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Craig Camp

Attacking Italian Restaurants

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Think you're right that Italy imports a lot of wheat from Canada. What's really interesting, though, is they export it back as pasta, and, although I'm sure that there is good dried pasta made on these shores, I haven't found any that compares to the stuff a small grocer in my neighborhood brings in from his home village in the south of Italy. In fact, Italian pasta generally strikes me as superior to domestic stuff. And it's a safe bet it's almost all made with Canadian wheat.


Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"

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The reason good produce is hard to find in the USA is that consumers are more concerned with how things look instead of how they taste.

I almost always find sweeping generalities to be incorrect, and usually asinine into the bargain. Here is a great example.

I am certain that comparing a fish market not far from Genova, with one in say, Des Moines, Iowa, where people have decided that, for example, second-rate seafood is better than never, ever eating it at all, makes perfect sense to you, Craig.

So what I wish for you is that you be trapped in Des Moines for about five years. And then, after you've figured out that because the US is so vast, if you never eat food that has traveled a long way, your diet would be stunning in its lack of variety, someone can point to you and announce smugly that the reason the fish on your table is inferior is because the only thing that matters to you is its appearance.

:laugh:


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I think most Americans simply have never experienced really good produce.

And I think you're wrong.

I think that in the summer, many Americans grow their own delicious tomatoes and other produce, and a great many more buy it from the various roadside stands and farmers' markets.

In fact, when you ask Americans to describe tomatoes, their faces kind of relax and they tell you about the great tomatoes that they have eaten right off of the vine somewhere.

But I also think that Americans are accustomed to the convenience of year-round produce.

And so, in the winter, when these wonderful tomatoes are not available, they do accept the second-rate substitutes in the stores. They believe that second-rate beats none at all.

You might argue that point: Is second-rate better than none at all? But to say that "most Americans" have never tasted a good tomato, or other good produce, and choose by appearance over quality, is to my view incorrect.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Large commercial producers like Barilla and De Cecco use massive amounts of wheat - much of it imported. Italy could never grow that much - too many mountains.

Inexpensive olive oil and extra virgin olive oil in Italy are more likely to be Spanish or Greek than Italian. Tankers of oil arrive in Genova to be bottled by the big companies in Liguria. They do not make this clear.

The garlic in our local grocery store comes from Spain and the plums come from France. The yoghurt is from Germany and thankfully so is most of the beer. I am equally thankful that the wine is Italian.

Porcini often come from Slovenia.

What you can't replace are the cured meats, cheeses, local fish and certain vegetables and fruits - basically all the products that qualify as DOP and IGP (sorry I'll have the links fixed next week - changing servers this weekend).

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The question on the table, for me at least, is "Why aren't there great Italian restaurants outside of Italy?" I think when that is broken down, one has to ask "What makes a great Italian restaurant?" And the most basic answer to that has to do with ingredients, because if the ingredients aren't up to snuff outside of Italy, that's the end of the conversation. And if the ingredients are up to snuff outside of Italy, then we can move past the ingredients explanation and move on to questions of culinary training, consumer demand, and other factors.

What I'm saying is that I think there are plenty of ingredients outside of Italy to work with. And I'm focusing on North America because that's where I have my experience -- if I lived in Argentina, I'd focus the inquiry there. That the great ingredients of North America may not be particularly easy for Joe Consumer to obtain is beside the point, because they are pretty easy to obtain if you are a well-financed restaurant chef in a major North American city.

I agree with you about ingredients. For me there are three remaining issues:

- the selection of the dishes

- the rhythm of the meal

- the way those dishes are cooked

Now here in London one can buy good Italian tomatoes quite easily ( M and C) and lots of people go often to Italy but still good Italian restaurants are hard to find. This is because the restaurant-going public are rather fickle and obsessed with novelty, and so don't like the same old boring spaghetti con le vongole, grilled sea bass, prosciutto e melone and so on. It's not sexy, the chef hasn't been on TV and so on.

