January 01, 1980 News & Features » Cover Story


The Taste Test 

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I'm spoiled rotten. I eat a fresh egg almost every day. And not merely fresh as in "before the expiration date," but fresh in the sense of "warm from the body of the chicken who just laid it." Actually, that's an exaggeration (I've only had an egg like that once); but usually the eggs I eat are only a day or two old, and I happen to know that because when I go to the farmers' market, I ask the local farmer who collected them when the eggs were laid.

Grocery-store eggs, on the other hand, are usually around two weeks old, according to a University of Illinois Extension study, and the difference in taste is dramatic. A fresh egg is an orange powerhouse of deep, vibrant eggy flavor, whereas the supermarket variety can barely muster up a pallid yellow whisper of taste.

Luckily, there's a revolution afoot and it's in our own backyard. Locally produced food isn't just good for the environment and good for the farmers, it just tastes good, too. A whole lot better than most of what's available in stores simply because it's fresh.

Most food travels anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 miles from such states as California and Florida or countries like Chile and Mexico, and by the time it winds up on your table, that lowly zucchini or tomato may already be two weeks old — and that's if you buy it the day it's put out in the store. Local produce, however, is usually picked the day before it's brought to market. Because it's allowed to ripen more fully, it's therefore ready to eat as soon as you get it home (and why would you want to wait?). Baby turnips and their greens are exceptional treats, as are fresh edamame, any sort of berry, and truly ripe tomatoes are practically nirvana.

Weather's always a factor, however. Too much rain can wash out the flavor of heat-loving melon plants, and even tomatoes need periods of dryness to concentrate their flavor. Fortunately, we're having just about perfect weather for the growing season right now, so it's easy to assume whatever you get at the farmers' market will be far superior to what's being offered at the supermarket.

Local farmers also have the luxury of experimenting with heirloom strains and exotic varieties you'll never see in a grocery store because they bruise easily or ripen too quickly to travel long distances. The result is a succulently sweet strawberry or a dish of green beans with a more intensely verdant flavor, or even a plate of summer squash — usually too abundant to appreciate — you want to serve and eat all season long. S

B.P. Fox is a restaurant critic for Style Weekly and writes the local food blog Brandon Eats.

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