Real Fruit and Vegetables - Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck

Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck (2016)

Chapter 5. Real Fruit and Vegetables


Farming is relentless; my father called it a “vegetable-driven existence.” Our season started in March, with tomato seedlings in the greenhouse. In April, we picked the always-thrilling first crop (I still love spinach for that reason), and soon after came the more glamorous strawberries and rhubarb. When the June heat hit, zucchini production exploded, cucumbers were next, and blueberries came in on the Fourth of July. In the height of summer, we picked and sold hundreds of baskets of tomatoes.

After Labor Day, we had to pick sweet corn before school, and when we came up the hill from the bus stop in the afternoon, a note on the kitchen table told us where to pick beans. By late September, we were all half praying for an early, hard frost to end our vegetable-driven days, but the cool-weather crops were still to come. In October, we lugged baskets of butternut squash, and our hands turned numb from washing turnips and collard greens in big tin buckets. For vegetable farmers, winter is a great relief, like a silence after listening to jackhammers. I don’t know how dairy farmers keep going twelve months a year.

You might expect a childhood like that to put me off vegetables forever. But I love everything about them: how pretty they look on the plant, picking them when they’re just right, even washing, chopping, and cooking them. Most of all, I love to eat vegetables; I know there are a few I don’t like, but without effort I can’t remember what they are. Salsify, maybe—but then I never cook it properly. And white asparagus.

At the farm in high summer, abundance was the norm. The fields, the cool basement, and the kitchen were filled with the finest varieties of the freshest vegetables you’d ever taste, and maybe that’s why I eat more vegetables than anyone I know. For a salad to serve two, I use a large head of lettuce. Whatever we’re having for dinner—pork loin, sautéed chicken livers, fish—I usually make at least two vegetables, often three or four. On my own, I often make an entire meal of vegetables, always with some richer topping, like butter, walnuts, or blue cheese.

There’s no nutritional advice more dog-eared than “Eat your vegetables,” but that won’t stop me from repeating it here. A heap of solid evidence shows that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps prevent macular degeneration, age-related decline, heart disease, and cancer. Fruits and vegetables are packed with good things, including fiber, potassium, and vitamin C, but the exciting research is on huge classes of antioxidants like carotenoids and flavonoids. Scientists have identified four thousand different flavonoids alone.

The research tidbits emerging about phytochemicals (plant chemicals) are fun for the produce-obsessed. For example, anthocyanins, the flavonoids in blackberries and blueberries, are the most powerful antioxidants of 150 flavonoids.1 Tart cherries are another nutritional gold mine, with seventeen different antioxidants, including two powerful anthocyanins not found in blueberries or cranberries. In Michigan, they swear by Montmorency cherry juice to beat pain and inflammation from arthritis and gout. It’s also delicious. At Duette Foodshed, the chef makes tart-cherry jello with grass-fed cattle gelatin.


Carotenoids—fat-soluble compounds that protect plants from the sun and our cell walls from attack by free radicals—are the most famous antioxidants in plants, but there are thousands of others. Here, some potent antioxidants are grouped by color. By the way, I don’t use the microwave, which destroys antioxidants, enzymes, and vitamins more than conventional heat. Don’t forget to add butter, olive oil, or bacon to absorb the fat-soluble carotenoids.


Spinach, peas, and avocados

Lutein and zeaxanthin help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration


Carrots, mangos, and sweet potatoes

Alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and zeta-carotene fight cancer, and beta-carotene prevents LDL oxidation


Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon

Lycopene lowers LDL and helps prevent lung disease and prostate cancer


Blueberries, grapes, red cabbage, and red peppers

Anthocyanins delay cellular aging and reduce blood clots

Have you noticed that most natural poisons, from hemlock to deadly nightshade to toadstools, are found in plants, and not in meat, fish, and eggs? Plants are rooted to the ground and can’t run from predators, so they need other defenses. Plants respond to an invasion (or prevent one) by making bitter compounds called phenolics. Insects like aphids dislike the taste of phenolics, so they abandon the plant for other food. Scientists have identified some ten thousand compounds designed to foil the hungry animals who would devour plants, including alkaloids (potatoes), tannins (tea), and oxalates (rhubarb).

“Plants produce these weapons only if they need them,” writes the naturalist Susan Allport in The Primal Feast. Watercress, for example, is peppery yet sweet when young but turns bitter when it flowers, just when it needs to keep insects at bay to make seeds for the next year. The same is true of lettuce. Once hot weather hits, lettuce bolts; instead of sending tender leaves out, it shoots a firm stem straight up to prepare a seed head. As any gardener knows, once the lettuce has bolted—I love the term, which suggests fleeing the scene on short notice—it turns bitter.

