Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 20, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Produce Box, Pea Shoots, Big Nate
I like to garden. I like to root my fingers into the soil and plant things, and I even take pleasure in grubbing out the rooty remnants of last yearís plants. When a seed or seedling I planted grows well, climbs or bushes out and provides the color or texture I had hoped for in that spot in the garden, it just plain feels good.
And, unlike most pleasures, it lasts. Each time I look at it for days or weeks, it keeps looking wonderful and making me feel good about accomplishing something.
Itís especially nice to solve a problem in the yard: the perpetually shady, wet spot where the outdoor air-conditioning unit sits, or the sunny window box where, if something grows too tall, it completely blocks my assistantís view through her office window.
The trouble is that plants are like pets and children (yes, Iíve seen The Fantasticks so I know someone has noticed this before) in that they require tending even when (a) youíre out of town or (b) you donít feel like it.
As long as you set up a system for watering, most decorative plants pretty much take care of themselves all summer. But vegetables and berries Ė ah, now theyíre a different matter.
Since the point of planting them is the fruit they bear, not how they look, they arenít necessarily bred for convenience. Raspberries grow on stems that want to tear up your skin a little. Tomatoes are eager to get leggy Ė you have to keep pruning or propping the vines, and if you donít, then you get less fruit or the fruit you get is on the ground and it rots before you can pick it.
You also have rivals. We have grown splendid cantaloupes, but we have never once brought one into the house to eat, because always the night before weíre going to pick one, some small beast burrows into it and early that morning, we find it aswarm with ants. Wasnít it nice of me to provide such a wonderful feast for beastlings?
Donít get me wrong Ė weíre not always disappointed. But what grows best may not be what we like best, and vice versa. So my gardening ventures are pruned back these days to simple, practical things like haricot (French green beans), basil and tiny grape or cherry tomatoes, which ripen very quickly on the vine.
And even they require attention. If you donít nip the basil blossoms constantly, all their energy goes into seed production and all we want are the leaves; when haricot is ripe for picking, you have to pick now or you end up with pasty inedible seeds instead of slender delicious pods.
With years of experience, I only plant what I know will grow well, that weíll eat. As for other fruits and vegetables, since weíre going to end up buying them in the store anyway, why pretend Iím going to get a harvest in my yard?
Iíll tell you why. Mormon kids of my generation grew up instilled with the virtues of self-sufficiency. Thereís a moral dimension to growing your own food. Obviously you canít grow major staples like wheat in a postage-stamp yard, but it feels just a tiny bit sinful not to make some attempt at squeezing some of your familyís nutrition out of the soil yourself.
Finally, though, I just had to admit that if God meant me to be a farmer, he wouldnít have made me such an extraordinarily fast typist. Or at least heíd keep the beasts from stealing my food. I get it about nature red in tooth and claw, but why must nature also be stained with all my berries and melons?
So yes, Iím a failure as a seriously productive gardener, with the few exceptions already mentioned.
The trouble with buying produce at the store is that fruits are generally truck- and shelf-ripened, and therefore the particular kind of fruit is bred, not for flavor, but for shelf life.
Of course Fresh Market and, increasingly, its more serious competitors, do offer a few things that are picked much closer to ripeness; we thrive on the heirloom tomato selection at Fresh Market, for instance. But as a practical matter, itís no good for a store to buy produce that is going to be unsalable two days after they put it on display. They have to live within practical limits.
Which brings me to The Produce Box (http://www.TheProduceBox.com), a fresh produce home-delivery service that has taken the pressure off me as a home gardener.
A North Carolina company (though Iím sure similar services already exist or soon will in other areas that arenít completely paved over or covered with rock, sand or ice), The Produce Box began in 2007 when Courtney Tellefsen, ďour Founder,Ē got frustrated with trying to shop for really fresh produce with small children in tow.
Services that brought produce to a central place didnít work for her. She wished that somebody would let her check off what she wanted from a list of available produce, pick good quality items in practical quantities (i.e., what can reasonably be consumed while itís still fresh) and then deliver it to her door.
Then she stopped wishing and started a company that does exactly that.
Which is why on Fridays (our delivery day), a white box now appears magically on our front porch, filled with good quality, just-picked produce from local farmers.
There is a little urgency about getting the box indoors fairly soon after itís dropped off, because we have active, inquisitive ants in our neighborhood, and when one or two of them discover something delicious, those little gossips Facebook the information, with pictures and a map, and pretty soon everybody they know shows up for the feast.
