With juice dripping down her arm, I heard my daughter tell her younger sister that they were eating “elf strawberries.” Indeed, it seems hardly more of a stretch to imagine that the farmers market berries were grown by elves than to think they are the same type of fruit as the gargantuan strawberries available at the supermarket in protective plastic shields. There have been times when I’ve watched my kid clutch a strawberry in her fist and eat it like one would eat an apple and I’ve shuddered. It just seems unnatural. But how are they supposed to know that a strawberry shouldn’t fill your entire palm or that a watermelon is supposed to have seeds or that all apples are not round?
We have grown so used to gleaming supermarket aisles with perfectly symmetrical stackable (and robust, no rotund) fruits and vegetables, that it is a delight to me that a trip to the farmers market gets my kids actually looking at their food and talking about it. They scuffle over conjoined berries (twins!) and lumpy apples. They ogle warty squash. The other day my daughter screamed when I opened a carton of eggs and they were all different colors. And just look at these “carrots in love”. There is just something so poignant about them, so lovely and a far cry from the pre-cut nubbins of packaged "baby" carrots.
When I stumbled upon the work of Berlin-based artist, Uli Westphal, I fell head over heels into his rabbit hole and emerged absolutely besotted with his beautiful mutatoes. Mutatoes are what he calls non-standard fruits, roots, and vegetables. Drawn in not only by their beauty, but by their absence in conventional supermarkets, he began to collect, photograph and archive his mutatoes - and then cook with them.
Westphal was intrigued when people’s knee jerk reactions to the mutatoes were of revulsion or disgust. In his words, “the complete absence of botanical anomalies in our supermarkets has caused us to regard the consistency of produce presented there as natural. Produce has become a highly designed, monotonous product. We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, how fruits, roots and vegetables can actually look (and taste).” Through his art, Westphal is attempting to preserve, celebrate and promote “agricultural plasticity.”
His photographs are a fanciful way of reminding us how critical biodiversity is to the health and security of our food system. As our definition of what is edible or beautiful grows narrower and narrower, and that message carries down through the production chain to the farmer, they plant more of less species, rendering the crops susceptible to environmental threats and thereby more reliant on pesticides and fungicides. I realize this is Michael Pollan 101, but what can I say? Getting there via a lemon that looks like an octopus just tickles my cockles.
I absolutely love Westphal's photos and what they tell us about ourselves and our preconceived notions about our food. The more I scroll through his archives, the more I am taken by the whimsy and soulfulness captured in the gleaming shiny skins of these fruits and vegetables. I can't help but imagine the mutatoes are Mother Nature's ooopses and chuckles.
This past Saturday, the kids and I went on a hunt for mutatoes at the Mill City Farmers Market. When we stumbled upon Real Foods, my son yelled SCORE! MUTATOES! And I thought SCORE! TOMATOES!* Our best find was a handsome striated, bulbous Striped German, partially cleaved in the center. Sliced cross-wise into the shapes of far-away islands and topped with a little balsamic and sea salt, this mutato was as delicious as it was gorgeous.
For an entertaining glimpse into Westphal’s world, check out this short feature for the Australian show Hungry Beast. And don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for those freaky, fabulous mutatoes!
*What I really thought was SCORE! TOMATOES! Wait! Tomatoes? Isn't it too early? Oh, dang, I don't care. This is Mill City - there must be a legit reason. Woohoo! A short email to the good folks at Mill City Farmers Market set my tomato-addled mind at ease. Based out of Athens, WI, Real Foods grows much of their food in hoop houses, which allows them to bring late-season produce to market much earlier.
Gabriela Lambert is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. You can also read more of her writing on her blog www.peevishmama.com.