Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Local Food Week

It's "Local Food Week" in the Burgh. This is a new event organized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture to focus attention the local food culture and how to be a part of it. You don't even have to cook, since several restaurants routinely use local products.

PASA's website has a nice local food guide. You can search for farm markets, you-pick farms, CSA (consumer-supported agriculture, or farm share) programs, and businesses that sell local foods. If you're jealous of my veggies from last post, you can use the search to find your own farm share! (Mine is Kretschmann Farms.)

I started celebrating a little early by volunteering to pick corn with the local food bank, out at a farm near Mars. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has a gleaning program, which means they get crop donations from farmers, they just have to go out and pick them. These fields have been picked already by professionals, but there is still food in them - I guess it ripened late or just was missed the first time around. So the food bank gets volunteers to come out and harvest it, and then they get fresh produce.

Somehow I lived in Pennsylvania almost 40 years without ever having picked corn. You can tell people who grew up around corn because they become corn snobs. They won't eat certain types of corn, no matter how fresh it is. One of the volunteers said he used to pick a few dozen before breakfast growing up, he had pretty high standards about what was worth picking. As a city kid, I had pretty low standards about what was worth picking.

When corn isn't ripe, the ears are flexible and a little squishy. If you open them to look, the kernels are little squares, kind of folded in on themselves. Ripe kernels are hard and round, which you can feel from the outside. The ears also have a different shape when they're all plumped up. The kernels develop from the bottom to the top. The riper ears also are easier to pick, they break off better than the younger ones - I already knew this about tomatoes and berries from my youth.

In the field we picked, all the ears were about waist level or lower, which I found surprising because I think I'd seen corn plants with ears at the top. I don't know if it was the type of corn or the fact that we were gleaning.

The food bank had a panel truck with big metal bins inside. We each got an orange plastic utility bucket and two rows to work. Runners worked the margins, swapping out empty buckets for full ones and taking the corn back to the truck. It was pretty easy, and the weather was good (overcast with sprinkles before and after we worked). We got a lot of corn and finished in only a few hours.

I didn't think to bring my camera out into the field, which I regretted because there were plenty of cool things to photograph. There's a weed version of Morning Glory that wraps itself around the corn plants, it's got wonderful white flowers. It's a bitch to cut through to get the corn out. There were amazing bugs, big bees and spiders that liked the flowers. There were groundhog holes along the rows two to three feet across. There was corn smut, a type of grey/black fungus that looked like it was pretty gross if you accidentally touched it, but sometimes it made fabulous, flowery extrusions off the top of the ear.

So it was pretty cool.

On the way home I finally got a chance to stop at the Venus Diner on Route 8, which I've driven by for years. But that's another post.

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