A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Claudia told me she joined a delivery service for organic/local/ecological/artisanal foods. She sent me the website information and I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, one of the partners of the company is Olga “Bebe” Casellas, a friend from adolescence whom I haven’t seen in a while. We got in touch and I placed my first order. Like a small child in the wait list of a new toy, I showed up right on time (I was informed in an order-confirmation email, what was my date, place and pick up time, which conveniently is about 3 blocks away from my house!). This was really exciting, because in Puerto Rico organic/natural farmer markets are just starting to become a bit more popular. Local farmers that practice organic/natural/artisanal farming display and sell their goods at designated locations for a few hours a few times a month. Sometimes the time is inconvenient since it is only on weekends or coincides when we have other family or work commitments. In addition to such efforts, I feel little by little we are getting back to our roots by cooking with natural products with iniciatives and services like El Departamento de la Comida (The department of food) (click name to go to site), which acts as an on-line intermediary between small scale sustainable organic local farmers and food artisans and the people that want to get to consume their products in an easy, convenient and affordable way. It is truly a vehicle to incorporate variety and creativity into our diet and into our lives.
During colonial times and the first half of the 19th century in Puerto Rico, it was the custom for people to go to each town’s “plaza de mercado” to buy fresh ingredients from local farmers, like many places in the world still do. As technology and progress took over our lives, the workday became longer and two income households began to flourish. Convenience, speed and practicality became the priority when it came to our food choices. Supermarket chains substituted fresh markets to accommodate to the new generation’s wants and needs. Engineered and processed foods found their way into every household. As a result, disease and obesity became rampant in the United States due to a high fat diet and lack of nutritional value in the foods we chose to eat most of the time. Lately, we have seen a constant shift towards wellness and a growing commitment to buying organic, natural and/or local looking to find a convergence between contributing with the environment and to obtain better quality foods. I must admit that puertorricans have been resilient to frugal life and consuming locally grown foods for a variety of reasons and I, like everyone else, struggle everyday with the choices I have available for me and my family and the time I have to get to them. It is a complex web of criteria, whether to choose local or organic, or to buy or not fruits and vegetables that are imported and not in season, what is the difference between natural and organic, what does artisanal means, etc, etc. Everything so confusing and overwhelming! Evidently, I don’t always make the best choices! In a nutshell, for me, the answer is to keep our food choices and cooking techniques as simple and natural as possible for everyday meals and to elaborate, include processed foods and/or a “tasty prohibitive treat” only in special occasions, as a complement to a meal or when there is no other choice. I realize it is sometimes more convenient for us to buy processed foods (between work, school, social and family activities), than to go through the “hassle” of finding good quality local ingredients and cooking them at home . Oh! How I wished we could find a way to meet somewhere in the middle of convenience and quality… until now!
As we grow more concerned about the quality of the food that we put into our bodies and on our family table, we become more demanding and more curious about by whom/where and how our food is grown. The connections from farm to table become part of our daily lives once we include in our lifestyle the elements of nutritional values and harmony with nature. Local farming also builds a better sense of community by giving us a chance to cook fresh homemade meals to share with others. From a family point of view, it brings together young and old by gathering around the kitchen to talk about the day and provide a fertile ground for little ones to ask questions, join in and help. Buying what is grown locally connects us with the earth and gives us an opportunity to be what I call “foodieventurous” and to try new recipes with the ingredients that are in season. To my knowledge, it is a proven fact that consumers are willing to pay more for organic and good quality ingredients from a place they can point to on a map. Knowing more about the product, its origins and who farmed it becomes a delightful story to tell your children or guests at the dinner table. This trend is not limited to the urban and the young, it covers a wide range of ages, professions and ethnicities. From college students to Baby Boomers, everyone is becoming focused in a healthier, greener lifestyle and this group is growing by the minute. This culture includes not only the elements of recycling, excersise and meditation, but also nutrition. Home cooked dishes, (yes! even cakes, pommes frites and cookies made from scratch with fresh ingredients), are always a better alternative to take-out and fast food. Of course, they can be time consuming, but the results are definitely better! (Note: Please, as I have mentioned before in other post, lets include the words moderation and balance in this equation, you can have the occasional Oreo cookie or favorite decadent splurge, but make it the exception and not the rule.) In addition, old fashioned recipes are becoming popular again and regional food is celebrated as you can see in many restaurants, food and lifestyle magazines. This trend is here to stay and is not going anywhere!
