My entire adult life — which I date loosely as beginning from my first credit card, at age 17, so half my life ago — I have been a compulsive grocery shopper. You would think I'd lived through a time of famine, or perhaps been raised in a Soviet Bloc country. I remember doing my grocery shopping in college on the motorcycle I secretly owned (my parents had said no way), and filling up the classy milk crate strapped on the back while trying to balance two plastic bags on each handlebar … and work the clutch. I was so uncool, but mainly it's a miracle I never wrecked.
Even just a few years ago my routine was to hit the supermarket once a week, fill a cart full with plastic bags of produce, throw it all in the refrigerator — after first tossing out the produce that was rotting in its hermetically sealed plastic shrouds from the previous trip. Half the time the Potato and I would then go out to eat, and I would proceed to cook what I felt like later in the week, shrugging when I wasted the rest. (I also used to flip off little old ladies in the crosswalk.)
I could be so cavalier because the food was cheap to me, but mainly because there was no story or face associated with it. Now that I shop at the farmers market twice a week and get a biweekly Eatwell Farm CSA box, things have changed around here. The fridge is half empty at all times, and everything in it is just a few days old. I feel almost tearful if I fail to eat a head of organic lettuce in time. It's not about the cost, although now that I'm paying $1.75 for that head of lettuce it's a tad more painful, but about the effort that I know went into growing it. Kind of like why nobody minds throwing away a half-eaten Whopper, but would never leave even half a bite of peach pie that a friend baked scratch.
I've learned some basic things about produce storage that I can't believe took me this long. Those of you who already know not to seal lettuce tightly in a plastic bag, go read something else. (Such as this excellent post by "food economist" Parke Wilde about putting together the farm subsidy, earmark, and campaign donor databases — it's a visual display of Big Ag pork on so many levels.) This is for those farmers-market newbies, and for my younger, wasteful self.
All produce exudes ethylene gas — it's what ripens it, as well as what makes it decay; some manufacture it faster than others. Increased levels of ethylene within a bag released by the produce itself stimulate the production of more ethylene, thus ripening — and overripening. This is why if you put a slightly unripe tomato or a peach in a brown paper bag it will ripen faster than unenclosed.
Contrary to what you may have heard, organic produce does not "go bad" faster than
conventional industrial produce in my experience. According to Marion Nestle's new tome"What to Eat," supermarket produce is often a week or more past being harvested, more if it's coming from, say, Chile. Produce from the farmers market, usually no more than a day or two old, will easily last a week or more if stored properly, depending on what it is. Here are some tips I rounded up from the other Ethicureans.
If your favorite stuff isn't on that list, I also stumbled across this handy "periodic table of produce" that Dennis Craven over on Slashfood scanned in from a recent Real Simple magazine. It covers how to store produce as well as how long you can expect it to last. Alas, it also repeats the organic vs. industrial shelf-life misconception, and I don't think any produce should ever be wrapped tightly in plastic as advised, but otherwise it's generally on target. He has it posted in two parts; I merged the two halves in Photoshop for easier printing and posting. (Click on the thumbnail for a big version.)
This has nothing to do with starving children in Africa, by the way. It’s about respect for the people growing your food, and about waste. This East Bay Express cover story on waste cites a 2004 study found that food was the largest of the 45 categories of stuff in California's landfills. It's biodegradable, sure, but why should the birds and the rats get to eat what you paid a premium for?
Please chime in with your own suggestions — or disagree with ours.
Note: I'm going on vacation for a few days to a place where not only is there no Internet access, there's not even a phone. I'll reply to meat CSA and other e-mails on Saturday.