Kids learn about the Food Web in grade school. It is made up of the many interconnected systems that put food in our mouths.
Ancient humans ate from a food web that involved dirt, seeds, blood and sweat. Most of us today rarely glimpse that distant end of our daily food web. Much more familiar is the end of the web that includes store shelves and credit cards. There’s no dirt or blood in sight, just squeaky clean turnips glistening with artificial dew and pink beef wrapped in plastic that sparkles.
Today’s food web is amazing. It delivers perishables like lettuce, tomatoes and lobster to northern Michigan in every season. We can glance out the window at a raging snowstorm as we peel a fresh orange that was plucked not long before from a tree thousands of miles away.
Fresh fruit in winter is a treat that Michigan residents of the not-so-distant past recognized solely as apples. Apples keep amazingly long in the right conditions. They may have been the only fresh fruit regularly served on tables in the north country during the snowy season. Most fruits have a shorter shelf life — like the forgotten jet black banana that recently materialized under a bag of onions at my house. That discovery explained why the onions smelled particularly sweet.
Northern state residents today can bite into all kinds of fruit in all kinds of seasons. The era of corporate farming and fast transport delivers kumquats, mangoes and many other fruits to our kitchens no matter what the season.
A slightly off-topic example struck me last summer during an unofficial downstate reunion with some of my wife’s college friends. Half a dozen of us went out for breakfast in a small town somewhere east of Lansing. (Sorry I can’t provide a more precise location. I’m just a tourist in that part of Lower Michigan, sort of a reverse fudgie.) Most of us ordered coffee. One couple, who have lived in Florida for years, ordered orange juice. They both downed that glass in moments and ordered seconds, then thirds. They’re so accustomed to drinking the Florida state beverage that I’m not sure they could survive a day without it.
We northerners survive many winter days without sunshine, and we have no problem surviving a day without orange juice.
But we all have our preferred fruits.
I like peaches. My wife prefers nectarines because she doesn’t like peach fuzz. I enjoy the raspy texture. Maybe that’s why I like raspberries. Fresh berries from hot houses, California or Mexico are available most of the year at grocery stores — but they just don’t taste the same as local berries in season. And while frozen berries are handy to have around to add to the occasional smoothie, please don’t ask me how they compare in flavor.
Backpacking excursions require lightweight sustenance, and I years ago settled on dried apricots as one component of a balanced back country diet. They’re tasty, packed with energy and compactly packaged in a resealable foil envelope. And they’re kind of fuzzy.
One fruit I have never taken backpacking is hot peppers. Peppers technically are fruit because they contain seeds (the same holds true for tomatoes). So jalapeños, like all peppers — spicy or mild — are fruit. A little research reveals that peppers originated in antiquity in Mexico, were domesticated, crossbred, and spread to kitchens around the globe.
The wild pepper has been tamed, just as the wild dog of ancient times has been tamed. Both have been bred into a wide variety of types.
Today’s hot pepper array far outnumbers the variety catalogued by the American Kennel Club. Some sources say there are 50,000 varieties of peppers. The AKC currently registers just 190 dog breeds. Dogs can be shaggy, bald, long or short. Peppers can be green, red, yellow, ghostly, round or long. Their heat content can range from mild to demonic, each with a unique flavor.
That incredible variety of peppers helps chefs in Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo and Traverse City please palates from dawn to dusk and back to dawn again. You’ve probably heard of ghost and habanero peppers, but how about the Count Dracula, Bolivian Rainbow, 7 Pot Brain Strain or Explosive Ember?
My insides don’t agree with heavy spice these days, but I used to enjoy sampling all kinds of peppers. I never did take any backpacking, though. Hard-shell tacos don’t survive two days on the trail nearly as well as dried apricots. Fresh apples used to find their way into my pack because they hold up well. The apple really is an amazing fruit. Fresh peaches never accompanied me on the trail — they would be bruised brown pulp after a long hike.
Michigan’s peach season is still far in the future. But Florida’s peach season began last week, according to a report from Florida Classic Growers. Cool March weather delayed the season’s start by a couple of weeks. Florida tree-ripened peaches should be available to consumers through late May, according to group. Peaches from California, Georgia and South Carolina typically become available in stores about the time the Florida peach harvest ends.
Commercial growers across the country — and around the world — populate the production end of our modern food web. We consumers are at the other end — we just need to buy the peaches, apples and hot peppers.
Contact Business Editor Dan Nielsen at 231-933-1467 or dnielsen@.