Food for thought

I’ve been a farmer my entire life and remember the days not so long ago when everyone at the farmers’ market wanted nothing but perfectly shaped vegetables.

Enormous amounts of energy are expended to grow vegetables across the world. It is estimated that over forty percent of these vegetables that taste every bit as good as all the rest never make it to market because they do not comply with the industry standard of the ideally shaped product. I’ve always lamented discarding vegetables that had a few more bumps or an extra curve or two simply because they were not deemed ‘beautiful’.

The same amount of energy and resources are required to produce what has been deemed an ugly vegetable. It tastes every bit as good as its more handsome cousin that had the good fortune of growing into a carrot or beet or potato that complied with what the consumer demanded; an unblemished product that fit a stereotype that leaves no room for ugliness.

I equate it to the unrealistic standards society sets for women—and men—who compare themselves to magazine models that the world tells them are ideal. What they don’t consider is how the photos are often heavily airbrushed and how impossible it is to ever find this standard of artificial beauty in reality.

It’s the same fate that ugly vegetables suffer. Over the years, we have been shown again and again what a perfect carrot should look like but few people stopped to ask why there is one mold that should define every single carrot grown around the globe.

When a carrot grows it responds to the small pebbles in the ground; its access to water and other nutrients; the rain, sun, cold, and humidity that it experiences as it reaches maturity. All of these factors influence the shape it takes before it is pulled from the ground, but just because a carrot might be bent in the middle or culminates in a tangle of flesh at the bottom does not equate to diminished flavor. It tastes every ounce as sweet as its fetching neighbor that managed to avoid bumping into a rock as it grew.

My family’s farm, The Chef’s Garden, has worked with chefs for over two decades to grow exactly what they request. We have always strived to transcend the industry standard of both what is flavorful and what is beautiful by growing vegetables that are nurtured as they mature in an unprecedented way. We have always prided ourselves on the extraordinary grace of our vegetables and we take tremendous pride in a vegetable delivery that is met with amazement by a chef who opens their order.

But as a farmer I must admit that it has always pained me to discard those vegetables not deemed perfect enough for our chefs, a demographic comprised of some of the savviest, most intelligent minds in the business. I consider all of the vegetables we grow at The Chef’s Garden to be my babies and it hurts to discount those that look a little different than the rest. It’s personal for me as a farmer to throw away the vegetables that are considered not quite beautiful enough.

Recently though, something has changed in our industry. Chefs are realizing how much energy is required to grow a field of vegetables and they have started to question what happens to all of the produce that is not quite fetching enough for their menus. The carbon footprint expended to grow an ugly vegetable is the same as is required to grow one considered resplendent and as chefs realize that they play a crucial role in mending our fractured food system, they have begun requesting so-called ugly vegetables in their orders.

It’s no small thing. We started our Ugly Vegetable campaign at The Chef’s Garden as a way to celebrate our collective desire as both farmers and chefs to improve the state of things and set our world right again. We were a little nervous at first to show the world vegetables that might not be labeled perfect, but the overwhelming response we’ve received has been nothing short of remarkable.

By opting into ugly vegetables, chefs are opting out of needless waste. They are transforming what has traditionally been identified as trash into dishes that are every bit as alluring and flavorful as a plate comprised of perfect-looking produce.

The customer too has a part to play. By accepting a vegetable that has a few more twists and knots they state their support for a healthier ecosystem and in turn, they choose a more optimistic future for our children.

I dream of the day when no one will consider the difference between a traditionally beautiful vegetable and an ugly one and I am glad to say that we are getting there. At the third annual Roots conference that will take place from September 21-22 at The Chef’s Garden, we are celebrating the ugly vegetable in our ‘trash food’ dinner. During the multicourse meal, esteemed chefs from around the country will pay homage to the ugly vegetable and all of its glorious blemishes.

We will also explore the topic of food waste in a discussion with Jordan Figueiredo from the Food Action Network who founded the Ugly Vegetable campaign. We hope that through our exploration of foods traditionally relegated to the trash pile and by our efforts to celebrate ugly vegetables there will come a day when those who venture to their local farmers’ market will not distinguish between the ugly vegetable and the beautiful one, acknowledging nothing but its sublime flavor and the hard work it took the farmer and the earth to bring it to their table.