Some of the bitter compounds in plants, such as strychnine (part of the alkaloid family) are toxic to humans. In large quantities, the green blush on potatoes left out in the light is poisonous, as are rhubarb leaves. But many phytochemicals are powerful antioxidants and very healthy. Bitter herbs, often represented by horseradish or romaine lettuce, have a prominent place on the Passover plate. I like to ponder the material reasons for enduring culinary traditions, and this one certainly makes nutritional sense. All leafy greens are good for you, bitter ones especially so.


When you know the value of whole plant families, it’s easier to shop for the foods you prefer. If you don’t fancy a stir-fry of beef and broccoli, get your phytochemicals from leek soup, roasted turnips, or watercress salad with blue cheese.


Members of the lily family, onions, garlic, leeks, and scallions are called alliums because they contain allicin, an antibiotic that fights tumors, reduces cholesterol, prevents blood clots, and reduces blood pressure.


The asters include lettuce, endive, radicchio, chicory, and dandelions. This would be easier to remember if you ever saw a lettuce flower; it looks like a little dandelion or wild aster. They’re digestive tonics and rich in beta-carotene.


✵Belgian endive (missile-shaped with cream-colored, yellow-tipped leaves)

✵Radicchio (typically round, with rich pink, densely packed, curvy leaves)

✵Puntarelle (wild chicory spears, dressed with oil, lemon juice, garlic, and anchovies in Italy)

✵Dandelion (quite bitter and worth adding to salads)


✵Curly endive (frilly, green and yellow head; also called frisée)

✵Escarole (a broad-leafed endive that looks like romaine)


Also called the mustards, Brassicas include broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, turnips, and watercress. They contain beta-carotene and sinigrin, which fights colon cancer.


✵Watercress (another Brassica) and the flowering garden nasturtium (family tropaeolacrae) deserve a special mention because they’re too little appreciated. Watercress and nasturtium (leaves and flowers) are peppery and lovely in salads. Rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, watercress is a mild stimulant, diuretic, and digestive tonic.

Curiously, we are the rare animal that actually likes the bitter taste of radicchio or black tea. I fear, however, that Americans raised on sugary things are losing the taste for things savory, sour, and bitter. It’s pitiful that commercial salad dressings contain sugar, and even sweet corn hybrids are much sweeter than when I was little. We’re not alone. In Britain, plant scientists are breeding sweeter hybrids of the brussels sprout, famous for its dour presence at Christmas lunch, but the more palatable sprouts may lack the healthy, bitter compounds.

In the kitchen, the classic complements to “bitter herbs” such as turnip greens, frisée, and Belgian endive are rich ingredients with equally strong flavors: salty fatback and pancetta, pungent Roquefort. These toppings make nutritional sense, because the body needs fat to convert the antioxidant beta-carotene into usable vitamin A. When you make a mess of greens (as they say in the South), don’t stint on the fatback; they belong together.

Thinking about our funny, plant-driven childhood, I asked my brother, Charles, what he remembered about meals on the farm, and right away he mentioned one of my most vivid associations: red raspberries and Sunday mornings. At six AM we picked raspberries for the Takoma Park farmers’ market, which started relatively late, at ten AM. (For selling delicate produce, nothing beats a sign saying PICKED TODAY.) After the market truck left, we picked another pint or two for raspberry-studded pancakes. The syrup was simply berries boiled with sugar until they fell apart.

We grew other small fruit, too: black raspberries, blueberries, tart cherries, and strawberries. I love them all. Later we grew only one strawberry—a little thing with a short season called Earliglow—because we never found a better one, although Tristar comes close. We feel about Earliglows as William Butler, the sixteenth-century English physician, felt about strawberries. “Doubtless God could have made a better berry,” he said, “but doubtless God never did.”

Berry picking is a pleasant job, even when you are picking for market, and I was a fast berry picker. I also have a sharp eye for spotting wild fruit. At Small Farm, our place in Stockton, New Jersey, I know where furry wineberry bushes lurk. Finding berries in baking-hot suburban parking lots or along old canals is fun, too. In New York, my first local mulberry tree was only blocks away, in a little park on the East River.

Plants, as we’ve seen, make themselves bitter out of self-defense. Berries, likewise, dress up pretty out of self-interest. The vivid crimson and blue of wild raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries must have popped out like jewels to the hunter-gatherer eye. From the plant’s point of view, looking lovely draws the attention of animals, who will then eat the fruit, travel, and spread the seeds—a neat trick if you’re a blackberry bush and can’t walk around. For the forager, meanwhile, sapphire and ruby clusters, like the bitter taste of dandelions, signify good things, including vitamin C and anthocyanins.

When I see quarts of dark sweet cherries at the farmers’ market or glimpse a purple splotch in a tangled green fencerow, I smile and cheer up a little. I like to think that’s my Stone Age brain, perking up.


