Working at the farmers’ market yesterday, I reveled in the questions. “Have you ever made pesto with the purple basil?” Asked one woman. “What could I substitute for spinach?” Asked another gal – or was it twelve of them? “How do you eat radishes?” Asked an untold number of market-goers. They eyed the purple versions of what should be green, and the bumpy versions of what they recalled as smooth, and the spicy-smelling versions of what they’d always known as mild.
I loved answering these, and asking my own. “Are you making sauce with those?” “What did you do with last week’s potatoes?”
It then occurred to me that you could pick up these scenes and no matter where in the world you plopped them down, you couldn’t fool anyone. They’re quintessentially American.
In Ghana, the place where I’ve spent the longest period of time out of the U.S., you’d never hear such questions. Each market has its own flavor, but carries the same bounty. There’s the blood-like palm oil for frying, the tapered, ribbed okra sold by the twos and threes for a stringy stew, the black-skinned white yams as big as my thigh to slice and boil. There’s tomatoes, boullion, whole chickens. Everyone knows them, these things grown during half the year and eaten always, and what you do with them.
If you hear anyone asking for an explanation, you can bet it’s an American.
Along with the tacit understanding of ingredients and how they worked, another set of food axioms emerged: everything has its partner. Boiled yam goes with egusi, and a stew—preferably okra—always houses the rice balls. God forbid you ask for kenke with your egusi greens, or rice balls without a soup.
Although I was the first to romanticize the place and hoist Ghanaian culture upon a pedestal, I couldn’t help but see this food philosophy as close-minded. Why not mix it up a little? Why limit yourself to tiny variations in a world where a million permutations of textures, flavors, and presentations are possible?
Later, I began to see that these traditions weren’t arbitrarily determined, but evolved over thousands of years of culinary adventures. The other options probably did find their way to a table, but didn’t serve the people as well and eventually died out. “We figured out what works,” the grandmas seemed to be saying, “so why mess with what ain’t broke?”
I wouldn’t be surprised if the mash of plantain and cassava fufu creates the perfect alchemy with a tomato-based meat stew. I mean, Latin American combinations of beans and corn (treated with lime to make it tastier and—surprise!—better for you) turn out to have beneficial properties, and the hot chili accompaniments there and in other warm climates combat food poising and promote self-cooling.
Around here, our traditions are different. Most of us don’t put our great-grandmother’s recipes on the table every night. In fact, we don’t even use a table. We plunk some new and improved frozen dish on our laps in front of the TV, or set a carefully-engineered meal on the car seat.
At some point, we must have agreed that we needed something to get us back in the kitchen and around the dinner table. This, my theory goes, is how we became a nation of the food curious.
So we’ve flooded the markets with unfamiliar food and developed this curiosity to refocus ourselves. We examine it, innovate it, and rush to become the first on our block to marinate it. We give and earn status. And farmers are happy to push us along, catering to what grows in the local soil and climate rather than what we demand.
It is a little odd that I can gain respect by preparing a curried turban squash soup or a ramp quiche, and if I know what to do with watermelon radishes and fiddlehead ferns. But if that gets us out of our cars and next to a good friend at lunch time, I’m all for it.
The folks at the farmers’ market aren’t just playing an amusing parlor game or recipe swap. They aren’t nosey or inept or pretentious. They taking part in good food, American style.