Hubba Hubba–the Scrumptious Food Culture of CSAs


photo by CSA member Catie Eyer

While I normally reserve CSA-oriented rants for waxing poetic about the economic security the model brings to our small farm, today my thoughts are on the more abstract concept of food culture and how CSAs do a great service to creating them.

Our collective lack of a “food culture” is a woe articulated by food-focused philosophers from Michael Pollan to Wendell Berry to Barbara Kingsolver. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver describes “culture” this way: “Humans don’t do everything we crave to do–that is arguably what makes us human. We’re genetically predisposed toward certain behaviors that we’ve collectively decided are unhelpful: adultery and racism are possible examples. With reasonable success, we mitigate those impulses through civil codes, religious rituals, maternal warnings–the whole bag of tricks we call culture. Food cultures concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place, and the complex ways of rendering them tasty. These are the mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous. And here we are, sure enough in trouble…”

I’ll spare us the rest, where she delves into our national obesity epidemic, diet-related health problems, and fad diets that constitute a culture of “anti-eating.” We’ve heard it all before, lived it all before. But as we open our annual farm education curriculum with this article, each year I see the CSA as becoming more solidly anchored at the center of a food culture for our committed members.

CSA members!

CSA pickups at our farm have become what I envisioned them being when we started 11 years ago–a place of camaraderie and intrigue, where folks from different walks of life find common ground around food produced a few hundred feet from where they’re standing, harvested a few hours before they arrive. Each week, folks come to the pickup after a day of working (or not), dressed in business suits or swimsuits, with kids in tow or beers in tow (or sometimes both). They stay for a few minutes or an hour, sitting in the shade on lawn chairs or the coolers that hold their week’s goodies, and chat about everything from what they ate for dinner last week to the death of a loved one. And when it’s time to get their goodies and head for home, they hold out their bags like trick-or-treaters and ooh and ahh appropriately as I pull each item out of the coolers and dole it out between them. Together we celebrate the miracles of seeds making indescribably beautiful sustenance with each enormous bouquet of brightly colored chard or enticingly plump early turnips, and we count our blessings that we’re able to eat so well, through the good-natured work of passionate humans attempting to conduct the orchestra of the natural world into something tasty.

Now there’s a man who loves chard–AND growing food!

This connection–grateful eaters communing with humble farmers–makes for a powerful shift in grocerystore mentality, where everything needs to look perfect in order to be given a place of honor in someone’s belly. We share it all with our members, from the voluptuous brandywines that can barely make it from the field to the pickup spot without bruising to the tiny bunches of pathetic beets that just didn’t seem to grow this year.

“It’s ok,” the members smile, taking them gingerly. “They’ll be great in a stirfry.”

It’s common knowledge that I didn’t know beans about food when I first joined a CSA years ago, and I had a painful go of learning how to cook and eat the things in my share , most of which I’d never seen before and was thoroughly terrified (and actually disgusted) to eat. Kale, mustard greens, chard–all of it scared the crap out of me, and it was intimidating to ask for guidance on how to cook it. When I see that deer in headlights look on a new member’s face as I’m handing them a gigantic bouquet of collard greens, a more seasoned member will step in.

One of my favorite members Jane always stuck her head in the bag of CSA basil to inhale it with a euphoric sigh.

“I love those in soups!”

Another will join in, “I scramble them with my eggs in the morning, with a little French Tarragon.”

You can literally see the new member’s face relax as they realize they’re supported in this frankly huge new endeavor.

And it is truly huge, for so many reasons. Committing to bringing 18 weeks of vastly more vegetables than you’re used to cramming into your diet into your kitchen and into your belly, especially when many are unfamiliar and most need to be prepared in some way is a serious undertaking.

Over seasons, it becomes huge in other ways. A CSA teaches us what can be produced in our valley every week over many months of time. It also teaches us what isn’t available in every week, or in some cases (like avocados) ever. But instead of that being a letdown, the progression of CSA crops becomes an exciting journey, and each one brings with its arrival the promise of specific meals that families come to look forward to.

When the first green beans arrive in the shares, members squeal about green bean tacos, a phenomenon largely unknown in the mainstream food culture but an almost cultish part of our CSA food culture. (You simply MUST try them if in green bean season if you haven’t already–loads of cumin is the secret). Sage butter, kale salad with soba noodles, and Casey’s Tasty Leek and Ground Cherry pizza are all CSA member favorites, and each year a new member brings another epic dish into the fold. Last year it was caponata from Amanda, the year before, curried pickles from Kailie. The kids move through their delighted season from turnips to peas to ground cherries to watermelons–all the sweetest treats in the shares, and they eat them all like candy during the pickup.

Marian and Ned Eyer have been patiently posing for a photo with their CSA share each week for 5 years!

“She never eats vegetables!” a parent will say as his kid is chomping down on a lemon cucumber straight from the cooler.

And if that isn’t the cornerstone of a food culture–elders teaching healthy and yummy eating habits to the next generation–what is? “These are the mores of survival,” Kingsolver says, “good health, and control of excess. Living without them would seem dangerous.” But living with them is supremely delicious; a delectable, satisfying, season-by-season adventure.