When we picture industrial meat, the images are unpleasant: animals crammed on concrete floors in dark barns, tails docked, getting fat on hormones—and that’s about right. It’s more difficult to conjure up an industrial tomato. Sure, large commercial farms probably don’t look like a backyard garden, but how badly can they mistreat a simple tomato? In fact, the traditional and industrial tomato have little in common.

Before the first seed is sown, soil is sterilized with fumigants like methyl bromide, which is toxic to wildlife and people. Healthy soil is never sterile; it should be teeming with fauna, from earthworms and nematodes to microbes. Soil fertility—and thus plant health—depends on the interaction of these organisms with the soil and plant roots. A teaspoon of grassland topsoil may contain twenty million fungi and five billion bacteria, creatures who want to be fed with cow manure, minerals, compost, and other organic matter. On industrial farms, however, soil life is not nurtured; it’s murdered.

The seeds are different, too. Industrial varieties have traits convenient to large growers, distributors, and retailers. An industrial tomato, for example, is bred to be solid and thick-skinned, the better to tolerate mechanical harvesting, washing, packaging, and long-distance shipping. Uniform shape and size are also important. Flavor and texture take a backseat. Gardeners and small farmers prefer great flavor to good looks, not that the two qualities are always mutually exclusive.

Industrial farming also favors monocropping, but single crops, as the Irish learned the hard way with potato blight in 1845, are more susceptible to devastation by pest invasion and disease. The industrial answer is herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides to kill weeds, insects, and molds. So powerful are these chemicals, industrial farmers have dispensed with crop rotation—the age-old method for keeping pests and disease at bay—but the apparent efficiency is illusory. With this system, pests and pathogens traditionally kept in check by switching crops accumulate, thus requiring yet more pesticides.

As with factory animals, rapid, high yields are the goal on industrial produce farms. Synthetic fertilizers, especially nitrogen, make plants grow fast, but nitrogen-driven growth produces weak, watery, and overly leafy plants which are more vulnerable to insects. Furthermore, most of the nitrogen runs off, polluting streams, rivers, oceans, fisheries, and drinking water.2

Industrial farmers use hormonelike chemicals to push plants to grow bigger and set fruit faster. Almonds, broccoli, grapes, melons, onions, potatoes, snap beans, tomatoes, and other crops may be treated with growth enhancers such as AuxiGro. Rather like a steroid for plants, it promises enhanced flowering, larger fruit size, and greater yields—with what effect on texture, flavor, and nutrition, I don’t know. We do know that steroids enhance performance in cattle and baseball players, and we know the extra beef, milk, and muscle come at a price. Plants have equally delicate hormonal systems.

Harvest is different on industrial and traditional farms, too. Industrial peaches and plums taste nothing like local ones in season, in large measure because they’re underripe. Industrial fruits cannot be picked ripe; they would never survive the journey, often thousands of miles, to the supermarket. Industrial tomatoes are picked “hard green” and ripened artificially with ethylene gas. They never develop the complex flavor or luscious texture of a tomato that ripens naturally, with just the right combination of acids and sugars, like a balanced wine.

Another difference between industrial and ecological produce is postharvest treatment and packaging. Most treatments are designed to make produce look fresh longer. But is it still fresh? En route to shops, produce is irradiated to kill bacteria such as E. coli and extend its shelf life. Irradiated strawberries can still look fresh after three weeks, long after an untreated berry would have spoiled. That certainly helps the supermarket produce manager, but irradiation destroys vitamins, and with every day it sits on the shelf, the berry is less tasty and nutritious. According to Public Citizen, irradiation also produces new compounds called alkylcyclobutanones, which are linked to cancer and genetic damage in rat and human cells. Groceries, meanwhile, promote irradiation as a public health measure. But I don’t want sterilized food; I want food that’s clean in the first place—and still alive.

How “baby” salad leaves got trendy is one of my favorite industrial produce stories. First, supermarkets offered washed leaves as a convenience to cooks. (By the way, the history of laborsaving devices in the American kitchen is not encouraging, and I doubt that people who are too busy to wash lettuce enjoy more leisure than I do.) But the prewashed cut leaves turned brown too quickly, so growers started to sell small, whole leaves, which lasted longer because they weren’t cut.

This convenience to industrial lettuce growers, produce wholesalers, and supermarkets was presented as a gourmet delight—baby spinach!—but to me, it’s often immature and tasteless. “Micro” greens—and they seem to be getting younger all the time. I saw “infant” arugula on a fancy menu once, but I prefer mine all grown up.

