Q& A: Russ Parsons

'Flavor Only Comes From Good Farming'

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Russ Parsons would probably tell me, politely, to put down the grapes. They're Thompson Seedless, bright green globes from California that I bought at Whole Foods Market, and as I snack on them while writing, they have all the complexity of a SweetTart.

That's because, as the Los Angeles Times food writer says in his second book, "How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table" (Houghton Mifflin, 2007, $27), they were shipped woefully unripe. This overwhelmingly successful variety isn't even supposed to be eaten green, but when it is fully ripened the stems get brittle and the grapes fall off -- not a good quality in a piece of produce, especially one shipped cross-country.

"It's a shame, because when it's picked ripe, it's a really nice grape, with a very flowery quality to it," Parsons says. As someone who lived in Northern Virginia in the early 1970s, Parsons knows that such a recommendation might not resonate with Washington area residents, who can't get a ripe Thompson. But if you're visiting California and see the amber-colored grapes at a farmers market, he says, "snap them up."

Parsons, 52, has made a career out of such discoveries, and "How to Pick a Peach" reads like something of a practical guide for the flavor seeker facing a produce aisle -- or farmers market -- full of bewildering choices. With recipes organized by season and by fruit and vegetable, Parsons weaves essays about farming and variety development with tips on selection and storage, and more than 100 recipes. He started working on the book before eat-local bibles such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" were published, but he promises a judgment-free attitude: Take your flavor where you can find it.

I spoke to Parsons recently over lunch at Vidalia. Excerpts from our conversation follow.

As a Washington resident, should I buy California produce?

In a lot of cases you're not going to have a choice. But I don't want to give the impression that you can't get good food from the supermarket. If you shop well, you can, if you go in as a smart consumer. You'll get pretty good produce. You won't get heart-stopping produce, because with most things the compromises they have to make to transport it will mean it might be good but not great.

You have a pretty egalitarian viewpoint about the source.

California is famous for shrill. God bless her for all the wonderful things she's done, but Alice Waters beats the same drum. The way things are changing, you need to be more open-minded about it. Some of the best farmers I know are organic, but some of them aren't.

Eventually you get so wrapped up in it you can't make a decision. I just did a panel with Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle ["What to Eat"], and we're worrying about the carbon footprint of our food now! I know it's important, but it makes it really hard to go to the grocery store, you know?

Do you believe in the idea that people's palates have been ruined, that we don't know what a strawberry's supposed to taste like?

When people taste a great strawberry, if they're susceptible, there's an immediate reaction, even if they've never had one before. Now there are people who are culinarily tone-deaf, and they might say, "Eh, it's just a strawberry. Get over it."

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