On Vegetables

Part 1 of infinity.

“Vegetables beckon and intrigue in a way no fish or piece of meat ever could,” writes Nigel Slater in the introduction to his Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch. I’ve been reading this book hopefully, as though it might inspire me to take better care of the small, brick-lined box of dirt we have on our patio that now sprouts pretty but unidentified wild weeds. It was the thing that drew me to this apartment, this dirt; it is the thing I cannot bring myself to tend to, despite how useful it would be to at least grow my own herbs. 

The pandemic has forced me and many into a more virtual life, especially in recent weeks when work has picked up again. Physical books help, of course. But every time I get up from my laptop and go to the kitchen these days, I’m almost surprised to remember I exist. The weight of my chef’s knife puts me back into my body; I hop from counter to stove, singing along to an ever-growing playlist I’ve simply titled “the Vibe,” meaning music that will remind me to look alive when the world feels anything but. Sometimes in the afternoon I’ll just stand there, almost dizzy with hunger because I didn’t feel like getting up for too many hours, and eat an entire pineapple, chunk by chunk, reviving my brain. The kitchen used to be where I spent most of my time. Right now, it’s functioning as the equivalent of a smelling salt. It’s been nice to order food from local farms, but I miss the routine of Saturday morning browsing what’s fresh at the farmers’ market instead of deciding in advance, sight unseen. I would leave each week, canvas bags full, bouncing with excitement about what I could do with my bounty. That missing action has seemingly confused all my cooking senses.

Because vegetables and fruit are the bulk of my diet, they have the power to make or break my days once I finally decide to cook. If the refrigerator, which runs too cold, has made the spinach inedible or the humidity has too quickly rotted the onions, I can grow despondent. My boyfriend has become so accustomed to local produce that he now can taste what Devita Davison, in our conversation last Friday, referred to as the “trauma” inherent in commodity vegetables. Any subpar cherry tomato clearly not grown with care and love is kicked to the side of the plate, like a child would, and while I’ve become professionally accustomed to eating through anything, I find nothing more endearing than this—this recognition of the soul of every item on a plate. Vegetables always tell the truth of their lives (so too, I suppose, do animals, which is all the more reason not to eat the ones who’ve spent their lives in confinement), and an especially good eggplant or crisp cucumber can change my whole day.

I feel like I have written and do write so much negative stuff about what food is and isn’t, can and can’t be, but then I actually cook, I actually eat, and all I feel is love and connection to both the earth and my own memories. Even if I fry the best tostones when I’m in a bad mood, focusing my anger on getting them as thin and crisp as possible.

While I was writing this, I received a DM on Instagram from a chef about a Puerto Rican dish she used to eat on trips here when she was young. I suggested a person for her to talk to about details and also opened up my digital copy of Eating Puerto Rico and did a search for what she’s researching. Nothing came up, but I did get sent to the last chapter, in which writer Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra brings up Pierre Bourdieu, the philosopher who gave us the concept of cultural capital, reminding me that vegetables—commodity and otherwise—are never just about nutrition and flavor and provenance, but also our bank accounts and values and all the socioeconomic and political factors that determine them. 

“According to Bourdieu, our food practices and habits involve something that goes beyond the simple intake of food for survival. They also convey and correspond to social meanings that aspire to be something higher, something like ‘social marks’ or even ‘social messages,’ which get molded by taste—inherent in class-based culture—that our habits and practices build up and express.”

Food certainly does correspond to social meanings, but what those meanings are is not quite as clear-cut as many would believe. When Davison said she didn’t want to sound “elitist” about canned food, she was being reasonable: It’s a go-to to point out classism in conversations about what people choose to eat, but that fails to make a full recognition of why these are the things many people have been forced into eating. It is by design that food apartheid has been constructed in specific communities; it is by design that the colonized archipelago I now call home imports 90% of its food. It is by design who owns farmland; it is by design that most meat consumed in the United States is processed in factory farms.

These aren’t personal matters; these are systemic matters that affect us personally, and I don’t see how it helps to say there’s nothing wrong with food that’s traveled long distances or been processed beyond recognizability as food. There is something wrong with that system, but there isn’t something wrong with surviving within it. These are different discussions, and the blurred terms only serve corporate food power when localized food sovereignty should be the north star guiding all of us who care about justice.

Which brings me back to Slater and the idea that vegetables intrigue more than meat or fish: Of course they do; they offer more nuance, more texture, more possibility. They can go on the grill or in the oven or get pickled or be eaten raw. They contain infinite possibility, and perfect convenience. That’s why we’re seeing, it seems—perhaps I’m too hopeful and gleeful about this—a resurgence of grain, bean, and veggie burgers, a reaction to tech burger ubiquity. Vegetables, because we can grow them, because they express our surroundings and our seasons, will always reflect us back to ourselves—good and bad, wilted or fresh. Like my kitchen in the pandemic, they will rouse us, excite us. Why haven’t I dug into our tiny plot of soil yet? I think I’ve convinced myself that it’s time.

On Wednesday, the paid-subscriber discussion will focus on vegetables and their unique—and ever-growing—role in our cuisines.

On Friday, the paid-subscriber interview will feature wine journalist Julia Coney, who has recently established the Black Wine Professionals resource.

Next week, there will be a new schedule for paid subscribers: Monday essay; Tuesday discussion; Wednesday recipe; Friday interview.

On tomato toast at Tenderly; on moldy jam and kitchen culture at Refinery29.

This weekend, I finished My Struggle Book 1. Nothing but adoration. I’ve got some other stuff to read for pleasure before I get into book 2, which I need to order anyway. I’m also obviously reading Nigel Slater—Real Fast Food, too, is a big inspiration. The Brits—by which I mean Slater and Nigella Lawson—have a way of reminding me what’s important about cooking.

Tostones from plantains just about to turn yellow, dusted in sazón and Maldon; a ton of tahini Caesar salad, using this old recipe that’s embedded in my brain; yuca fries that I should’ve cut thicker; kale salad in vinaigrette to accompany a lasagna ordered from local stalwart Spiga.

Have you listened to or read my interview with chef Omar Tate? He described an incredible vision for a community center in Philadelphia, and he’s now raising the funds to make it happen. Donate here.