By Peg Moore

It’s easy to overbuy at the farmers market — those heirloom tomatoes, multi-colored carrots, baby kales, bok choy, tatsoi, fresh fava beans, purple broccoli, free-range eggs that may have pale blue shells, raw milk, apple-smoked bacon, freshly made pastas, varieties of summer squash and eggplants are all so tempting.

 

There continues to be a tremendous surge in the popularity of shopping at a farmers market — they have increased nearly 10 percent last year to over 7,864. Fresh local foods taste so much better, of course, but there is increasing concern about food that it is safe to eat. It seems that every day, the media reports on yet more food contaminated with chemicals.

Being concerned about chemicals affecting our food and our health is, of course, not new — Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” more than 50 years ago. Her book, its veracity notwithstanding, did more than any other publication to alert the world to the hazards of environmental poisoning. Charleston resident Linda Lear has written the definitive biography of Carson.

South Carolina had only one organic farmer in the 1990s

Shoppers are now able to find organic produce from such farmers as Joseph Fields, Celeste Albers, Thornhill, Ambrose, Thackeray, Sol Haven Farm and Lowland Farms. But, it was not always this way. 

Celeste Albers pioneered organic farming in South Carolina. In 1994, she was selling some of her veggies to local enlightened chefs. However, much of her produce was shipped to Georgia.

Today Celeste is a media celebrity farmer and has moved on to be a major local supplier of grass-fed beef, raw milk and eggs with vivid orange yolks. There is a waiting list for the eggs.

One of Celeste’s earliest supporters was Glenn Roberts at Anson, who recruited Mike Lata to become the chef there. Glenn himself moved to Columbia and founded Anson Mills, which grows heirloom grains, including our famous Carolina Gold rice. Glenn markets his 300 products to 4,000 chefs around the world.

Chef Lata moved on to open FIG. He, Frank Lee (SNOB, High Cotton) Frank McMahon (Hank’s) and Robert Stehling (Hominy Grill) were Charleston’s earliest locavore chefs. Wines produced organically are increasingly popular. Domaine Carneros by Taittinger is available at Peninsula Grill, Fish, Macintosh, Tristan, Rue de Jean, Bull Street Gourmet Market and Fleet Landing. Rue de Jean featured their delicious wine at a recent luncheon. Chef Aaron Lemieux rose to the occasion. We feasted on bouillabaisse and a seared salmon with red bliss potatoes, haricots verts and a sauce vierge.

If, for instance, you are among the many who avoid gluten these days, take a look at the extensive gluten-free menu at SNOB. Just as he was one of the first to support local and organic food, chef Frank Lee is now in the forefront of dealing with the gluten problem. Frank’s sautéed Carolina squab breast with Charleston Gold rice and peas is serious comfort food.

The Organic controversy

The same large chemical companies that alarmed Carson are still at it. Organic has become such a buzz word that chemical companies have become worried.

Stanford caused considerable controversy when it published a study reporting that organic foods were not healthier. It has been widely accepted that the main reason for eating organically was to avoid dangerous chemicals, not for vitamin content, but of course, it is healthier not to consume those chemicals. Surprisingly, reputable news agencies actually reported Stanford’s misleading study as factual. Mark Bittman set the record straight in the New York Times, reporting Cargill (food processing multinational corporation) is a major contributor to Stanford.
Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times that he “used to be skeptical of organic” but is more careful about food now that he is reporting on industrial farming and has learned that chickens are fed banned antibiotics as well as arsenic, Benadryl, Tylenol and Prozac. He says he is so depressed by the studies, that he wonders if a Prozac-laced chicken nugget help him.

Food and psychology

A recent essay in the New York Times by Jonathan Safranfoer points out that the technology in our lives tends to push us apart rather than connecting us, that we must work harder to connect with others and with ourselves.

Dayna Elliott has speculated that this need to connect helps explain the increasing popularity of cooking classes at Charleston Cooks. Maverick Kitchens has just opened branches of Charleston Cooks in Greenville and Columbia.

“Food is full of emotion,” says psychologist Fabian Schupper. “The psychological groundwork in the infant’s first year associates it with nurturing and comfort.” In his latest book, “Cooked,” Michael Pollan addresses these same themes: “Cooking is all about connection. The very best cooking is also a form of intimacy.” While taking cooking lessons, he found himself relaxing into it, enjoyed the luxury of having the time to do it. “After a week in front of the screen, the opportunity to work with my hands — with all my senses, in fact, is a welcome change of pace,” Pollan points out. He states, “One of the most important fronts in the fight to reform the food system today is in your kitchen.”

While Pollan has bemoaned the fact that people are cooking less, there is anecdotal evidence that this is changing. The acclaimed decorator Mica Ertegun, who has designed interiors for trendsetters for decades, has noticed a change. “We used to design very expensive kitchens that nobody used. People went out to restaurants every night. That has changed. People stay home more, and as a result, today’s kitchens are larger and more inviting.”

If you are wondering what to do with the luscious summer squash at the market this Saturday, check out the squash casserole on page 239 in Nathalie Dupree’s Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking. It’s a keeper! Bon appétit!

Peg Moore, chief culinary correspondent, may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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