Adding injury to insult, cut salad leaves are often packed in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP). After the leaves are washed in chlorine, they’re put in bags with less oxygen and extra carbon dioxide. The result is lettuce that still looks fresh ten days to a month later.3 Unfortunately, MAP lettuce contains fewer vitamins C and E and antioxidants. Any cut lettuce loses nutrients quickly, but, as with irradiated berries, MAP lettuce still looks fresh after ten days, while untreated lettuce has withered and turned brown—a sure sign that it’s past its peak and thus unsellable. My favorite salad comes from a whole head of leaf lettuce.

Let’s return, briefly, to the unpleasant topic of pesticides. Of all the unsavory aspects of industrial produce, pesticides, though invisible, are probably the most dangerous. “The fact that spreading billions of pounds of toxic pesticides throughout the environment each year results in extensive harm should not be surprising,” writes Monica Moore in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, a book of photos of industrial and ecological farms. “Yet somehow it remains not just surprising, but eternally so. This never-ending lack of awareness of the true scale of damage keeps people from challenging assumptions that societies benefit more than they lose from … dependence on pesticides.”


Using USDA data on pesticide residue, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the least and most contaminated produce. These are the Dirty “Dozen” and Clean Fifteen for 2015.

Most contaminated

Least contaminated





Cherry tomatoes
















Snap peas





Sweet corn

Sweet bell and hot peppers

Sweet peas
Sweet potatoes

Pesticides are bad news. Organophosphates and methyl carbamates, widely used insecticides, can cause acute poisoning, with symptoms including headache, dizziness, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, and stomach pain. Severe poisoning brings convulsions, breathing difficulty, coma, and death. Paraquat, a powerful herbicide, damages the skin, eyes, mouth, nose, and throat; it can destroy lung tissue and cause liver and kidney failure.

Chronic and long-term effects of pesticides include cancer, infertility, and hormone disruption. According to the EPA, 170 pesticides are possible, probable, or known human carcinogens.4 The common weed killer 2,4-D is linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and lindane (in lice shampoo) is linked to aplastic anemia, lymphoma, and breast cancer. DBCP (a nematode killer) and 2,4-D reduce fertility. The herbicide atrazine is an endocrine disruptor, as is the infamous organochlorine DDT. Though it is now banned in the United States, DDT still lingers in the environment.

We’ve gone too far. Songbirds are missing, frogs are sterile, and our bodies may already bear the signs of misadventures with powerful poisons. Farmers and their children have higher rates of cancer and birth defects. All these chemicals were designed to kill, after all. One way to reduce your exposure to such nasty things is to eat produce raised with organic or other ecological methods. But what does organic mean? And when does it matter?


When we first sold at farmers’ markets in 1980, they were brand-new to the Washington, D.C., area and pretty new in other American cities, too. New York City’s fabled Greenmarket had opened only a few years before, in 1976. People were just getting used to having farmers set up shop in suburbs and cities. It was all new to us farmers, too, of course, but we did our best—even us nine-year-olds. Pictures of me at our motley stand from the early years reveal in embarrassing detail how much we had to learn about display and marketing. We did explain that producer-only farmers’ markets (as they’re known in our world) were for local farmers to sell homegrown foods, but local foods was not yet in the lingo or understood to be a good thing.

The word organic was already very much in vogue, however. We heard the same question over and over: are you organic? We stumbled over various answers, most of them probably beginning like this: “No, but …” This reply, as you might imagine, failed to satisfy. First, it sounds defensive. Second, some customers, quite reasonably, were seeking organic produce certified by an independent party, not verbal assurances from a barefoot farm kid.

We felt stuck. We couldn’t—and wouldn’t—use the word organic because we were not certified organic by the state of Virginia, but people wanted to know how we grew our vegetables. One day at the Arlington farmers’ market, I was typically flummoxed, when a friendly customer made what must have been an obvious suggestion: that we describe our methods on signs, something like no pesticides or our chickens run free on grass. Excited, I went home with this idea, which my mother took up with typical editorial intensity, and thereafter our sign boxes were brimming with information.

We had always used ecological methods, such as mulching to keep weeds down, and we grew most crops without any pesticides, but when we first started farming, we also used some chemicals. We sprayed the weed killer Roundup on pernicious Johnson grass, herbicides on corn, and fungicides on melons (melon leaves prefer dry weather, but Virginia is humid). Soon we gave up all those poisons, but I still remember the smell of the metal cupboard where we kept them. Next time you find yourself in a garden supply store, go to the chemical aisle, and you’ll know the dreadful odor I mean.

How much should you worry about the chemicals on produce? Allow me to answer in a leisurely way. When I was little, we ate a lot of industrial produce. In the summer, of course, we ate our own vegetables, but in the winter we bought large bags of industrial fruits and vegetables at Magruder’s, the family-owned, local chain famous for good prices. Every day, we ate a large green salad, a fruit salad, or both. My mother insisted.

