By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
One silver lining to being more or less voluntarily confined to home during the latest phase of the pandemic is the chance it’s provided for reacquainting myself with Brooklyn’s outdoor greenmarkets (double-masked.) Since I’m avoiding public transit, I’ve confined myself to the nearest ones, located at in opposite corners of Prospect Park. The Grand Army Plaza market, the second largest of New York City’s greenmarkets, behind the Union Square flagship, is held each Saturday; and the smaller Prospect Park West market, is open on Wednesdays and Sundays. If I’m not planning on buying much, I walk; for a bigger shop, my husband gives me a lift (as I cannot drive at the moment).
Having grown up in northern New Jersey, where Mom always had a big garden and we frequented local farmstands, I came to appreciate the summer’s fresh produce. Jersey tomatoes, just picked from the vine, really were something special then. I read an article – which alas I cannot locate at the moment – that explained why that perception wasn’t a mere trick of memory. Something to do with the different varieties of tomato plants grown then- even just the standard Big Boy-type tomatoes, not the fancy heirloom tomatoes.
Winter supermarket tomatoes were a different matter entirely, shipped north from Florida, pale pink, spongey, packed three small tomatoes to each plastic cradle, one of the only things I recall from that period that was packaged in plastic. Their taste was as wan as their color and they really weren’t worth wasting money on.
Here in New York, summer fruit and vegetables are still at their peak and we’re still enjoying the season’s harvest. My husband and I are omnivores, but over the years, like many others, we’ve come to eat much less meat and more fish, and we try to incorporate more plant-based food into our diet.
One big downside of buying at the greenmarket is the cost. I understand why things cost what they do. Everything sold at the official NYC greenmarkets must be produced within a certain radius of the city; producers hail from NJ, NY, and Pennsylvania. So Big Ag can’t load up trucks in Mexico or California and ship their ‘fresh’ produce east. Not only is the local food fresher, but it has a much smaller carbon footprint than supermarket stuff. I’m happy to pay more to eat locally and lucky to be able to afford to do so; I’ve also found that the expense of the food has made me more mindful of not wasting it. Having learned to make fermented foods during the course of 2021, I now preserve something if it doesn’t look like we’ll get around to eating it while it’s still at its peak. Of course, I’ll confess, I sometimes miscalculate, or even lose track of something tucked into a corner of the fridge. And I do pop into our local greengrocer for things like citrus fruits – or when I’ve run out of something. No matter how much parsley or coriander I grow in my herb garden, I always seem to run out.
I realize buying most of what we eat at the greenmarket puts me akilter to how most food is marketed and sold in the United States. Much of the floorspace in a typical American supermarket is devoted to processed foods that my grandmother wouldn’t recognize, and which are laden with salt, sugar, and unpronounceable ingredients. This week has been a busy one for writing for me, so I’ve spent less time cooking than I normally do. Monday we had leftover chile Colorado – which I only recently learned was named for the red color of the chiles and not the state. Tuesday I roasted various bell peppers, and layored them with a mixture of sauteed fresh corn, black beans, onion, and garlic, then capped that with sliced tomatoes and finally topped it all off with some bread crumbs, pecorino cheese, and basil. Last night, I’d intended to make a tart with some strange-looking mushrooms from the greenmarket. But I didn’t get around to starting the pastry in time, so instead I made an overstuffed omelette, the egg wrapper thin, like a crepe, and the filling mushrooms sauteed in butter and olive oil. On reflection, this was a far better use for these flavorful mushrooms – half lion’s mane, half chestnut – than the more complicated tart would have been, and dinner was on the table in a half hour, rather than the two hours the tart would have taken.
What sparked this post was an article in yesterday’s NYT, Plant-Based Foods Expand, With Consumers Hungry for More, which exalts the trend of taking plant-based foods and processing them until they taste like something else entirely:
In the fall of 2018, Jenny Goldfarb suddenly had a craving for a corned beef and pastrami sandwich.
For Ms. Goldfarb — who grew up in a New York Jewish deli family — it was the classic sandwich of her youth. But her yearning came with a hitch: She is now vegan.
So she started working with wheat protein, adding beets for a “meat” color, and dipping the mixture into different brines and spices. After a couple of months, she had come up with a vegan substitute. She took her vegan corned beef from her home in the San Fernando Valley to a Los Angeles deli, which placed an order for 50 pounds. She cried tears of joy in her car.
These days, Ms. Goldfarb is shipping orders for up to 50,000 pounds of her Unreal Deli corned beef, turkey and, most recently, steak slices to grocery stores all over the country.
“We just got the green light from Publix,” Ms. Goldfarb said. “They want the retail packages, but also they want to put it in their delis.”
Ms Goldfarb isn’t alone in launching a successful enterprise to effect these vegan-friendly transformations. Per the NYT:
Riding the waves of success of soy, oat and other alternatives to milk, as well as vegan burgers made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, a broad variety of plant-based foodsare showing up on restaurant menus and in grocery store aisles. And now more companies — from small upstarts to established brands — are looking to get in on the action.