Thatís only happened to us twice and it was our own fault for not checking our front porch. In our defense, we didnít know it was Friday. And in my defense, knowing what day it is is not my job. My job is knowing where we are. My wife is in charge of clocks and calendars. Thatís a division of labor our personalities forced on us and we reconciled to it early in our marriage.
Hereís how nice the folks at The Produce Box are: Weíre supposed to leave last weekís empty box on the porch for them to pick up at the same time that they deliver the new one. But even though we leave the box right there in the entryway so we donít forget, we forget.
They have never punished us for it. No extra fees. No snide notes. They just take our two empty boxes the next week.
What about the quality?
Weíre still with them, arenít we? There are all the items we ask for, and a few surprises now and then. Everything we ask for is very good, and if we donít get around to eating all of it Ė well, that happens with produce we buy in the store, too.
And thereís truly a difference in the produce. I like going into the store and finding the produce all spic and span, tidily arranged and, well, tame. But thereís a kind of wildness to just-picked produce. It hasnít been squeezed together tightly with its mates while being transported to the stores.
Instead, itís loosely set in a box with biological strangers or distant cousins, and so the leaves all look pretty much the way they did as they grew out of the ground.
It looks and tastes exactly the way fresh fruits and vegetables from my own yard would look if I were a competent gardener, and had just picked them myself.
Itís like somebody added a really great garden to my yard, and then kindly came over and did all the gardening for me Ė and then charged me a very reasonable fee for the service.
I have no idea how the economics of the service works Ė but they wouldnít still be in business if the farmers werenít getting paid enough, and The Produce Box werenít able to pay those who sort out, box up and deliver the produce.
They even contribute regularly to charitable food providers so you arenít just buying for yourself.
Iím not ashamed to support farmers in Chile by buying expensive out-of-season berries at the store. But thereís a pleasure in knowing that what we buy from The Produce Box could have grown on land we might drive past.
If we ever had to drive anywhere. Between Barnes & Noble, Amazon and The Produce Box, we drive a lot less than we used to. If we didnít have to pick up our weekly bread order from Great Harvest Bread Company (Fridays, so we can get our challah), Iím not sure Iíd ever leave the house.
One nice thing about The Produce Box is that now and then, they toss in, at no extra charge, something you werenít expecting. Itís kind of like having a slightly bossy friend who, when you visit her kitchen, makes you take home a sample of some vegetable you would never have chosen for yourself.
Once you have it at home, it nags at you until you try it. Yes?
So this week, The Produce Box tossed in pea shoots. These are just what you think Ė newly sprouted pea vines, minus the pea they sprouted from.
The idea is to add them to salads for a bit of extra flavor. A hint of pea-ness in the greens. (Try to avoid reading that aloud.) (Except I just forced you to, because youíre human and when someone urges you not to think of something, you think of it. I know that, and I tricked you. Sorry if I spoiled your appetite a little.)
We followed their directions (wash wash wash the pea shoots) and then, cautiously, placed them in their own small bowl on the table. Then we tore up a few leaves and added them to a corner of the mache-nicoise salads on our plates.
We thought they would kind of disappear into the salad, adding just a hint of flavor, but ... wrong. The pea shoots have such thin, papery leaves that they didnít behave like part of the salad.
While you could chew up the hearty, crunchy leaves of everything else Ė and mache and pea-shoot leaves are about the same size Ė the papery pea leaves clung to palate and cheek and tongue and were very hard to move around in the mouth. They were like the anti-salad.
All right, so that taught us that if pea shoots were going to work, theyíd have to be minced or shredded. Whole leaves, though small, just donít work.
But when we succeeded in chewing them a little and swallowing them, here was the real disappointment: We could barely taste them. I mean, what taste they had was definitely pea-ish, but considering the textural annoyances, the flavor just wasnít worth it.
If I want to have the flavor of peas in my salad, Iíll add peas. Or pea pods. Or sprouted peas. They have a great texture, and lots more flavor. Pea-shoot leaves just arenít worth the bother.
But hey, now I know something I wouldnít have known if The Produce Box hadnít passed along to us a chance to try something that we might have liked. Iím betting someone else must have thought they were wonderful. Just because I donít like a thing doesnít mean it isnít good.
Well, OK, thatís exactly what it means, but I donít think less of you for liking something I find unlikeable. And I hope youíll return the favor.
The day after one of the ice storms, when our power was out, we had an early supper at Positano (their brilliant tre-P on linguini, thanks for asking). We were talking about stopping by the Harris Teeter we usually shop at on the way home, when it dawned on us that we could simply walk to the one in the same shopping center as Positano.
