EATING LOCAL - Joys of eating from the ground up

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My first carrot I can remember came straight out of the ground, dirt still clinging to the sides. I pulled it out of the garden myself, rinsed it off with the hose and munched on it as I browsed the rest of Grandpa's lush garden for other tasty snacks.

My sister and I would spend hours hanging out under the cherry tree, watching him tend to his garden. He was a man of few words but so much love for his garden and family. He'd send us with a box full of fruit or vegetables to deliver to Grandma for canning. She would stock the cellar with enough treasures to last the family through the winter. I'd look forward to our visits, knowing she'd pull out a couple jars filled with sweet juicy plums or, my favorite, raspberries in rosy red syrup.

I feel fortunate to have had these experiences, to know the joys of fresh, home-grown fruits and garden vegetables. Some folks only know the taste of grocery store produce, or, even worse, canned, overcooked versions. I'd hate veggies too, if that was my introduction to them.

In working with urban kids in Los Angeles, I'd often hear they hated vegetables. One kid swore he would never eat a carrot as we planted the seeds to grow our own. After tending to our seedlings, and building up their anticipation over a month's time, the kids excitedly pulled their own sweet carrots from the ground and gave them a try. The ones who were a little unsure would watch the other children's reaction, to see if they passed the "yuck!" test. The kid who protested earlier in the season took a small nibble, continued to eat it, and asked for another. He proceeded to go home, announce to his parents he now liked carrots, but only home-grown, and how they needed to plant a garden. His parents were amazed and delighted.

Nutritionally, produce contains the highest amounts of vitamins and minerals when ripe and eaten straight away. As they sit and are exposed to light, heat, and time their nutrients degrade. To get the maximum amount of health-serving nutrients from your fruits and vegetables, it's best to get them fresh, local and in-season -- and consume them right away.

Many of us do not have a farm of our own, or even a space for a garden, but we have many farms in the Walla Walla Valley to visit and get freshly harvested vegetables. A visit to the Walla Walla Farmers' Market downtown will provide a a sampling of the local bounty, or you can make a day of it and visit farma yourself. Many local farms sell directly to consumers but like to have advanced notice if you you plam to come out. Some offer u-pick, which is fun for the whole family. Others offer farm tours, events and even classes, like cheese making, preserving and craft classes.

It may just be nostalgia that makes this city girl excited about spending the day on a farm, but I don't think so. I think there is something special and very important about supporting and appreciating our local food growers. Especially for a town like Walla Walla, where we are an oasis of ecosystem and community, where we should support and rely on each other rather than buying into the corporate mass-market -- which may be easier and cheaper but keeps us further away from each other.

Tonight I am looking forward to making a big pot of arroz con pollo and shaved summer squash salad to share with my fellow community gardeners. We are having a last minute garden potluck to use extra crops we have in abundance garden, and to get to know each other a little better. I will be eating well tonight, supporting fellow growers and building a deeper web of connection with my neighbors. One more reason, among many, that I love Walla Walla so much.

Melissa Davis is a personal chef with a BS in nutrition, specializing in natural foods. Melissa can be reached at jadenluna@yahoo.com, or follow her her culinary adventures at http://melissadavisfood.wordpress.com

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