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Essay

Veg Direct

The Garden State is missing a vital link between our farms and our independent ethnic restaurants. Until we make what’s available widely accessible, we’ll never know our true potential.

What the Garden State grows is fundamental to some of the most loved, most consumed foods in our 21 counties. Ever wonder how classic Italian dishes could flourish as they have here? Well, consider that New Jersey is famous for its tomatoes and a national leader in production of eggplant, bell peppers and escarole. Favorites from Mexico employ many of those same vegetables, as well as chilies and corn. South Asia’s iconic dishes star some of these top Jersey harvests, in addition to spinach, carrots, zucchini, potatoes and okra.

Yet most restaurants that specialize in those cuisines are not buying their produce directly from our Garden State farms, which, according to the most recent federal Census of Agriculture, shows that tally to be 9,998 strong, an increase of 115 new farms since the previous Ag Census.

We buck a national trend of losing farms, but are losing too many opportunities to support our farms by having what they grow and produce be at the heart of our restaurants’ menus. Why is that the case? Why aren’t the vast majority of our restaurants not buying their produce from our Garden State farms? Why aren’t our farms more actively working to place their produce with close-by restaurants? What is stopping what could be a healthy relationship from blossoming?

Time and money are the reasons most commonly offered. They are understandable reasons. But shouldn’t reasons of quality, of seasonality, and of culture and heritage provide motivation to plow paths to progress in actually getting New Jersey produce from farms to the tables of more than the higher-cost restaurants in our state? Because right now, so-called farm-to-table is most often a certain type of restaurant – and it’s not your Tuesday night Mexican or pop-in Indian for Thursday takeout of palak paneer and bhaingan bharta or even your local pizza joint boasting of superior dough and endless toppings.

Cherished heritage, fundamental farm-to-table connections and an adherence to the rhythms of seasonality long have proved to fortify the economies of foodways elsewhere. So why is it so hard to synchronize getting what’s grown on our farms to the restaurants that could use those very same ingredients?

Every time I’m served a sad and sorry pico de gallo, I ask myself that very question. At the height of Garden State tomato season, I want to bring farm-grown tomatoes to a Mexican restaurant a couple of hours before I eat there and ask the chefs to please, please make a pico de gallo of Jersey tomatoes to serve as warranted with my meal. I want to fleck off the top of a pizza tasteless “grape tomatoes” and head for the nearest trash can when forced to face tabbouleh with those same never-to-be-ripe tomatoes and parsley that’s better suited to life as artificial turf.

What we have, here in New Jersey, is a four-season bounty that has prompted one of our leading farmers to tell me, with force of belief, that “if we put our minds to it, New Jersey could be food independent in two years.”

We just can’t seem to figure out how to get what we grow to where it can be prepared, cooked and served on a larger scale. By that I mean, at more than merely a single-digit percentage of open-to-the-public restaurants in our Garden State.

The reason I’m most agitated by the lack of New Jersey produce in our independent ethnic restaurants is that those eateries, historically and culturally, are so inextricably tied to what’s grown locally and what’s in season that it’s criminal to see that vital link at worst ignored and at best maligned by use of inferior produce. I asked the co-owner of one of my favorite Indian restaurants if she’d be interested in getting a supply of eggplant from a Jersey farm next summer. She was ebullient at the thought – and immediately said, “I could use eggplant and spinach, too. Tomatoes, we use so many tomatoes. Herbs? Potatoes? Onions? Okra?” Her personal shopping list started there and continued.

We have the abundance, we have the variety, we have the quality. Can’t we figure out a way to connect our farms to more of our tables?

I read, and re-read, the new Ag Census that was released last month and shook my head. Our diminutive in size, northern state is one of the nation’s top producers of eggplant (No. 3 in the country); cranberries and asparagus (tied at No. 4); and blueberries (No. 5). New Jersey is in the Top 10 nationally for production of peaches, plums, bell peppers, spinach, bok choy, escarole, kale and romaine lettuce.

It’s all right here and it’s not like any of it is too far away.

The reason so many immigrants made long-term homes here was because what they ate in their native lands was being grown here, or could be grown. What was not here were the hubs, the marketplaces where farmers and cooks could come together, year-round, multiple days a week. Marketplaces where culinary commerce thrives and, in turn, fuels local and regional economies.

These hubs still are not here on the necessary scale to solve our connection problems. Could such marketplaces reign in the time, control the costs and spark the kind of culinary economy that make it unthinkable and unwise not to play an active part in?

Until we make what’s available widely accessible, we’ll never experience our potential. Let’s rev up our economic engine by creating places where our farms and our ethnic restaurants, our cooks both home and pro, can be linked and see where we can grow from there.

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