Ten years ago, before I had a husband and children, I was a purist. Apart from the occasional avocado, mango, or pineapple, I bought mostly local produce from farmers’ markets, year-round. As for regional or exotic produce, I was scrupulous about buying citrus from organic growers in Texas, hazelnuts from orchards in Lynden, Washington, or stone-ground grits from Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina. Perhaps half of the produce was organic, and the vast majority was seasonal, whether locally grown or shipped directly from a grower. Today I still shop at the fine farmers’ markets of New York City and lovely farm stands anywhere we drive, but I also buy hundreds of pounds of produce each year from far away. I buy oranges at the supermarkets near our country place, bananas from the corner deli, grapes at the gourmet store, and avocados from the fruit carts. I do it all without losing sleep.

As for organic produce, I could be quite choosy, and buy only organic items; I have the time and the means. But in practice, about half of my produce is organic or biodynamic. Certain items, such as organic apples and pears, are scarce at the farmers’ markets, so in those cases, I often choose local fruit over the supermarket organic versions. When the organic produce looks good at the supermarket, I buy it, but at the corner deli, I don’t think twice about buying industrial produce. I’m also happy to pass over wilted, rotten, or otherwise inferior organic produce in favor of fresh industrial stuff. Like most eaters, I usually cannot attain every attribute I care about in every purchase, so I often compromise on something: organic methods, quality, flavor, convenience, or price. People who say otherwise are probably fibbing.

In this regard I am my mother’s daughter. She was a vegetable farmer, and yet she bought a lot of produce, especially in winter, from the supermarkets. That is my advice to you: if you can’t find organic, biodynamic, or otherwise ecological produce in your neighborhood or at the price you can pay, eat plenty of produce anyway. You may be sure that most of the studies showing the benefits of eating ample fruits and vegetables were done on industrial produce. It is sensible to wash industrial produce, but whether to peel is a tough call. Most of the pesticides are found in, or just under, the peel. So are the vitamins and antioxidants. I simply don’t know which is the lesser evil.

When I’m deciding how to spend my food money, I use one other rule of thumb: the higher up the food chain, the more important ecological methods are. Thus I spend good money on grass-fed and pastured meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, but I am less fussy about fruits and vegetables. That’s because chemicals accumulate at the top of the food chain, especially in fatty tissue. If there is pesticide residue in, say, a stick of industrial butter, it comes from the many bushels of industrial corn and grain the cow ate.

National organic standards implemented in 2002 made some small organic farmers feel threatened by large-scale organic farming. It’s certainly a new world; I call it Industrial Organic. There is no reason to worry. The organic rules, if somewhat weak in places, put the spotlight on clean food, and that’s valuable. Organic means food was produced without synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically engineered ingredients, and irradiation. In shops, where the consumer is one or more steps removed from the farmer, the organic label is a legal guarantee. There is vastly more organic produce in the supermarket today than a decade ago.

I admire organic farmers, large and small; they’re committed to clean methods and willing to subject their farms to independent scrutiny. But many of us—farmers and eaters alike—don’t need the organic label. Farmers who sell at farmers’ markets or to chefs can explain directly to buyers why the food is superior to industrial produce. Moreover, many farmers use ecological methods that may even exceed the organic standards. For example, they promote healthy plants by adding major nutrients such as calcium, trace elements from seawater, and beneficial microbes to the soil. Biodynamic farmers exemplify the healthy-soil-first approach. Cattle ranchers raise beef on grass, land which yields more nutritious beef than feeding cattle organic grain. But the organic standards don’t specify a grass diet. It is up to farmers raising grass-fed beef to tell their story, and that is exactly what they are doing, just as we told our story at farmers’ markets thirty-five years ago. In 2010, Chip and Susan attended their last farmers’ markets. My mother’s farm description was never trendy and it never changed.


Our thirty-five acres of vegetables, melons, small fruits, flowers, and herbs are grown without herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides. Since 1980 we have used ground limestone, compost, cover crops, mulches, and a nontoxic, seawater-based foliar fertilizer as our only sources of plant nutrition. Each season we hire college students to help us seed, transplant, mulch, irrigate, pick, load, and sell our crops at twelve producer-only farmers’ markets.

—Chip and Susan Planck

As its early advocates, such as British botanist Sir Albert Howard and Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, have claimed for a century or more, organic agriculture benefits soil health, and modern data confirms it. In 2010, John Reganold of Washington State University and colleagues demonstrated that organic soils store more carbon, and contain more nitrogen, microbes, active enzymes, and micronutrients.

Slowly but steadily, research is also appearing on the benefits of organic produce to the eater. First, and foremost in my view, organic produce contains fewer chemicals, as it should; it would be a surprise and disappointment to learn otherwise. This has particular importance for children, who are more susceptible to a dose of poison than adults. According to studies published in Environmental Health Perspective in 2001 and 2002, children who eat organic food have lower levels of organophosphate metabolites in their bodies than those who eat industrial produce. Other studies show that chronic low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides can affect brain development, brain function, and growth in children.

