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Heaven from the vine – my first summer tomato

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I’ve been missing in action for the last month as I’ve traveled extensively for conferences (why does everyone plan everything in March?!?) and a few stories I’ve been writing.  I’ve also been participating in a Cook ‘n Scribble food writing course, led by journalist and cookbook author Molly O’Neill, which has been much more challenging  and rewarding than I’d expected.

One of our assignments was to write about a food that changed our lives.  There are many foods and meals I could have written about, but I was drawn to a story about my grandfather giving me my first summer tomato.  It’s a story I cherish about people I loved dearly and lost long ago, and ultimately is a large part of the story of how I started writing about food.

I know I’ll remember this story often as we head into this summer’s tomato season.

Granddaddy and Grandmama Willis

Heaven from the vine

One warm summer morning when I was five, my grandfather offered me a taste from his garden.  I was playing on the swing set, pumping my legs as hard as I could to make my swing soar higher.  I reluctantly dismounted and skipped over to him, the earthy scent of the tomatoes enveloping me as I grew closer.

A retired construction foreman, my grandfather was not one to fuss over things.  When there was a job to do, he took care of it and moved on to the next task. But, the garden was different.  He would spend hours weeding, watering and rigging shade to protect the plants from the punishing Texas sun.

I’d seen him babying the plants all summer and now he was plucking vibrant red tomatoes from the vines.  I watched as he gently polished one of the gems with his bandana. He pulled his trusted pocketknife from his faded overalls and cut off a wedge of tomato.  Red juice trickled down his weathered fingers.  “Taste this,” he said. “It’s heaven.”

The fruit burst in my mouth — sunshine and rain, earth and love. Then, a tart, acidy bite tickled my tongue as a stream of cool juice made its way down my chin, dribbling on my t-shirt.

“I think you need another bite,” chuckled my grandfather.  He knew in that moment he had taught me more than to love tomatoes. He had shown me that food can excite as well as nourish, and that there is nothing quite like the joy of savoring something when it is perfectly ripe straight from the garden.

My family did not typically celebrate food.  My grandparents were raised during the Depression and endured the food rationing during World War II. They were Panhandle people – hardworking, pull yourselves up by the bootstraps folks who made do with what they had. Food was fuel, not a luxury.  Having a garden was a necessity for most of their lives to ensure that they had fresh food on the table.

In the early 1970’s, with the Furr’s grocery store he helped build just around the corner, my grandfather continued to garden because he loved it, not because he had to.  And, he loved the tomatoes most of all. He would stack them gently in a small, unpainted basket and bring them into the kitchen, presenting them to my grandmother like the crown jewels.

My grandmother cooked simply, making everything from scratch and refusing the cans and convenience foods that were gaining popularity.  She knew to make the tomatoes the star of their own plate and served them sliced, sprinkled with salt, not as a hidden ingredient in a salad or side dish.

Somewhere during my adolescence, I lost part of what my grandfather taught me about food, maybe it was when he died when I was fourteen.  I never forgot that food could excite and, indeed, as I tried to leave the chicken fried food of my youth behind me, I explored the exotic cuisines of the world with vigor as I taught myself to cook.  I pored over recipes and took cooking classes.  I made elaborate meals and eagerly tried new dishes, but I was missing something.

Shortly after the Downtown Austin Farmers Market opened in 2003, I spent a Saturday morning poking around the stalls that were packed with zucchini, cucumbers, okra, berries and tomatoes –  gorgeous, red and plump like the ones from my grandfather’s garden.  I spent the last of my cash buying a basket of Early Girl tomatoes and gingerly wedged them into an already overflowing shopping bag.

That evening, I made dinner for my friends David and Beverly who were visiting from Chicago and served the tomatoes as my grandparents had – sliced and sprinkled with salt.  My guests greedily piled tomatoes on their plates and then went back for seconds.  Beverly gushed, “There may not be anything more perfect than a summer tomato.”

Her comment took me back to that day in my grandparent’s backyard and I realized that enjoying food in its time and place was the important piece of the lesson I had forgotten.   I had lost the joy of the summer tomato.

After that dinner, I began paying attention to not only what I was eating, but when I was eating it.  I started buying most of my produce from the farmers market and, more importantly, I started writing about it.  My life hasn’t been the same since.  That little slice of tomato led me to food writing, and I could not be more grateful.


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Welcome to Kristi’s Farm to Table

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I started Austin Farm to Table four years ago as a way to stay on course with my annual cookbook project for friends and family.  I never dreamed that four years later I would still be writing the blog, writing for a well respected magazine (Edible Austin) or writing about cities other than Austin.  But, that’s exactly what has happened.

Over the last four years I have explored countless markets around the country, eaten truly incredible meals and developed a serious farmer crush (on all farmers, not one in particular) as the most passionate, hard working people I’ve ever met.  I’ve written about these experiences as they’ve popped into my world, but never really had a plan to formally “cover” any territory other than Austin.