This summer, Panda Express started putting orange chicken made with Beyond Chicken from Beyond Meat on menus at some of its U.S. locations. Peet’s Coffee is selling a vegan breakfast sandwich made with mung-bean-based Just Egg. A New York City soft-serve shop, 16 Handles, collaborated with the popular Oatly drink to create a line of vegan sweets in flavors like chocolate, chai tea and iced latte. And the Long John Silver’s seafood chain tested plant-based crab cakes and fish fillets at five locations in California and Georgia this summer.
The NYT reports that running along this transformational trend, the salesbasic fruits and vegetables are also up. Again, according to the NYT:
Restaurants and grocery stores are responding to the changing demands of consumers who are moving away from eating meat. Sales of fresh fruit in grocery stores have climbed nearly 11 percent and fresh vegetables 13 percent since 2019, according to Nielsen IQ. While only a small percentage of Americans are true vegans or vegetarians — in a 2018 Gallup poll, 5 percent said they were vegetarians — that’s not the audience these new companies and products are chasing.
But that’s not where the real money is. From the NYT:
Rather, they are going after the taste buds of the vegan-curious or so-called flexitarians, a much larger segment of Americans who are seeking to reduce the amount of meat they eat. Some are shying away because of animal-cruelty concerns, while others say the environment or perceived health benefits are factors. (Whether the plant-based foods, many of which are highly processed, are healthier is subject to debate.) [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]
“This is not for vegans only — that would be too tiny of a market,” said Mary McGovern, the chief executive of New Wave Foods, whose shrimp made from seaweed and plant proteins will be on restaurant menus this fall.
Ms. McGovern sees a much broader audience of millennials, flexitarians and others interested in trying new plant-based foods. “I’ve been in the food industry for 30 years, and I’ve not seen anything like the tectonic change we’re seeing in the market now,” she said.
So, the hot trend is to take vegetables and make them taste like meat or dairy. I don’t know why I found this whole exercise to be so amusing. Perhaps because I’m enjoying so much the pure tastes of summer: local fruits and vegetables, at their peak of freshness and flavor. The Grey Lady celebrates a different type of alchemy:
Megan Schmitt of Chicago shifted from vegetarian to vegan about four years ago and recalled her disappointment with the vegan cheese on the market.
“The stuff tasted like cardboard or rubber,” she said. “If you hadn’t eaten cheese in years, it would be fine, but it was not going to satisfy anybody’s taste buds that were switching back and forth from the real stuff.”
So Ms. Schmitt started fermenting a variety of nut-based concoctions, later moving to soy for her Cheeze & Thank You artisanal cheeses, including black garlic truffle fontina and dill havarti. They will be available in most Whole Foods stores in the Midwest this fall
“I like to view my cheese as a canvas,” Ms. Schmitt said. “It’s my form of art. I want my product to be a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth.”
And what, for the NYT, is the pièce de résistance, the apogee all this culinary wizard seeks to attain? Plant-based food that tastes like Spam. A food that in its original, non-vegan form is so processed that like the cockroaches, it might very well survive nuclear holocaust:
Reina Montenegro found herself in a similar situation. For six years she tried to create a vegan version of the Spam that she grew up eating. “Spam was the last thing I ate before I went vegan, because I knew it was something I would never eat again,” she said.
Then she heard about OmniPork Luncheon, plant-based oblong pieces that look like Spam and are produced by OmniFoods of Hong Kong. For the better part of a year, Ms. Montenegro said, she pestered executives at the company to get the product to the United States. Finally, in April, her restaurant, Chef Reina in Brisbane, Calif., which specializes in vegan Filipino comfort dishes, became one of a dozen restaurants in the United States using OmniPork products.
“Right away, we sold out of it,” Ms. Montenegro said. “The only thing that’s different with the OmniPork product is the sodium level — it’s lower than the real thing. But as far as taste and texture, it’s perfect.”
OmniFoods said last month that its vegan pork products were now available at Sprouts Farmers Market locations and that Whole Foods stores in 16 states had started selling some of its products.
Back to where we started. Per the NYT:
Ms. Goldfarb of Unreal Deli initially planned on introducing her vegan deli meats through restaurants. By early last year, she had deals to supply a variety of restaurants, stadiums and universities. But when the pandemic hit, she quickly planned to sell in grocery stores instead.
Now Ms. Goldfarb is back in talks with a number of restaurant chains, she said.
“The vegans and vegetarians, they’ll be in your corner. The flexitarian is who we’re working to capture,” Ms. Goldfarb said. “We’re trying to speak to someone who has been eating meat their whole life but now wants to have an alternative two or three times a week.”
She also has her next vegan deli meat target in sight: ham.
I realize I’d never have made it in the food industry. Tonight, I’m grilling some tuna, caught off of Long Island, purchased Sunday at the greenmarket and frozen when I realized I wasn’t going to have time to do it justice for that evening’s dinner. I hope it tastes like tuna. I’ll probably serve it with some salsa, made from cherry tomatoes that need to be eaten, and some celeriac that I fermented in salted buttermilk. It’s been bubbling away in a jar on top of my washing machine for the past week and I can’t wait to try it.