Second, organic produce is more nutritious. Several studies show higher levels of vitamin C and antioxidants in foods ranging from lettuce and spinach to oranges and kiwifruit. At the University of California, Davis, Alyson Mitchell reported in 2003 that organic strawberries, corn, and marionberries contain more vitamin C and more polyphenols than industrial produce. In 2007, Davis and colleagues found that beneficial flavonoids increase over time in tomatoes grown organically when compared with tomatoes grown in another field with conventional methods. In 2008, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported that New Jersey blueberries grown organically yielded significantly higher fructose and glucose levels, malic acid, phenolics, anthocyanins, and antioxidants than berries grown using industrial methods. In 2014, the British Journal of Nutrition summed up the results of 343 studies, concluding that organic crops contain, on average, more antioxidants and fewer pesticides than conventionally grown foods.

Does organic food taste better, too? Sometimes. The important factors of flavor are soil health, variety, compounds (such as sugar, acid, and flavonoids), maturity, and freshness. Out of necessity, most big organic producers use the same varieties as industrial farmers, pick them underripe, and ship them a long way. It’s good that large organic farms don’t pollute the rivers, but the tomatoes are tasteless. When I lived in Britain, the main commercial strawberry, Elsanta, was known in the trade as the “three-bounce berry.” Sturdy Elsanta may be, but it doesn’t taste very good, even when it’s grown without chemicals. Farmers who care about good food grow varieties with superior flavor, pick them at peak maturity, and sell them fresh. When I hear someone say, “Organic tomatoes taste better,” I think, “Which tomato, grown where?”

Farmers have expanded the traditional seasons for local foods with techniques such as row covers, heated greenhouses, unheated hoop houses, and long-season varieties. In New York, I can eat greenhouse salad leaves in snowy January. Tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses—either in a liquid nutritional formula or in soil substitute—appear in the spring, well before field tomatoes, and ever-bearing strawberries are available all summer. For all these foods, we are thankful.

Yet I prefer fruits and vegetables grown outdoors in proper soil in peak season. Soil, which varies from farm to farm, gives produce its flavor and nutrients. That’s terroir, the French idea that the features of a particular spot—soil type, minerals, moisture, frost—impart special character to the grapes and thus the wine. Environmental stresses—wind, rain, insects—also yield sturdier and more robustly flavored plants. It’s a kind of character-building theory of flavor. Hydroponic tomatoes are insipid because they have no terroir and no character. If you buy tomatoes out of season, look for those grown in proper soil, often in unheated hoop houses.

Local foods are more diverse than what you find in the supermarket produce section. At my local farmers’ market, farmers sell dozens of tomatoes and more than one hundred apple varieties, but supermarkets carry just a few. The eighteenth-century Newtown Pippin, native to the Newtown Creek in what is now Queens, New York, is a superior dessert, cider, and storage apple, but it has been replaced by the rock-hard, often underripe, and less tasty Granny Smith. In October 1785, Thomas Jefferson, who grew 170 varieties of fruits at Monticello, wrote James Madison from Paris, “They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown Pippin.”

This lovely apple—revived ten years ago with the help and enthusiasm of the delightful Ed Yowell, a leader of the New York City convivium of Slow Food—has modern fans, too. “The green-skinned, yellow-fleshed Pippin is both sweet and tart; crisp and tender,” wrote Peter Hatch, director of the Monticello gardens. “The citruslike aroma—some describe it as piney—lingers in the mouth like a dear memory.”

Growing different varieties is also more interesting for the farmer. No one wants to plant, pick, sell, and eat the same zucchini, year after year. My parents grew about a dozen different cucumbers and two dozen varieties of tomatoes, both heirlooms and hybrids.

Why grow modern hybrids at all? Aren’t heirlooms better? They can be. Let me explain. The revival of traditional varieties—often from seeds saved over many generations—has been a boon for what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called pied beauty. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” he wrote. Now we have green escarole speckled with red dots, cucumbers that look like lemons, candy-striped beets, and a tomato that reveals tropical sunsets when sliced. One of my favorites, it’s called Pineapple.

Beyond beauty, genetic diversity itself is valuable: a large library of traits gives breeders more material to work with. The Sturmer, an English apple now difficult to find, has five times more vitamin C than Golden Delicious. Americans can thank the Irish potato famine for the Green Mountain potato, an almost-forgotten Vermont native. Around the time of the Irish catastrophe, blight nearly wiped out New England potato farms. Wary of another crop disaster, farmers and breeders developed a blight-resistant variety in the 1880s. For fifty years, the tasty but oddly shaped Green Mountain was America’s most popular baking potato, until the more consistently oval Russet took over.

