The Wide-Eyed Gourmet

Exploring the spectrum of vegetable possibilities

By Marina Wolf

THE WEATHER may not have settled yet, but I’m already thinking about my spring and summer plantings, spurred on by memories of last year’s harvest. My collaborator and I had a grand ol’ time, shouting with glee at each new discovery: perky little peppers, green buds of tomatoes, summer squash that grew big enough to scare a cat. Under a jungle layer of bean leaves, we found quite a few slender pods. Grinning, my friend crunched her teeth into one and offered me another.

I accepted the bean with some bemusement. I was supposed to eat this raw? My gardening companion didn’t notice the pause when I discovered yet another childhood food prejudice.

In my childhood, see, the choice of vegetable was canned or frozen. You can’t do it any other way in a large suburban family. We had a garden, but the vegetables inevitably came out of the pressure cooker dull and overdone (now that I’m grown, I understand that pressure cookers are tricky, but at the time I blamed it on my mother).

Then, of course, there were the church potlucks, with countless vegetable dishes whose only claim to crunchiness lay in their crumb or potato-chip toppings. It was hammered into me from the baby-food beginning: salads and celery stalks are crisp. Everything else must be boiled into oblivion.

As I grew older and ventured out into the world, I encountered exceptions to the rule. Raw spinach, it turned out, makes a perfectly acceptable salad and tastes way better than cooked. Broccoli was fine on the crudité tray, with enough ranch dressing. Even raw onions were OK, if the burger was hot enough to warm them up. Through college and beyond, the vegetable kingdom continued to surprise me, with sweet, milky corn that needed no cooking, or peas that could be eaten both raw and in their entirety.

I also learned the corollary: some vegetables supposedly meant by God and nature to be eaten raw can actually be cooked. Lettuce, for example, frequently appears in green creamed soups. And if Jane Austen films can be considered historically accurate, then at one point celery was cooked and eaten by itself. Hmmm. . . .

WHY DIDN’T I find out about these things sooner? Well, exploring the spectrum of vegetable possibilities takes time and money that some families just don’t have. Produce has to be truly excellent to warrant any treatment–or lack of treatment–that depends entirely on the flavor alone. Corn needs to be fresh, picked just a few hours before at most. To eat it raw, you pretty much have to be standing in the cornfield. Peas ought to be newborn, barely big enough to notice between twice-daily visits to the garden.

For people who shop once a week, as my mother did, this sort of on-the-spotness just isn’t possible.

Above all, adherence to the raw/cooked dualism makes meal preparation easier for harried housewives and otherwise too-busy-to-care people. It draws boundaries, limits the possibilities that can both inspire and intimidate. Of course, crispness must be relegated to the salad bowl and the fried chicken, or else who knows what kind of alien anarchy might ensue! Why, you might get blanched young asparagus, marinated and served at room temperature, or wilted salad with warm drippings, or fava beans served raw and dipped in saucers of salt, or chopped raw tomatoes tossed with hot spaghetti. Or, say, raw string beans in the garden, crisp and green-tasting and untouched by anything but your fingers and a splash of sunlight.

Call the produce police. It’s spring, and another vegetable outlaw is on the loose.

From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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