This city girl actually grew up two doors down from a working farm. A field of sweet corn stretched into the horizon on the other side of our back fence. It wasn’t exactly Little House on the Prairie, but I grew up on the edge of a city in Essex County, home to “Canada’s Tomato Capital.”
My dad, the son of Italian immigrants, kept a large garden and a yard full of fruit trees. A tangle of strawberries grew along our fence beneath clusters of grapes clinging above. Our summer table was always full of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and beans.
I have lots of childhood memories around food. I can vaguely remember the annual smelt run : a night time trip to Lake Erie, watching groups of men in hip waders dragging nets to the shore and then feasting on platters piled high with the small, silver and golden fried fish. As kids we were used to frequent and sudden stops along the highway. My mother had an uncanny talent for spotting a patch of wild asparagus growing along the roadside and she kept a paring knife in the glove compartment for just such opportunities. I can remember one summer weekend in particular: the picnic tables were laid end to end and our yard was filled with cousins all waiting for … a whole pig that had been roasting on a spit since early that morning.
Growing up, I knew where my food came from. I knew that beans grew on vines, radishes grew under the ground and that fish have guts. Now I’m raising my son in the heart of an urban centre. And I’m grateful to live in a city where these wonderful, seasonal ingredients are accessible to us, that Ontario farmers make the effort to bring the bounty to us in downtown Toronto.
Everything that the seasons have to offer is available to us, at farmers markets in downtown and neighbourhood locations on days throughout the week. All year long I shop at the north (farmers’) market at St. Lawrence Market or Evergreen Brickworks. And throughout the summer I supplement our menu with fresh produce from a midweek, lunch hour visit to one of the farmers’ markets held downtown close to my office. (You can find a listing of locations here.)
Our growing season is short – and that’s what makes it precious. A few of the markets move to indoor venues throughout the winter season. Pickings are slimmer, but I visit faithfully for my fix of local ingredients. Where else can you find things like quail eggs or puffballs or seven different kinds of heirloom tomatoes?
Farmers’ markets are also an excellent place to sample unique and interesting gourmet and ethnic dishes from vendors. I particularly like the Nepalese momos I found at the Sick Kids’ farmers’ market on Tuesdays, and gourmet popsicles at Nathan Phillips Square on Wednesdays, and the (Monforte Dairy) grilled cheese sandwiches with caramelized onions at Evergreen Brickworks…
Not everything I buy is organic and even if the food is grown locally, there’s a good chance it came from a greenhouse or was grown hydroponically. With the onset of debate over ethics and safety in food – I just like to feel a little closer to the source. I like to buy my potatoes with dirt still on them. And I’m not offended if we find an occasional snail nesting in the lettuce, I know that they both came from nature.
And at the end of the season I’m busy in a desperate effort to compile a hoard, to preserve a little bit of summer to get us through the dark days of February. Until we round the corner and market stalls reappear in the springtime.