Michele Owens is a renowned writer and gardener who lives in Saratoga Springs. She is one of the founding partners of the gardening blog Garden Rant and has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Garden Design, and Organic Gardening. Here is an excerpt from her latest book Grow the Good Life
Reprinted from Grow the Good Life by Michele Owens. Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Owens. By permission of Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098
If You Haven’t Grown It, You Haven’t Tasted It
One of the best reasons to garden is the fact that homegrown fruits and vegetables just taste so transcendentally wonderful.
So incredible that they can turn anybody into a magnificent cook. Even if you are merely a happy amateur in the kitchen, as I am, you may find yourself becoming grandiose as the summer wears on. By mid-September, when harvest season is at its peak, I often mistake myself for Alice Waters, the chef who revolutionized American cooking in the 1970s by emphasizing the fresh and the local at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.
Alas, when January rolls around and the only homegrown food I have left is a last parsnip in the cellar, I’m once again an enthusiastic but fairly ordinary cook. It’s the ingredients, stupid.
Homegrown food tastes better than supermarket conventional produce, better than supermarket organic. It’s better even than farmers’ market produce, excellent as that usually is, and we’ll talk about why in a minute. The truth is, if you haven’t grown a vegetable, you may never have really tasted it. Tomatoes and other fruits, with their complex acid/sweet flavors and dramatic transformations on ripening, are classic examples of things supermarkets simply cannot do well. However, even humble staples that taste just fine from the supermarket are an absolute revelation from the garden.
I’m talking about such ignorable items as curly parsley, escarole, potatoes, onions, or dried beans for a chili–perfectly serviceable when purchased from the Price Chopper, but another thing entirely from the garden. It seems as if every year, another unassuming vegetable suddenly turns into a star in my garden and opens up a new frontier in my life as a cook and eater.
Last year’s revelation was a green named mache, very popular in France, that I’ve planted a few times and ignored. It forms low-growing little rosettes, irritatingly tiny, too small to be worth the bother of cutting and washing, mainly because I never found the flavor particularly interesting. But it has been discreetly seeding itself in my garden in a bed of ever-bearing strawberries, and I haven’t been weeding it out.
About a year ago, however, I took notice because as soon as the snow retreated in late March–long before any gardener in my part of the world even thinks about seeding salad greens–there the mache was, all perky and inviting. Then I popped a plant into my mouth. Allowed to germinate and grow on its own schedule, the leaves were so tender and melting and the flavor so powerful, it was like eating a strong and expensive French perfume, something on the order of Chanel Coco. Amazing.
Let’s talk about why food harvested fresh from the garden, still warm from the sun or wet from the rain, offers the greatest possible interest for palate and spirit. It has to do with the nature of plants, of us, and of the food industry in all its desperate attempts to feign naturalness while undercutting nature at every turn.
The important thing to understand about plants is that because they can’t run for their lives or do a mating dance, they manufacture chemicals of diabolical subtlety and effectiveness to achieve their goals. They produce chemicals to attract–for example, the chemicals that create the luscious flavor and glorious color of ripe fruit, all designed to draw seed-dispersing animals. On the other hand, some of the chemicals produced by plants are designed to repel hungry herbivores that range from bacteria to groundhogs. Some plants are so subtle that when attacked, they produce a chemical designed to attract the predator of the insect that is eating them.
These chemicals give plants their flavor. One of the theories for why organic foods taste better than the conventionally grown is because organic plants actually face some threats and are forced to mount some tasty defenses, rather than living in a stupid utopia created by pesticides that keeps their flesh bland. Because we adult humans are thrill-seekers, some of the repellent chemicals are part of the enjoyment.
In fact, I sometimes wonder if the difference between my 7-year-old’s palate and mine is that her more sensitive palate responds to plants’ attempts to seduce–and I appreciate the bite or burn of their attempts to repel. “It’s spicy!” she says in an accusatory tone almost every night as dinner is served. Spicy is an all-purpose term that covers far more than hot peppers–raw garlic, horseradish, ginger, and arugula all fit her definition of spicy.
Our perception of flavor is incredibly subtle, and taste is only part of it. Almost all of our senses are involved. The feel of food in our mouths is significant. Appearance, temperature, and memory also contribute. Smell especially is essential to our idea of flavor, which is why it’s difficult to appreciate good food with a bad cold. Brain imaging has demonstrated that our perception of flavor is more than the sum of its parts, too. More areas of our brain are activated by the combination of taste and smell that determines flavor than by smell alone plus taste alone.
Taste is, if anything, the blunter part of the system. Taste receptor cells are each tuned to one of five different sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. In contrast, there are an estimated 350 different kinds of odor receptor cells in the human nose. Each one detects a very specific and limited number of substances. And because individual odors are multifaceted combinations that light up different combinations of receptors, we are able to recognize more than 10,000 different odors.
When it comes to flavor, the apparatus for fussiness is definitely in place!