Modern hybrids—which are bred from two parents, thus blending their traits—also have good points, such as high yields, hardiness, and pest- and disease-resistance. Other qualities I’m less keen on, such as thick skin or excessively firm flesh, are hallmarks of industrial produce. Hybrids per se are not objectionable; after all, breeding is an old and honorable agricultural practice. One laments the loss of useful qualities. When seed companies focus on industrial production, flavor and other fine traits are neglected, some lost forever.

Three cheers, then, for seed savers who brought back charmers like Cherokee Purple, a tomato with dark creamy flesh and superlative flavor. We’ve also grown some lackluster heirloom tomatoes, like Great White and Purple Calabash. Some heirlooms have abysmal yields and poor consistency; even superior flavor may not be enough to make growing them worthwhile. Happily, the renewed demand for flavor and texture has opened the gene libraries of many good seed companies, and that means more and better traditional varieties for farmers to try.

Meanwhile, my parents were big fans of hybrids like Early Girl, Lady Luck, and Lemon Boy. Dad calls them “garden” hybrids. They taste great and yield well, but for various reasons—small size, delicacy—they don’t suit industrial growers, so you won’t find them in supermarkets. For me, flavor is tops. I won’t spend four dollars a pound on tomatoes merely because they’re a wacky color or the sign says HEIRLOOM. They must taste good—and many hybrids do. Yield matters to the cook, too; if I have to cut away large parts of a funny-shaped tomato because of scarring, my salad gets more expensive. With a shapely and reliable hybrid like Lady Luck, that’s unlikely.


You already know that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is a good thing. The trick is actually doing it. If you also cook for selective eaters—children or adults—perhaps you worry that they don’t eat spinach every day. Relax; no one eats spinach every day. It may help to think not in terms of meals or even days, but rather in weeks. What’s important is your overall diet; you won’t be malnourished in one day.

Buying local food makes eating vegetables easier and more fun, but if you want to eat more vegetables, it doesn’t matter where you shop. Farmers’ markets, farm stands, farm shares, greengrocers, and supermarkets are all good. These are my tips.

Stock up. If you don’t buy produce, you’ll never eat it. I tend to be frugal, but in this case, I much prefer to have produce on hand and risk throwing it away than not have any. Buy large amounts of produce when it’s cheap, especially during a glut. On most trips to the market, I stock up on basics like lettuce and zucchini, and rarely buy expensive treats such as wild blueberries or fancy mesclun. I find “baby” vegetables overpriced and insipid. At my local market, lettuce is a bargain at one dollar a head all summer; for most of the year, I use two heads a day. There is always fruit in the house for dessert.

Have a salad at every meal. Once you adopt this habit, lunch or dinner without a raw vegetable seems incomplete. If you tire of lettuce, there are lots of leaves: watercress, radicchio, endive, escarole, dandelion, purslane. Try salads of shaved fennel and orange slices or lightly cooked vegetables, as in celeriac remoulade. At the farm, we have a plate of sliced tomatoes at every summer meal. Be aware that some vegetables are more nutritious when cooked. The cruciferous family, which includes cabbage, broccoli, collards, and kale, contains goitrogens, which depress thyroid function. Spinach, beets, and chard contain oxalic acid, which blocks calcium and iron absorption. Both goitrogens and oxalic acid are reduced by cooking. Beta-carotene in vegetables is more available to the body once it has been liberated from tough cell walls; thus chopping, shredding, juicing, and cooking beets and carrots make them more nutritious. Fat is required for beta-carotene to be absorbed.

Dress it nicely. Say good-bye to plain steamed broccoli. Every vegetable should be properly dressed, and to me that means the right fat, a little salt, and perhaps one flavor, such as fresh herbs or good cheese. When the only fat I used was olive oil, all my vegetables tasted the same. Now I’ll make buttered carrots with thyme, roasted zucchini with garlicky olive oil, and a green salad with macadamia oil and macadamia nuts. The vegetables taste better, they taste different, and it’s easy to eat all three.

Eat salad first. I happen to prefer the American habit of eating salad before the main course. Raw vegetables stimulate digestion. Protein, hot foods, and creamy dishes, by contrast, are satiating. After that sensory experience, I’m not hungry for salad anymore. But suit yourself on this one.

Eat salad as a main course. Cobb salad is one of my favorite one-dish meals, but there are many others. Learn to make Caesar salad dressing, buy Romaine lettuce, and do what restaurants do: top it with chicken or shrimp.

