Our family life revolves around food, preferably and often painstakingly procured from local farms. To give you the gist of this new weekly column, consider the dishes this work-at-home mom haphazardly assembled in a recent week: an Asian slaw inspired by Six River Farm kohlrabi and kale and spring-dug carrots and burdock from Buckwheat Blossom Farm, seared steak-like slivers of Crystal Spring Farm lamb heart atop Whatley Farm corn salad (mâche), the golden alchemy of Milkweed Farm pork chops braised in Misty Brook Farm milk, and Parmesan-crusted boat-fresh dabs (flounder) from our Salt & Sea weekly fish drop. I also made a second batch of French onion soup, inspired by the 25-pound bag of frost-damaged organic onions I scored on the cheap from the Sheepscot General Store, an oasis in Whitefield.

Year-round, we build our Saturdays around trips to our local Brunswick farmers’ market; I go midweek, too, come summer. The community fellowship draws us as much as the food. My almost-3-year-old son, Theo, loves the live music, hubbub and fresh snacks. In this column, I’ll also chronicle cooking with the produce from our weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) veggie share, from our bulk-buying club and from my community-garden plot, which will hopefully thrive amid neglect again this year. I’ll give you a mother’s milk-buying guide, discuss why farm eggs are worth the splurge and which produce is least-contaminated by pesticides, and I’ll probe the science behind the pediatric nut-, gluten-, dairy- and sugar-allergy epidemics. I’ll even examine when efficiency matters more than buying local or organic does.

FAMILY INFLUENCE

Some background on my perspective: I credit my parents for raising me in a positive food culture. My best childhood memories revolve around family dinners, where my mother served a salad and at least one vegetable alongside a lean protein (often fish) or, of course, pasta. We kids complained that she wouldn’t buy soda pop or sugary cereals (only as a special birthday treat), rules I’ve instituted myself now that I’m a mother. My mom canned tomatoes and peaches before I was born, which inspired my training later as a master food preserver. At the time, I lived in Oregon, where in the wake of the economic collapse, “putting food by” suddenly became trendy. Our mom, a former French teacher, taught us to love haricots verts, oeufs mollets and tarte aux framboise. She baked French baguettes in special pans before artisan bread was widely available in stores.

My father played an equally pivotal role. He worked in a Mexican restaurant throughout college, so camarones en salsa verde and carne asada, and later authentic Chinese stir-fries, featured heavily as he tore up the kitchen after a hectic work day. Dad inspired my love of ethnic condiments (you should see my fridge’s crowded shelves) and bold, global flavors. My parents, who now have a camp in Belgrade Lakes, also conveyed a love of local foods most when here in Maine: the seasonal lobster, steamer clams, shelling peas, wild blueberries and sweet corn, the easily foraged black trumpet mushrooms, and winter sea scallops.

MARKET FORCES

Yet I had to go all the way to China to cultivate my own lifelong devotion to farmers’ markets. Living in an apartment while studying abroad there, I learned to cook daily, shopping the open-air markets for fresh produce and homemade tofu, while I watched my Chinese neighbors flock to new Western-style supermarkets, enthralled. China also taught me that meat was precious. For much of Chinese history, out of necessity, cooks used meat as a condiment, not at the center of the plate. That’s how we stretch out the admittedly more expensive grass-fed meat my family chooses today.

After college, I took refuge at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City and then, while living in Baltimore, at the diverse Waverly market. As a reporter at The Sun, I claimed food as my beat, penning cookbook reviews for the features section.

But my love of farm-fresh produce (not to mention beverages fermented with pinot noir grapes and Cascade hops) became an obsession when we relocated to Oregon’s abundant Willamette Valley. I started a food blog to chronicle early tastes of terroir: the chanterelle mushrooms, quince, Northwest cherries and Marionberries, fresh chestnuts and hazelnuts, wild stinging nettles and freshly dug bamboo shoots.

I woke up to the concerns of food justice and Slow Food. Oregon – and my economist husband – taught me that cheap food comes with hidden costs. Americans could spend more income on food if we spent less on luxuries. For example, since good food is the priority for us, we gave up cable TV and don’t have fancy electronics, either.

Maine’s equally strong local food ethos made us eager to relocate here in the summer of 2012, when my husband started a job at Bowdoin College. Since then I’ve written odes to Maine’s bounty for The Portland Phoenix, NPR’s “Kitchen Window,” and Modern Farmer. But having a toddler frequently tests my ideals. We do at least begin each day with fresh green smoothies, and we enjoy afternoon snacks of carrots dipped in hummus, edamame or kale chips. But my once-omnivorous son, who had happily devoured even kidneys and tripe, now favors more predictable fare – think avocados and bananas. Other staples of his current diet include chicken nuggets (the antibiotic-free variety; I’ll share a homemade recipe in a future column), French fries, Annie’s organic cheddar bunnies (truth be told, he’s just as happy with Goldfish) and gummy vitamins. Also, I increasingly indulge Theo’s out-of-season demands for imported berries, tomatoes and melon. I pray this pickiness will pass by the time Theo turns 3 in June. I know weekly trips to the farmers’ market and CSA farm, and picking peas and then tomatoes from our garden plot can only encourage his healthy appetite. And so I cook on.

 

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. You can reach her through her blog BaltimOregon.com, though she hasn’t posted so regularly since son Theo was born. Also, follow her on Twitter at @baltimoregon.