What Is Fresh?
Written onAugust 25 , 2015
Ask Vermont food enthusiasts what they love about local food and most of us say, “It’s fresh.” The link between fresh flavor and local food is so strong that the terms often appear as one: “Fresh local food!”
Equating “local” with “fresh” seems obvious in summer and fall, when we’re inundated with the latest harvest. By the time we hit early April, however, food that meets a dictionary’s definition of “fresh” is in shorter supply. Farmers’ markets tend to be stocked with root cellar items, frozen foods, pickles, and jellies. Still, the fresh-local association remains. When I asked patrons browsing through a market this past spring to define “fresh,” they didn’t hesitate to mention the aged cheeses, pickled vegetables, and frozen meats surrounding them.
“Fresh wakes up your taste buds, ” one person said.
“It’s the joy of eating,” was another comment. “It’s joie de vivre.”
“You can feel when the flavor starts to die,” explained one man lingering near cheese samples.
The idea of flavors “starting to die” suggests a common element of “fresh”: time. And, specifically, speed.
“I’m a snob about sweet corn,” explains Chef Lyndon Virkler of the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, “It must be picked that day because the flavor difference, once the starches start to develop, is so profound.”
Chef Virkler catches the vibrancy of sweet corn by eating it immediately. However, he adds, we can also honor the flavor of a fresh food by capturing that peak vibrancy through freezing, canning, infusing vinegars, and other preservation strategies. Timing still matters, but it’s timing to preserve flavor, not to eat something immediately.
“Preserving fresh” can sound like a paradox, and in some ways it is. Federal regulators define fresh as raw, unprocessed food. Confusingly, these definitions both exclude something like a canned tomato, no matter how fresh when it went into the can, but allow for food that has lingered, unprocessed, upon the shelves for a stretch of time. For example, fresh fruit can be wax coated, a technique that preserves shelf life and often eliminates what we’d commonly understand as “fresh” flavor.
This isn’t to say that the federal fresh label isn’t helpful, though. For example, fresh poultry is birds that never get below 26-degrees Fahrenheit, “consistent with consumer expect-
ations …i.e. not hard to the touch or frozen solid.” Consumers can tell if a chicken on a shelf is frozen solid, but the fresh label assures us that it has never been frozen solid.
The issues around legal, common, agricultural, and culinary definitions of fresh get more complicated with eggs. Fresh eggs aren’t processed. They’re in their shells, and haven’t passed their use-by date. But what about “farm fresh” eggs? This label adds a new wrinkle by joining two broad words in a way that suggests a very particular origin. Consumer studies show that “farm fresh” prompts customers to imagine family farms of the red barn and verdant fields variety.
“It really sticks in my craw,” says Jesse LaFlamme, co-owner of Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs in New Hampshire. “I don’t think a lot of customers, if they saw those factories, would ever think of them as a ‘farm’.”
Here’s a case where consumers have reversed the original equation. Instead of seeking out food from a certain type of (local) farm to get fresh flavor, they interpret a claim of fresh flavor to suggest a certain type of farm. That leaves cage-free and pasture-based producers like Jesse looking for new ways to tell more complicated stories about what creates the flavor of their farm’s eggs.
Jeffrey Westman, executive director of Marin Organics in Marin County, California, is also familiar with the need for telling a more complicated local flavor story than simply “fresh”, but for different reasons. “We live in a place where we can always access something picked in the last 24 hours, no more than an hour’s drive away,” he explains. His reservation about fresh isn’t misuse of the term, it’s that when most available food is fresh, it becomes apparent that other factors give local farm products a unique flavor. For him, local flavor is about a product tasting different than what you would find anywhere else. “[Food] gets flavor from the air, water, soil, we share,” he says. “It has a little of our DNA.”
It sounds complicated and difficult to prove—would a Vermont radish really taste different than one grown in New Hampshire?—yet such complications highlight the issue at the heart of local flavor. It isn’t monolithic and it doesn’t fit neatly inside one label, fresh or otherwise. It’s hard to define, and maybe that’s what makes it so compelling.