Put it out there. We know very little about how eating habits form. Why, for example, do some children develop a diverse palate and not others? Early exposure is key. Some parents routinely offer kids cayenne and garlic, others bland foods. Availability is also important. It’s safe to assume that if you don’t put food out, no one will eat it. One small study, hoping to shed light on the eating habits of overweight kids, found that the sole factor predicting how much they ate was the amount of food on the plate. This applies equally to adults. If you want to eat more of something, serve more of it and more often. My mother set out raw fruits and vegetables before dinner, when we were hungry. In the summer, we had sliced tomatoes and in the winter, a jumble of apple, carrot, and turnip slices. My children find cheese and vegetables on the table while I’m cooking.

Eat local food. Here’s a paradox. Eating local food leads to more variety in your diet, not less. When offered the same global fruits and vegetables all year long, many people get stuck in food ruts. They buy the same fruits and vegetables—bananas and broccoli, or whatever their favorites happen to be—year round. If you buy a farm share or other local food in season, meals will vary without planning or effort. You’ll eat spinach in April, strawberries in May, fennel in June, corn in August, and pears in November.

Mix it up. Variety whets the appetite. In fact, science has documented this phenomenon. They call it sensory-specific satiety. A fancy term, but all it means is that you’re more likely to eat four different vegetables—one creamy, one crunchy, one sharp, one sweet—than four servings of one vegetable. When I first wrote this, in the height of July, there were four local fruits in the kitchen: sweet cherries, red gooseberries, blueberries, black raspberries. After lunch, I ate a bowl of mixed fruit and raw Jersey milk: five foods in one dish.

It’s entirely up to you whether you eat more fruits and vegetables. But someone has to be responsible for the nutrition of babies and small children. How much should we worry when they don’t eat vegetables? Every parent will have to wrestle with this question, but my best guess is that from zero to two years old, the overriding nutritional requirement is for high-quality fat and protein for growth and development, starting, of course, with breast milk. But the older you get, the more important antioxidant fruits and vegetables are. Why?

Free radicals (unstable atoms with unpaired electrons) are a normal product of cell metabolism, created when cells use oxygen to burn fat. Unfortunately, their numbers rapidly increase with age and damaging environmental factors. Whatever the source, free radicals are highly damaging to cells. They cause the body to oxidize and age, like rusting iron, and contribute to heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants in fresh produce battle the cumulative effects of environmental carcinogens and free radicals.

When your baby starts to eat solid foods, try three simple things. First, steer clear of extra calories from corn oil, juice, and sugar, because any inferior food displaces some more important nutrient. (The easiest way to do this? Don’t buy them.) Second, serve the baby the same food the whole family is eating. There is every reason for him to eat beef stew, spaghetti Bolognese, or roasted vegetables. It will be faster than making a separate dish, and cheaper and better than commercial baby food. Third, buy wild fish, ecological produce, and pastured meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs if you can. Children are more vulnerable to pesticides and other toxins than adults.

Otherwise, try to feed children as you would anyone else: with a diverse and balanced diet of whole foods, in hopes of creating good eating habits to last a lifetime. Most kids don’t grow up on vegetable farms, and they turn out fine. It would be too bad if children became teenagers still hating vegetables, but it’s probably not dangerous. After all, most of us survived our junk-food years.

Suppose you try all of these things and still don’t eat enough broccoli and blueberries. Is taking vitamin C and anthocyanin pills good enough? In cases of deficiency, vitamin therapy is safe and effective, and some supplements, like B vitamins, are safe and effective. But there are some questions about vitamin supplements. The results of trials with supplements isolated from whole foods range from unhelpful (smokers taking beta-carotene had higher rates of lung cancer) to promising (vitamin E prevents second heart attacks) to merely equivocal (another vitamin E study on heart disease showed no effect).5 However, studies consistently find that diets rich in antioxidants from whole foods lower risk of heart disease and cancer.

Moreover, many people don’t know that antioxidants are not solely the preserve of the plant kingdom. Glutathione, which I call a master antioxidant because it protects other antioxidants from free radicals, is found in raw vegetables, raw eggs, and raw milk.

Scientists are just beginning to uncover how extracted vitamins are imperfect substitutes for foods. Whether vitamin E supplements are helpful, for example, has been hotly debated. Why are the studies equivocal? Here’s one hypothesis: the vitamin E in supplements is usually alpha-tocopherol, but the vitamin E “complex,” as the natural vitamin E in foods like avocados is known, contains at least seven other agents, including beta-, delta-, and gamma-tocopherol. The other agents may be equally or more important. In a similar fashion, the vitamin C in most pills is merely ascorbic acid, but the C complex includes the flavonoid rutin and the enzyme tyrosinase. Without tyrosinase, ascorbic acid doesn’t cure fever. Thus, maybe beta-carotene supplements didn’t prevent lung cancer in smokers in that well-publicized study because isolated beta-carotene does not equal a carrot.

Eating whole foods is still the best preventive measure. They simply don’t know how to put all the benefits of foods like beets and broccoli and berries into a pill.