YAKIMA, Wa. — The apples look like Christmas tree ornaments, wearing a blush of dew at first light. The grapes could have been painted on, those clusters of sweet calories in their best October color. And here and there is the smell of hops, newly freed from their climbing nets, headed for breweries bottling a taste of fall.
I drove into the Yakima Valley, an edible landscape fed by water from the ice-covered volcanoes, on a day when yet another story appeared about how our food can kill you.
The piece by Michael Moss in the Sunday New York Times told of Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old dance instructor who is paralyzed from a food-borne illness caused by E. coli. Minnesota officials have traced her condition to a hamburger that her mother grilled for a Sunday dinner in the fall of 2007.
You look at Stephanie, and follow Moss’s trail of the burger from a splotch pattern of trimmings taken from slaughterhouses all over the hemisphere and then through the exit door of the food giant Cargill, and wonder how this diet of ours became so disconnected from simple sources.
Cargill has $116 billion in annual revenues. They deliver, in the case of frozen burgers, a product of nearly indecipherable components, from disparate origins, on a mass scale. They deliver it cheap.
A restorative of sorts is at hand this time of year. Barely 1 percent of all Americans work the land year-round as farmers, but still something in us needs a harvest. Every now and then, we have to see our food, if only to preserve the illusion that this good earth can keep us well.
The Yakima Valley is one of the nation’s most bountiful farm regions, producing cherries and peaches, apples and pears, plums and peppers, cider and good wine.
Red Delicious, which is to a fruit bowl what plastic surgery is to beauty, is still the most popular apple — a polished piece of fruit that can keep its buffed pose year-round in near-freezing warehouses, but is utterly tasteless.
Honeycrisp, which is sunshine in a marbled orb, and Gala and Fuji are all coming on, as are innumerable varieties that had nearly been lost in the joyless pursuit of the perfect apple.
In afternoon light, the vineyards are impressionistic. I tried little bunches of cabernet franc and some malbec, picked that morning, their sugars at their peak after a spell of warm days and cold nights. And the pears, just off the tree but soft enough to produce chin juice on first bite, are candy.
In the romance of an October day, all of it seems like Eden in an age of warehouse burger peril. All of it seems like it fits — sustainable and local, to use those drab words that people insist on attaching to good food from somebody you know.
But this image is somewhat illusory. The Yakima Valley is a miracle of manipulation. It would grow little but sage and scrub brush without its network of irrigation ditches and pipes, draining water off the Cascades.
And these fruit types: many of them were hatched in labs. In this valley, even a hobbyist can play Apple God with grafts of genetically superior species. That fresh-picked fruit may look as local as Mount Adams, but apples originated in Kazakhstan. The only one native to the United States is the crab apple.
Still, at harvest time, the roadsides of this valley are full of people trying to get closer to the consumer, with food that has a story behind it. Despite the travails of the Great Recession, organic fruit and vegetable sales were up 37 percent last year, showing the consumer has a similar desire to connect.
I’m not one who thinks that organic always means better. I wish the non-factory farm produce was cheaper. But as the Cargill E. coli episode proved once again, cheap food can come with a terrible price.
There are more than 70 million cases of food-borne illnesses a year in this country, resulting in 5,000 deaths. Leafy vegetables — that’s you, bundle of supermarket spinach, and you, pre-washed lettuce — are the leading culprits, outside of meats, according to a study released this week by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Just a few years ago, bagged baby spinach was said to cause the death of three people, and severe illness in 200 others.
Fruit is less troublesome, because it hangs above soil that can contain pathogens.
How much of the danger from leafy vegetables can be blamed on the industrial model that produces cheap calories I don’t know. But as consumers follow Michael Pollan’s advice to get to know our food producers, we will learn to see the processed burger and the industrial vegetables for what they are — cheap global commodities that carry some risk.
The best antidote for such a thing is to see, touch and experience food as it comes off the fields. As imperfect as this harvest picture is, it satisfies a need that has never bred out of us as people.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company