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Food as it should taste

More than 20 years ago, an old lady in Elberton, Ga., elevated my taste to a degree that has caused me problems ever since.

Having grown up in the suburbs of big cities with a mother who regarded gardening as a form of torture, I rarely ate any homegrown produce as a child. Occasionally, during our summers at Cherry Grove Beach, we'd eat local produce, but, of course, most of it was cooked all day with pork so that it could readily pass for canned food.

Then, as soon as I finished college, I landed in Elberton to work as a reporter. The old lady in question lived across the street, where she tended a goldfish pond made out of an old refrigerator. It was next to her vegetable garden. One day, I came home and she had left a basket of tomatoes on the porch with a note.

When I sliced and tasted one of the tomatoes, I basically didn't believe I was eating a tomato. Its velvety texture, its startling perfume, its sweetness were radically different from the A&P's greenhouse tomatoes I'd grown up eating. As the summer wore on, I learned this to be generally true of the produce the old lady gave me. I've been spoiled ever since. Normally, I'd rather go without a tomato than eat the grim ones in the grocery stores. Even allegedly locally grown organic produce is often disappointing if purchased from a retailer. Though I frequently visit Sevananda (in Little Five Points), Whole Foods (on Briarcliff) and Return to Eden (on Cheshire Bridge), I find the organic produce often disappointing because it's sat too long or was picked too soon. Is it my imagination or does it seldom taste much better than the factory-farmed produce?

Intowners are lucky to have the Morningside Farmers Market back in business now. Located at 1325 N. Highland Ave., adjacent to Star Steaks, it operates 8:30 a.m.-noon every Saturday through October. It's as close to a European-style open-air market as we get, and although you pay plenty for the organic produce, it really has no retail equal in the city.

Moreover, it's an event. Last Saturday's market was opened with a cooking demonstration by Mumbo Jumbo's Shaun Doty, who spoke passionately about the virtue of eating locally grown organic produce, noting how it retains its vitamins and taste and recommends itself to a "passionately simple" treatment. He made the interesting point, too, that organic produce that is trucked in from out of state probably has suffered some environmental impact.

Doty cooked panna cotta topped with sauce made of strawberries from Cimino Farm in Reynolds, Ga. He also served us cups of the strawberries, macerated in Grand Marnier, atop vanilla gelato from What's the Scoop, drizzled with a 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. I was so impressed by the syrupy vinegar, which he bought from Salumeria Taggiasca, that I stopped by the shop in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market to buy some for myself. I had a quick change of mood when I was told the small bottle cost $99.

Although it's still early in the growing season, there was plenty to buy from vendors at the market last Saturday. I ended up eating the Cimino strawberries with good ricotta and a bit of honey and grappa. I also bought tender baby turnips from Cimino, which I boiled gently and served with just some butter and cracked pepper.

One of the best finds was a bag of Austrian winter pea vines from Crystal Organic Farm from Newborn. I sauteed the vines in some olive oil and then mixed in some sweet peas I'd bought from Cimino. From Taylorganic Farm in Ellenwood, I bought startling arugula that I served lightly dressed in olive oil and (cheap) balsamic vinegar with some Lady Finger radishes from Gaia Gardens and some sliced pecorino from Salumeria Taggiasca. (No tomatoes were yet available.)

Finally, I bought some mustard greens that completely mystified me. When I poured them onto their serving plate they were in a pool of purple liquid. They were perfect, certainly -- bitter, with that texture between slippery and chewy and needed nothing but a slight shot of a sweet vinegar. But that purple!

Home delivery
An alternative to market shopping is subscribing to Hugh Lovel's 14-year-old home delivery service. His UAI Co-op in Blairsville allows subscribers to receive weekly deliveries of organic produce, pickles and even meat. You pay him up front, and then he puts a box together for you or you can order specific items.

As an added benefit, if you subscribe, you get to read Lovel's weekly newsletter. Here's a sample: "What inner force gives you the guts to face each day with open eyes and open arms and ward off those inner insecurities that make you want to brag and bully, make promises, tell people all the great things you will do (more than half of which you cannot manage)? ... Intestinal fortitude it is called, if you like Latin. If you prefer the Anglo Saxon, call it guts. Statues of the Buddha show him having a robust belly, not that he ate a lot or anything of the kind. But the symbolism is of serenity, to be, do, have and know anything/everything -- digest it all -- without having to do anything about it.

"As best I could tell this force of personality, this strength of character, comes from food, and I set out 25 years ago to find out how such food might be produced."

To subscribe call 706-745-6056 or e-mail uai@alltel.net.

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