by Miriam Garcia
“Psssst!” said the Artichoke. “Over here! I wanna be stuffed with breadcrumbs and Parmesan and drizzled with a fruity EVOO!”
“I don’t take orders from Artichokes!” I sniffed. “Besides, I really need Zucchini today. Except there aren’t any. What’s up with that you think?”
Once upon a time, I hated the kind of cookbooks that are organized alphabetically by ingredient. You know, from Artichoke on through Zucchini. This approach I did not find helpful. No, I found it somewhat backwards at best and oddly sentimental at worst. I didn’t want to think about Asparagus as ‘that tender harbinger of Spring that shows up along with robins and daffodils!’ I wanted ideas for interesting meals and menus to suit my mood of the moment, satisfy cravings, get my kids to eat without making barfy sounds, earn man-praise, delight guests, and dirty as few dishes as possible. I was looking for solutions to problems that had nothing to do with the seasons. I wanted sustenance and pleasure on my terms.
As Farmers Market aficionados, you probably know what I didn’t: It’s natural to pursue sustenance and pleasure, yes. The back-spinning trick of it is to up the quality of sustenance and depth of pleasure by eating what the earth is putting forth right here and right now. I’m not trying to preach to the converted here. I’m just asking, how do you figure out what to make for dinner? Do you ever eat the book backwards?
Eating the book backwards means that instead of starting with a recipe and then shopping for ingredients, you reverse the process and start by gathering fresh, local ingredients at the Market — then figure out what they can become. This might mean looking into the backs of your cookbooks first, at the indices where key ingredients are listed. It might mean consulting one those alphabetical-type cookbooks, which I now love, or a seasonally-organized cookbook. Learning to eat the book backwards creates small, but profound, shifts in how we might approach cooking. Ultimately, it puts our nourishment and pleasure into a more authentic, healthier relationship with the world.
But that’s not all.
Health, environment, economy and politics aside, eating the book backwards can yield unexpected rewards, for example I’ve reaped….
A broader repertoire. I’ve become good friends with celeriac and kohlrabi, vegetables I never encountered growing up. I’ve also learned to love beets and Brussels sprouts, vegetables I did encounter (and despised) in canned and overcooked forms, mostly upon school lunch trays. Fortunately, my earlier convictions were overturned by “fresh” evidence.
Bumper-to-bumper crops. I’ve learned to have fun with the creative challenges of eating a lot of one bumper crop for a time, and then a lot of the next bumper crop, and then a lot of bumper crops all coming at me at once, like bumper cars.
Way more potlucks. A great thing to do with all those zucchini, or corn, or winter squash is to make a big batch of something delicious and then share it. It’s also fun to see what my friends and neighbors concoct from essentially the same ingredients. What’s available right here and right now can be magicked into an endless variety of dishes.
Hugs from my farmer. After many years of picking up my CSA box from the market, I have come to know my farmer. Now, I get a hug along with my lettuces, how cool is that?
So, here’s a thing to try, if you like. The next time you visit your Farmers Market, let the farmers’ goods whisper their wishes to you. Let inspiration and impulse guide you. Eating the book backwards, you might go overboard, but you really can’t go wrong.
“Pssst! Over here!” said the Eggplant. “I would make a terrific Thai stir-fry, like with ginger and garlic?”
I gasped, “Oh, my! It’s a dear harbinger of Summer! Yeah, stir-fry, sure. Or moussaka? Or ratatouille? Or baba ganouj? Lots of possibilities.”
“I know, right?”
“OK, in the basket you go! And you over there, you too!”
Once upon a time, I didn’t take requests from Eggplants. But now I do, and from Artichokes and Zucchinis, too. Turns out it’s a great way to eat happily ever after…