That all changed during two eye-opening trips I took in the Spring of 2010.  In April, I was invited to Houston by real food advocates David Leftwich and Tara Kelly to watch a screening of “What’s on Your Plate?” at Mandell Park and spent the weekend exploring Houston’s burgeoning real food scene.  I had heard that Houston’s farmers markets were growing and was thrilled with the news of Revival Market’s opening, but I had no idea how much progress had been made.  When I arrived at the Eastside market on Saturday morning to find as many tents as the Downtown Austin Farmers Market, I was stunned.

Eastside market

Eastside Farmers Market in Houston

Revival Market - oils and syrups

Revival Market in Houston

A month later I visited San Antonio for a story for Edible Austin.  I had visited the Pearl Farmers Market several times and was unprepared for how much it had grown in the six months since my last visit.   Imagine my surprise when we were handed a flier listing all the other farmers markets in San Antonio, most of which had opened in that same six month period.   Top that off with two of the best meals I ate last year (The Monterey and Restaurant Gwendolyn), all from locally sourced ingredients, and San Antonio had my attention.

Pearl Farmers Market, photo by Jenna Noel

Restaurant Gwendolyn, photo by Jenna Noel

I will be the first to admit that in Austin we can be more than a tad bit provincial.  We are proud of our town and how we live and sometimes this gets in the way of recognizing what others are doing outside our city walls.  After the trip to San Antonio, I knew that I needed to expand my focus beyond Austin and intentionally follow what was happening in other cities.  I saw a number of vendors at the Houston and San Antonio markets who also serve the Austin area and I realized that if the vendors are covering all that territory, I probably should too.

My hope is that this wider scope will bring well deserved attention to the hard work of farmers, artisans and chefs in those other locales and broaden our view of how we interconnect.    So, here’s to a new name and adventure to start this new year.

I’ll see you at the farmers market!

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Local – A Short Documentary from Christian Remde

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Local filmmaker Christian Remde created this wonderful short documentary about local food featuring area farmers, chefs and the fabulous Valerie Broussard, forager for the W Austin.  The film does an excellent job of explaining the connection and relationships between farmers and chefs.

Nicely done Christian!

LOCAL – A Short Documentary from Christian Remde on Vimeo.

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Are you ready to eat fresh and ditch the box?

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Ever since last Spring’s Capital Area Food Bank challenge, I’ve been working on a new project, a blog called Ditch the Box.If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember that my supplies for that challenge included a box of Chicken Helper. I didn’t want to eat it, but I wanted to be true to the challenge, so I did it. I tried to doll it up by adding broccoli and only using half the flavor packet, but it didn’t help.  the meal tasted terrible and made me feel even worse  – I had a headache and felt nauseous.  When I checked the list of ingredients, the items I couldn’t pronounce was longer than the list of things I recognized.

Initially, I rationalized that maybe the boxed food was cheaper, but then I compared the cost of that meal to one I had made the night before with fresh ingredients.  The cost of the two meals was almost identical and the fresh meal didn’t make me physically ill.

Humph.  If it’s not cheaper and it makes us feel bad, why do we eat this stuff?  I started asking a lot of questions.  What was in this box of “food,”  food that I had grown up eating, that made me feel so bad.  The answer – a lot of salt, sugar, fat and additives.

For example, this very innocent looking box of frozen peas has sugar as the third ingredient.  SUGAR.  Why on earth do you need sugar in your frozen peas?  You don’t, but the food companies add it so the peas taste better and you’ll buy more.  And, without stopping to read the label, you would never know that you are getting an extra lump of sugar with your frozen veggies.

Peas with sugar

What is a well-intentioned eater to do?  Not all convenience foods have “extras” that you wouldn’t be expecting, so one solution is to read labels and find brands that you can trust.

The other solution is to Ditch the Box.  You are more likely to get unwanted extras if you buy food in a box, can or bag, so buy less of it.  The more processed the item, the more additives and less food you get.  I’ve started a new blog to help others ditch the box too.

Here’s what I propose.  I worked with some friends to put together a program that anyone can follow to move to fresh food.  Each week, you take one step and by the end of the month you have a new way to eat.

Step 1)  Pantry purge.  We’ll clean out the pantry and fridge, getting rid of the things you no longer want to eat.  As part of that, we’ll practice reading labels and learn what some of those “mystery” ingredients really are.

Step 2)  Navigating the grocery store.  We’ll learn the things to look for when you are shopping at the store, how to compare brands and how to fill your shopping basket with things you feel good about.

Step 3)  Shopping at the farmers market.  More and more often, farmers are selling their produce directly to consumers at farmers markets.  There’s no better way to know what you are eating than to meet the person who grew or raised it.  I’ll help you become a master shopper at your local market.

Step 4)  Cooking effortlessly.  While it can be fun to make the big, fancy on occasion, your daily cooking doesn’t have to be complicated to be delicious.  We’ll learn simple cooking techniques and tips for creating meals you and your family can enjoy.

So, what do you think?  Are you ready to Ditch the Box with me?

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