I donít know if itís something new Harris Teeter is trying out, or if store managers have more discretion than I thought, but we happened to notice an unusually large (or perhaps prominently placed) book section.
Grocery store book sections used to be the place where certain kinds of bestsellers were born. Jacqueline Susann, for instance, became a bestselling author because she nurtured the drivers who used to stock those grocery-store bookshelves, and they put her books in the #1 Bestseller slots, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then those independent drivers got taken over or shoved aside by a couple of big companies, and at the same time, grocery store book sections shrank and shrank.
I think what killed them was the same thing that killed Crown Books. Corporate decision makers, who do not buy and read books themselves (they only see numbers; letters are outside their ken), ask the obvious question: If 90 percent of our sales come from 15 books, why do we devote the shelf space to stocking all these other books?
So they find out (or guess) what the bestsellers will be, and stock only those. Freeing up way more shelf space for Doritos or Coca-Cola.
The problem is that even though readers do tend to choose the same books other people are choosing, the operative word here is choose. When book buyers see a display of only 15 titles, they feel a little coerced.
ďThese are the books,Ē the store is saying. ďThese or nothing.Ē Without necessarily thinking it consciously, the book buyer answers, ďYouíre not the boss of me.Ē
The result of shrinking selection was vanishing sales, until many grocery stores gave up entirely on book sections. (And since mostly women do the grocery shopping, the books long since became only books that appealed to women.)
Admittedly, there were other complicating factors. As ďwomenís romanceĒ fiction turned into ďwomenís pornography,Ē with more and more absurdly specific (and anachronistic) sex scenes, fewer and fewer women wanted to buy them and bring them into their homes. Or at least they didnít want the checkout clerks to see that they were buying porn.
Which is a long way of leading up to this: There was a surprisingly ambitious book section in the Harris Teeter on Lawndale. And the choices included an array of books that werenít all bodice-rippers.
There were even (gasp) some books for middle schoolers.
I think good ambitions should be rewarded and encouraged, where possible. It was certainly possible for me to buy a book. And the one I picked was Big Nate: In the Zone, by Lincoln Peirce. (Yes, thatís how the last name is spelled, and the first sentence in his bio tells us itís pronounced ďpurse.Ē Now you know.)
Itís a chapter book, but there are comic strips all over it, because the narrator and hero, sixth-grader Nate, is an obsessive cartoonist. In fact, the delightful turning point in the novel comes when he uses his cartooning skills on an unusual surface. But I donít want to spoil things, because of course youíre all going to rush out and buy this book.
There are other Big Nate books and this one isnít first. But Peirce is such a clear and conscientious writer that you are never lost or left out because of not knowing things that went before, though I also think that if you had read other books, you wouldnít feel annoyed by being reminded of things you already knew. This is a hard trick for a writer to pull off and Peirce does it well.
What he also does well is create believable sixth-grade characters and situations. He doesnít succumb to sitcom-itis, where kids get involved in things that are way out of age group. Nor does the hero get to be preternaturally smart. (I mean, how tedious would that be, reading about genius heroes all the time?)
Itís just funny. When Nate screws up, he screws up in ways that real kids screw up, without being bad or mean. The antagonists are not overblown (well, the teachers are, but weíre quite aware that weíre getting Nateís version of events).
Nateís relationship with his father is a pleasure to read Ė his dad is neither an idiot nor his buddy, so weíre really not on TV here.
I enjoyed the book from beginning to end, and it must work for middle schoolers or there wouldnít be so many Big Nate books.
But you donít have to take my word for it. Big Nate exists as an online comic strip: http://www.bignate.com. (This actually redirects you to GoComics.com, but itís free and itís Big Nate, and itís shorter to type than http://www.gocomics.com/bignate.)
The problem with the comic strip is that, by itself, it doesnít really give you the flavor of Peirceís breezy narrative style. Much of the appeal of the book comes from the voice he gives Nate Ė his attitude, his candor. These require prose rather than pictures, so the book is definitely better than the strip alone.
Besides, comic strips suffer from four-panels-and-youíre-done syndrome, which means itís hard to tell coherent stories. But Big Nate: In the Zone doesnít have such limitations. The comic-strip drawings arenít just decorative, though. Significant parts of the story are told in comic-strip form.
Peirce moves seamlessly back and forth between forms, and it works completely. You never want to skip the drawings, you canít afford to skim the text. Theyíre one continuous whole.
So thanks, Harris Teeter on Lawndale, for having a book section large enough to allow choices. Thanks, too, for including YA fiction, and for having one of the available choices be a Big Nate book.