As I picked up my assorted box of natural, organic and artisanal products from El Departamento de la Comida at my assigned pick-up station, I orchestrated this week’s menu in my head. When I got home, I started to pull out from my box fresh focaccia bread, okra (guingambó, kimbombó), sweet potato, arugula, aji dulce, curry leaves, lemon grass, jicama, papaya, artisanal local cow’s milk cheese (absolutely delicious!) and eggplant which were included in this week’s harvest. So exciting to create a dish with what is available as opposed to going to the supermarket to buy the ingredients for a recipe…a rare challenge and a gift for a foodie like me! So this week, I will probably have arugula salad with homemade vinaigrette and papaya slices and cucumber with focaccia croutons, roasted okra, pasta with arugula and butter sauce, jicama oven fries, sauteed eggplant with mashed sweet potato, lemon grass tea (to relieve stress and sleep better)… yummy, recipes coming in the near future, I promise! I still have to figure out what to do with the curry leaves, maybe you can give me some ideas. Definitely, for breakfast, I will make a papaya smoothie for the kids and some more warm focaccia bread. I was also pleased to find in my box an information sheet which includes a detailed list of the week’s harvest and what is available in season, of the pick up locations, time and days (covers most of the island), cooking suggestions, general information about the products (fresh artisanal breads and cheeses as well as for the fruits, herbs and vegetables), and a friendly reminder to return your box to your pick up place in order to help the environment and waive a $5.00 charge. I am looking forward to seeing what next week’s box has to offer to my dinner table and will continue to support what is good and local. We are all connected in the circle of life, lets each of us do our part in promoting a better and healthier community.
DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT AN EXPERT IN AGRICULTURE, ORGANIC FOODS, NUTRITION, MEDICINE, HISTORY OR ECONOMY. I HAVE NOT BEEN PAID TO WRITE THIS POST. THE CONTENT OF THIS POST IS JUST MY OPINION AND IDEAS THAT ARE IN MY HEAD, INFLUENCED BY WHAT I HAVE READ ABOUT THE SUBJECT IN THE PAST. I AM IN NO WAY OPPOSED TO LARGE SUPERMARKET CHAINS OR TECHNOLOGY, ON THE CONTRARY, I SUPPORT PROGRESS. I BELIEVE BALANCE IS THE KEY TO HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING. PLEASE ACCEPT MY APOLOGIES IF THERE ARE ANY HISTORICAL FACTS THAT MIGHT NOT BE COMPLETELY ACCURATE ( FEEL FREE TO SEND ME A MESSAGE WITH CORRECTIONS) AND I HOPE THAT YOU WILL BE TOLERANT TOWARDS EXPRESSIONS THAT YOU MIGHT NOT AGREE WITH AND CONTINUE TO VISIT ME. THIS BLOG INCLUDES A BROAD SPECTRUM OF INFORMATION ABOUT FOOD AND COOKING AND I CONSIDERED THIS AND IMPORTANT TOPIC TO DISCUSS. ALL THE INGREDIENTS I USE IN MY RECIPES ARE NOT ORGANIC/ARTISANAL/LOCAL OR NATURAL, SOME ARE PROCESSED, IMPORTED OR CANNED FOODS. HOWEVER, I TRY TO PROMOTE HOMEMADE MEALS WITH INGREDIENTS THAT ARE AS FRESH AS POSSIBLE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT AND UNDERSTANDING.