"What am I eating?" my spouse asked, poking at the roasted wedges of an orange vegetable on the dinner plate. "They look and taste like beets, but I thought beets were, well, red."
"They are beets. I got them at the Farmer's Market," I explained. "They were next to the red beets so I knew what they were. But I wish all the vegetables came with nametags. I have no idea of what at least of third of them are."
That is the problem. Every Tuesday and Friday, I walk over to the outdoor market with my cloth shopping bags planning to buy vegetables for supper. And every Tuesday and Friday, I leave with pretty much the same assortment although fresher and younger than what is available in the supermarket down the street: spring onions with dirt still clinging to their long green leaves, delicate lettuces, pale pink radishes, misshapen tomatoes (the more misshapen, the more expensive), just picked corn and, of course, beets.
But the stands are also filled with mysterious greens whose long tough stalks look inedible. What are the funny looking lumpy peapods that look like pregnant green worms and those purply round root-like vegetables that vaguely resemble turnips? Maybe they are turnips. Next to the conventional zucchini and yellow summer squash, there's a pile of squash-like looking vegetables with either stripes or scalloped edges. They look like models in a still-life painting and, if I could paint, I would take them home and make art of them. I want to ask the nice people selling the produce what these squash-like vegetables are called, if I should I peel them before cooking and how should they be cooked. But the stands are always crowded, and this being a city where people rush about, not too many would be happy if I were given a cooking lesson while they are behind me in line.
So even though I should be more adventuresome and attempt to wrestle those aggressive greens into submission in a shopping bag and then figure out how to prepare them, or throw the squash-like vegetables in the oven and hope for the best, I walk away with the my predictable purchases.
But as I trudge home, filled with frustration about my ignorance of those nutritious-looking but nameless vegetables, I wonder why there isn't some way of giving shoppers like myself information about what is being sold. Obviously I don't expect the squash-like vegetables to come with food labels or the greens packaged with a machete so they can be cut into mouth-size pieces. But think how useful it would be to see pictures of these vegetables on a large poster with their names and a brief description of how to prepare them. Many shoppers might buy new to them vegetables to try at home, at least once, if they know their names when family members ask what they are eating. It would be really helpful to see instructions on whether the vegetable is to be eaten raw, or cooked and if the latter, how? Doing so would keep us from serving something hot that was meant to be eaten cold, or baked if it should have been boiled.
Why stop with the Farmer's market? How useful it would be to go into an ethnic supermarket and know how to prepare the many vegetables and fruits that are unfamiliar? I live near several Asian supermarkets but, as with the Farmer's Market, rarely do I deviate from purchasing only the vegetables that are familiar. Should I buy bitter melon? What if it is bitter? What do I do with lemongrass? Does it taste like grass or lemon? Are those red berry-like fruits covered with little spines meant to be peeled? Plantains look like bananas but I know they have to be cooked not eaten raw. But how? What do I do with yucca, or other tubers that look sort of like potatoes? Is a Japanese sweet potato sweet?
Some adult education classes take their students on field trips to ethnic supermarkets so the students can learn from an expert the names of produce sold in such stores, and how to prepare them. But what about the rest of us? Why do we have to sign up and pay for a course to learn how to shop for exotic vegetables, and then be taught how to cook them correctly?
Almost all packaged processed foods that cannot be eaten straight out of the box or pouch come with detailed instructions on how to steam, microwave, bake, or roast the food inside the package. The irony is that the foods we should be eating, i.e. the unprocessed, fresh vegetables and fruits, are information orphans.
Maybe the answer will be an app. The shopper will take a picture of a weedy-looking vegetable that might or might not resemble a stalk of broccoli, or a green-skinned pear-shaped vegetable that can't be a pear (it is in the vegetable section) and send it to a virtual nutritionist. Then instantly, the shopper will receive its name, nutrient content, instructions on preparation, and maybe even a hint of what it tastes like (chicken?). Could we have this app by August, please?