Hear my confession: I am a CSA failure.
Oh, how I wanted to love Community Supported Agriculture. What a great idea, I’ve often thought: You buy a share in a CSA run by a small local farm, and every week or two you get a box of just-picked produce.
You get a regular supply of seasonal, locally sourced vegetables; the farm gets a source of income. What’s not to like?
Kale, of course. But I brushed aside the inevitability of my CSA boxes containing my least favorite food. It wouldn’t be all kale all the time; the boxes would surely hold all sorts of produce, including some I’d never eaten but always wanted to try.
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I would experience the breadth of the vegetative world. I would expand my produce horizons. I would eat healthily, locally, sustainably.
I signed us up for a half-share in a CSA, and prepared for the bounty.
The doubts arrived with the first box.
I was unprepared for that much bounty. My husband took a look at the first box, brimming with lettuce, radishes, broccoli, arugula and Hakurei turnips, and predicted a windfall for our compost bin.
I waded in. So this was kohlrabi — weird knobs with stalks sprouting out the top like tubes with leaves. I would use it in … I had no idea what to do with it.
My CSA, anticipating inexperience, tried mightily to help, emailing a lengthy and helpful note with produce descriptions, storage instructions, cooking tips and recipes.
You could eat kohlrabi raw, it turned out. I peeled the bulb, sliced it and salted it. It tasted like — not much.
Then there was the matter of identifying the greens. The farm had given a list of the box’s contents, but the greens looked so unfamiliar that I had to take photos and sent them to the CSA with a plaintive, “Can you tell me what this is?” My husband pored over lettuce images online.
And then we had to store our CSA vegetables. And here my confidence truly began to falter.
I could barely fit everything into the refrigerator. I shoved vegetables around the bread, on top of cottage cheese, into the fruit bin. I put the overflow into the basement refrigerator, where I promptly forgot about it.
And I began to face several other CSA realities.
You don’t just have to store all that food; you have to eat it. And how much sauteed beet greens can a person eat? Especially if her husband refuses to eat any?
Of course, you can cook or freeze it instead of eating it right away. But did I really want to spend that much time dealing with massive amounts of vegetables that I might end up not liking anyway? After I spent much of a weekend cooking several recipes for my turnips only to wind up with dishes so boring I tossed most of them out, my ambition flagged.
And finally, the big problem with big boxes of produce: The vegetables start to go bad, en masse.
My salad greens turned slimy. The zucchini started puckering. The cabbage broke out in brown spots.
But you can’t just throw them out — or at least I couldn’t. This wasn’t store-bought produce grown by some faceless, far-off corporation. These were vegetables grown by my CSA, lovely people who packed the boxes themselves and sent emails with pictures of their farm.
So it wasn’t just a box — it was a race to eat the stuff in the box before it turned.
My CSA dreams were dimming.
I was enjoying delicious salad staples like arugula and radishes. The farm’s tomatoes were better and more plentiful than my own. The zucchini, summer squash and carrots ended up on the grill and onto our grateful plates.
But I felt guilty about all the spoiled produce we were throwing out. I felt a constant pressure to cook or eat our vegetables. I chafed at the loss of control over what foods we would get, and perplexed that you can have that much food in your house but nothing for dinner.
I felt better, however, after talking to my friend Evelyn, who belonged to a CSA for years.
She explained what sounded like a kind of CSA Circle of Life.
“The first week of the season, you are just so happy and you use all the vegetables,” she said. “And the second week, it’s like, ‘OK, this is great. I’m going to use them.’”
By the third or fourth week, she said, you move into a stage she calls “vegetable avalanche.”
“And by the end of the season your refrigerator is full of vegetables that you don’t know what to do with,” she said.
She had loved the fresh produce but didn’t love having to stay home on a Sunday afternoon to cook it.
“I worried too much about the vegetables,” she said. “I would feel so guilty. I would be, like, ‘I have to use them.’ It just felt morally, ethically wrong to let them get slimy and rot in your downstairs refrigerator.”
My summer in a CSA was a learning experience. I learned that kohlrabi doesn’t taste as scary as it looks. I learned that I really like beet, goat cheese and honey tarts. And I learned that my CSA also sells its produce at farmer’s markets.
Next summer, I'll see them there.