well it will bring you closer to your ancestors who made kugel the same way.
This all comes after I’ve asked her if she wants the kugel to be from both of us, and if so, if she can kick in a few bucks for my train ticket to Long Island tomorrow, because I’ve just dropped, like, twelve bucks at Whole Foods on these yams. The farmers market yesterday had none, and the produce at the supermarket by me is… well, I went to Whole Foods.
I also bought what is probably a completely absurd amount of sweet potatoes (and yes, I know I’m using yams and sweet potatoes incorrectly interchangeably, but so does Whole Foods, so eat it) (ha, “eat it” in a food column, anyway — ) I have too many sweet potatoes because I consulted with my mother on this recipe, which I’m largely making up. My mother, who usually makes literally three times as much food as gets eaten for big extended family dinners. This mother told me that for her potato kugel, she figures two potatoes a person, but sweet potatoes are bigger… so I end up with about nine, for a fourteen-person Passover seder. Plus a white potato, plus a seriously overpriced apple, both of which I could’ve gotten cheaper yesterday at the farmers market, if I’d thought a little bit more about this recipe in advance, if I’d made a few more concrete decisions.
So it’s 9:30 p.m. and it’s just me, my box grater, and an orange-stained cutting board and, eventually sweet potato kugel-a bastardized recipe if there ever was one-just like my shtetl ancestors never really did.
All I bought at the greenmarket was a carrot I don’t think I’m even using in this recipe. My friend and I had walked the length of the market twice, as per our protocol — once to scope, once to buy — discussing our various Life Concerns and Issues in complete disregard of the countless strangers’ earshots we were within. (An actor I knew who moved to LA once clarified for me the peculiar privacy of publicness in this city. In LA or, really, anywhere else, you have time alone, in your car, in this example, to be private. But in New York there is none of that, so we treat subways and sidewalks as protected space, as if we are alone or invisible. By necessity, by sheer force of will. I was twenty-two, so this was revelatory to me. And as we waited in line to buy eggs, speaking in maybe slightly lowered voices about personal Life Matters, I remembered this lesson, and embraced it.)
* * *
The previous weekend, New York had been graced with a gloriously unseasonable weekend for mid-March, and the big Union Square market was overwhelmed with dog-walkers, stroller-pushers, coffee-drinkers… sunglassed Manhattanites, and I guess I was one. It was a shock from the winter market die-hards: sparse local food devotees and fans of hot cider, and occasionally me just trudging through to drop off my compostables. (I keep a bag of scraps and eggshells in my freezer, and at least in the winter it doesn’t melt by the time I get to Union Square. Saving the world, half a garbage bag of apple cores at a time.) The sunshine brought out the crowds and the tourists and brisk business for the Starbucks on the corner, but for me it effected a seasonal amnesia: I forgot that this was neither July nor California, and found myself hoping for — half-expecting — something fresh and green.
But, of course, it was March, and produce’s spring is several weeks behind even the seasonable weather. So I bought one of last fall’s apples to occupy me on my walk up the market, and also because I don’t think I’d eaten any fruits or vegetables at all yet that day. I had ten dollars in my pocket, my usual summertime vegetable budget, but it was all just crates of parsnips and onions, all like, Fuck you, it’s not even technically spring, and I didn’t even need eggs, so I just dropped my apple core in a compost bin at the north end of the market.
After the apple for the walk up, a cider donut for the walk down and, because I refused to be entirely defeated by the barren market, and because it wasn’t actually barren, like a buck twenty-five of parsnips and carrots. Right before the subway I stopped at an upstate orchard’s stall for a small strawberry/apple juice, for the shocking mouthful of strawberry taste (take that, winter) of the first sip. I was emboldened by the 47% of my Vitamin C RDA promised by the label, but then dismayed that my greenmarket food even had a label, and came from a sophisticated enough operation for such exact measurements of Vitamin C. I guess I’d rather it be hand-inked by a grandma in her kitchen, and approximated in the dash-of-this, handful-of-that way of grandma recipes I’ve gotten the sense exist from TV. Going down the stairs to the subway, I snapped the plastic lid on the juice bottle and turned it upside down, to be sure that when I put it in the bag with the parsnips, it wouldn’t spill.
* * *
In mid-April there still aren’t any real greens to be spoken of, though last fall’s apples and parsnips are still going strong! I refuse to take into account the organic, biodynamic spinach that’s showed up, because it is super expensive. I don’t even know how expensive — it’s spinach that invokes “if you need to ask, you can’t afford it,” spinach like a boutique I won’t go into because I don’t understand how it works, with like one of each dress on the rack? Do rich people not work with sizes? I don’t know.
The Greenmarket’s twitter account (I’m going to ignore any invitations in that phrase to examine our modern urban attempts at quaint rusticity, because shut up, it’s a farmers market in New York and it has a twitter account, and I just want some vegetables, okay?) has been tempting me this week with workday talk of fresh greens, baby collards, and ramps. Even last Saturday there were greens starting to show up: stinging nettles, for which I am neither brave nor desperate enough; little bunches of dandelion greens that I won’t pay two dollars for, because that’s maybe half a salad’s worth of stuff that grows in my grandparents’ yard.
This morning their twitter had something about asparagus. Not “such-and-such farm has such-and-such specific thing.” Just “Asparagus is here!” “Here” is more than Union Square, and asparagus is obvs representing more than just itself. See also: the mania about ramps. (When I was little I was absolutely confounded by the seemingly subjectless grammar of weather declarations: “It’s raining.” “What is?!” “Asparagus is here” is sort of something like that.)
“Asparagus is here” gives me that anxious flutter I get about figuring out how early to show up for general admission things, like concerts and readings, the excited anticipation and the anxiety about the unknowably eager rest of the crowd. (I tend to get to things really early, and walk around the block until a line starts to just form.) I guess what’s amazing is that asparagus shows up every year, and it’s still making me nervous? Asparagus also lives in our supermarkets year-round, okay, but part of hitching (mostly) onto the seasonal foods is signing up for that cycle — the excitement as each new food shows up, from the spring asparagus to Brussels sprouts season in the fall; and then the downside, known as “December through now.”
I don’t know if “Asparagus is here” has a broad enough reach to include the puny farmers market up by me in Inwood, or if I’d be able to make it down to Union Square on Saturday early enough to beat the crowds. In a few weeks there will be 2-for-$6 bunches of asparagus languishing into the late afternoon, and in a few months I’ll be sweating my way over to the dollar-a-pound string beans to fill up my bag. I bought 99-cent string beans this week from my supermarket, plastic-wrapped on a little green foam bed. For some reason, that’s an okay contingency plan, but supermarket asparagus isn’t. I’ll see what I can find this weekend.
Jaime Green keeps not dressing warm enough.