Spinach, Salad, and the Seasons

What a dozen seasons as a shareholder in a small farm can teach even the most accomplished cook

A couple of weeks ago, while the rest of the country was taking on that question for the ages—Is spinach still good for you?—I was enjoying the first fall crop of leafy greens. In fact, I sautéed a heaping pile of the fat leaves just the other night, stirring them in hot, garlicky oil for less time than it took me to type this sentence. I would have eaten them standing right at the stove if my husband hadn't been staring at me, waiting to get his fork in.

And not once have I checked myself or my family for symptoms of E. coli.

That's because I know the exact patch of land where my spinach, along with all our other vegetables from June through December, comes from. I know the guy who grows it. I know it was cut by hand and not by the dirty blade of a mass harvester. I know it wasn't washed in a massive vat of chemicals or contaminated water (its first bath was right in my sink). I know it never saw the inside of a plastic bag. (So, permit me a smug little thought: Why on earth does the FDA think the spinach is the problem?)

David Van Eeckhout with some of Hog's Back Farm's sweetest sprouts
Sean Smuda
David Van Eeckhout with some of Hog's Back Farm's sweetest sprouts

For half the year, all the vegetables for our family of four come from Hog's Back Farm, a more-or-less one-man community supported agriculture (CSA) operation in Arkansaw, Wisconsin. Our farmer (we get a kick out of calling him that) is David Van Eeckhout, a rangy, 30-ish father of two. He's been farming on his own for four years. Before that, he was a partner in Riverbend Farm, in Delano, Minnesota. Every Thursday, he makes the 75-mile drive from Arkansaw to the Twin Cities in a beat-up pickup, pulling a trailer with 85 yellow boxes of vegetables. He drops them off at centrally located private homes in St. Paul; Nokomis, Cedar-Isles, and Kenwood in Minneapolis; and a corner of St. Louis Park located just across France from Linden Hills, where shareholders pick up the goods.

The dishy demographics of his customer base can't be denied: These are families who can afford to live in nice neighborhoods and spend $495 on a summer's worth of vegetables; many shareholders, including us, split a share, and many, also like us, pay an additional $225 for a fall/winter share. But there's no reason CSAs should be a choice exclusively for the upper-middle class. Yes, $500 is a big check. But divide that by 18 weeks and you get $27.50. That would buy you plenty of veggies at Cub or Rainbow, but far less at your co-op or Whole Foods, where you're more likely to find comparable quality. And remember, we fill up on half a share. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, we pay a little more than $1.50 per pound of vegetables—not too shabby.

Hog's Back is one of more than 50 CSAs in Minnesota, according to Local Harvest, and more than 1,200 in the United States. They all work on more or less the same model: an upfront fee that funds the farm through the season, in exchange for regular deliveries of vegetables. In a good year, the shareholders enjoy bounteous yields. In a bad year, they take the hit.

This is our third year of CSA membership. Truth be told, I lived the first two years in fear of Thursdays. I had nightmares about that overflowing yellow box, which sometimes held as much as 25 pounds of vegetables. I dug disgusting things out of our crisper drawers and cried when I had to throw food away. And I still found myself picking up vegetables at the grocery store: My husband had a yen for green peppers, say, or I needed eggplant for a recipe.

Here's the thing about a CSA box: You can't have a big butterleaf salad on Monday and green beans on Tuesday and ratatouille on Wednesday, because lettuces get picked before it gets too hot, beans mature in the first flash of summer heat, and the eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes for a ratatouille take all summer to get juicy and fat.

In fact, you don't get a whole lot of say in what you cook and eat. The first boxes of the summer weigh next to nothing, but they're overflowing with lettuce. Those lettuce heads are something else: green and red leaf lettuces too delicate for any grocery shelf and butterleaf heads with more character than any other I've had. But four or five big heads of lettuce means salad every night in June.

And that is the key to the CSA box: embracing the idea that now is the time of salad suppers; soon that time will end and the time of grilled zucchini will come, followed by the time of the tomato, the time of the squash, and the time of the potato. In our ancestors' days (in my family, going back exactly one generation to my parents), that time was followed by the time of the home-canned pickled beets and green beans. For me, after the last of the squash (which I dislike) is gone comes the time of the return to the grocery-store produce aisle, where I now feel a little lost: Where is David and his one-sheet newsletter, the Hog's Back Almanac, telling what is at the peak of production and what to look forward to next week?

Next Page »