by David Kitai
Student living isn’t helped by the selection at most grocery stores. Our culinary novice and the undeniable appeal of Mr. Noodle often results in skipping the produce section. Easier to let somebody who knows what they’re doing try and tackle that celery root, right? But how then will we ever take that leap of adulthood that is learning to cook for ourselves?
My favourite answer is to replace the grocery store with farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture groups (CSAs). There’s a reason, though, why those vendors are synonymous with yuppie-dom: that organic ratatouille of yours may have just eaten up half a week’s food budget.
Take heart though, fellow broke students, we can do this without living off canned corn three weeks a month.
Even if they charge a higher price, the real advantage of dealing with a CSA or a market vendor is that you’re dealing with the producer face to face. Smaller operations allow for a little more human leeway. People selling produce at CSAs and farmers’ markets are typically passionate about what they make. If you come to them with the same passion, odds are they’ll find a way to work out an arrangement.
While farmers’ market season does eventually come to a close, there are a few year-round options that remain through winter. If you’re in Toronto before it’s gone, do yourself a favour and check out the Tuesday market at Trinity Bellwoods—mostly for the guy selling fantastically fresh oysters. The Saturday farmers’ market at the St. Lawrence Market (also in Toronto) is legendary for a very good reason: its size and variety. Meanwhile, McMaster, Brock, and Waterloo all have on-campus farmers’ markets. UBC, lucky kids, have a farm of their own.
CSAs require a little more commitment. A CSA is, by definition, a community organization dealing with a farm or group of farms. Joining a CSA means something in the way of a subscription fee, but they can be incredibly rewarding. They’re great places to meet farmers and food geeks and to pick up a couple recipes whether you subscribe or not. If you’re around the University of Toronto check out the Narayever-Everdale CSA held in front of the Narayever Synagogue on Brunswick Avenue every Tuesday.
Sure you might not be able to afford fresh kale every week, but why not see if a vendor can give you a box of unsold produce at the end of their market day for a cut rate? You don’t get to pick exactly what you want, but view it as a new culinary challenge. Dealing with producers and vendors forces you to become a better cook. They’ll give you exciting, seasonal ingredients you may never have heard of. I couldn’t have told you what Jamaican callaloo was until a CSA farmer I worked with this summer handed me a bunch. Turns out it’s a green with a texture somewhere between spinach and kale. After a few disastrously failed attempts to cook them, I gave my remaining leaves a quick blanch and a butter-lemon dressing. Now greens, previously the bane of my meat-centric existence, fill my eyes with childlike joy and wonder. Honest.
I conspicuously failed to mention food box delivery services as a similar option. To me, most food boxes tend to be overpriced and impersonal. Their main value is for overstretched parents and professionals. As students, though it might not seem like it, but we’ve got time to shop around.