It seems like every market I visit around this time of the year is bursting with crates and crates of squash. Butternut, acorn, spaghetti… you name it, and France has it. I’ve boiled it, roasted it, mashed it, and seasoned it with various herbs and spices to bring out the fullest flavor of this iconic autumnal ingredient. Now, I was ready to stuff it.
After spending some time browsing through my favorite food blogs for inspiration, I decided to stuff it with sweet potato, lentils, and spinach. No sooner had the conceptual idea formed in my mind than I began picturing exactly what the dish would look like – the bright orange of the roasted butternut squash contrasting the creamy white flesh of the sweet potato speckled with lentils and the deep green hue of spinach.
Grabbing my re-usable grocery bag and throwing a scarf around my neck, I hastily made my way to the Wednesday evening organic market in the park, about a 15-minute walk from my apartment. It was only around half past 5, but the sun was on its way out and the street lights were beginning to flicker as they turned on.
I got in line at the produce stand for Ferme du Petit Pont, a small organic farm in the neighboring town of Azé. As I waited for the two customers in front of me to purchase their fruits and vegetables, I rehearsed what I would say in French to the farmer standing behind the counter.
Un moitié d’un sac d’épinards s’il vous-plait…. oui, c’est tout pour aujourd’hui merci beaucoup.
The elderly woman in front of me was fumbling through her wallet to pay for the pears and apples she was purchasing when she paused, telling the farmer that she decided she would also like some spinach.
I looked anxiously at the crate as its contents rapidly diminished, hoping she would only take a handful or, at least, leave a little bit for me.
Nope – she took it all. Every. last. bit.
I gestured to the produce truck, asking if they had more crates of spinach that day, but the farmer just shook his head, asked if I wanted anything else, and promptly began to help the next customer in line.
Stunned and spinach-less, I walked back to my apartment, wondering what the French translation is for, “are you kidding me?” The dinner turned out fine that night, but I couldn’t help but think about how much better it would have been with some greens.
The following day, however, as I was thinking about my market experience, I had something of an “aha” moment as my bitterness turned into a deep sense of appreciation.
Let me explain.
In the 21st century, we have become accustomed to the idea that, if we want to eat something, we can. We go to the grocery store, confident that the food we want will be there. And it almost always is. The problem, I would argue, is that this leads to an inflated sense of entitlement when it comes to our relationship to the land. We are convinced that the land owes us something, that the responsibility is on the earth to provide us with what we want, when we want it. In other words – the opposite of the farm-to-table movement.
Season 1, episode 2 of the documentary series Chef’s Table profiles Dan Barber who, in many ways, is the voice of the farm-to-table movement as chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
In the episode, acclaimed food writer Ruth Reichl applauds Barber’s unrelenting commitment to cooking with the seasons and comments on the way people today think about food.
“Farm-to-table is exactly what’s in season right then,” explains Reichl. “It’s an old way of eating, it’s the way our ancestors ate until there was refrigerator and air-free, but we’ve completely turned that on its head in the 20th and 21st centuries where we just think ‘the world is our oyster we can have everything we want all the time and it doesn’t matter how good it tastes’.”
My experience at the market is a microcosm of this farm-to-table movement and one of the main reasons I fell in love with the culinary culture in France, a country still adhering to this “old way of eating” by beating to the rhythm of the earth and eating products at the height of their flavor.
Not going to lie – if the same thing were to happen to me at the market next week, I would still be bitter because I don’t believe our modern way of thinking about food is something that can be discarded easily. But I certainly want to try.
If anyone ever asks me why it was I wanted to return to France so badly after my study abroad experience, I’m going to tell this story. This is one of the many reasons living here makes me so happy, even if my stuffed butternut squash doesn’t have spinach.