Secondly, people don't eat a full meal -- it is very rare in London for people to have antipasto, pasta and secondo. If nobody does this then you compensate by making the pasta dish have a lot more sauce so it is more of a piatto unico, and it all gets twisted into a variant of the French style meal starter/main course/pudding.

And the third thing is the chefs can't resist the temptation to fancy it up. And put extra garnishes or ingredients in the dishes. For example, in the Zuni cafe cookbook, which I recently bought, there is a recipe for a carbonara style sauce which has ricotta and peas in. Now this is a fine and delicious dish, to be sure, but it is really a combination of two dishes -- one is a pea and pancetta sauce, and one is an egg yolk and bacon sauce. And when I cooked it my wife said -- why are there peas in here?


Edited by balex (log)

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The reason good produce is hard to find in the USA is that consumers are more concerned with how things look instead of how they taste.

I almost always find sweeping generalities to be incorrect, and usually asinine into the bargain. Here is a great example.

I am certain that comparing a fish market not far from Genova, with one in say, Des Moines, Iowa, where people have decided that, for example, second-rate seafood is better than never, ever eating it at all, makes perfect sense to you, Craig.

So what I wish for you is that you be trapped in Des Moines for about five years. And then, after you've figured out that because the US is so vast, if you never eat food that has traveled a long way, your diet would be stunning in its lack of variety, someone can point to you and announce smugly that the reason the fish on your table is inferior is because the only thing that matters to you is its appearance.

:laugh:

Too late. I grew up in a place that makes Des Moines look like a gourmet seafood paradise. I don't need five more years.

I will happily stay here and smug. Smugness is easier to digest than old fish.

Obviously you missed the whole point. The point was that people in Italy and Europe in general don't insist on eating things even if they are inferior. If they want fish they will make and extra effort to get it instead of settling less. The thing is what they consider inferior would be thought of as outstanding in my homeland - the great Midwest.

What is more interesting: eating a wide and varied assortment of mediocre food or eating a less varied diet made up of only foods of outstanding quality?

By the way I had some stinco di asino just the other day. I didn't feel asinine at all while eating it. However that is probably another generalization.

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But to say that "most Americans" have never tasted a good tomato, or other good produce, and choose by appearance over quality, is to my view incorrect.

How can you make such an assertion. Tomatoes in American grocery chains are exactly them same in January as they are in August. There is no such thing as a 'season' anymore.

Most people don't have gardens and grow their own vegetables. You have to go to special markets to find produce or meat of any quality.

The stores carry produce of the quality they do because people buy it without regard to the quality. If they see a recipe that needs tomatoes they buy tomatoes no matter what.

I wish five years for you in France, Italy, Portugal or Spain. You will never be able to shop in an American chain store again.

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What is more interesting: eating a wide and varied assortment of mediocre food or eating a less varied diet made up of only foods of outstanding quality?

And that actually is a question worth debating. It's a far different matter from saying that "Americans care more about appearance than taste."

Many "inferior" foods are difficult for me to eat, since I've had the best, but I simply cannot afford to fly in, for example, snow crabs fresh from Alaska. So now the choice becomes: do I never wish to have snow crabs again in my life? Unless, of course, I win the lottery?

However, I am sure you are correct. I completely "missed the whole point."

And as an American, I fall into your broad, sweeping generality. Clearly I must care more about appearance than taste.

However, I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, including Italy, and I lived in Germany for three years.

And I also have lived in the Philippines, where I ate pineapples plucked from plants in my yard, lobster, prawns and other seafood just pulled from the ocean, and the world's best mangos and other tropical fruits.

And I have lived in Alaska where I ate halibut and salmon and snow crabs that I had caught myself earlier in the day.

And I have lived in Panama where I had four avocado trees and a papaya tree in my yard, and where the Chinese that remained in Panama after completing the canal now run produce stands where the aroma of the ripening fruit is so overpowering it almost makes one dizzy, and the fresh fish I brought home from deep-sea expeditions was a nightly staple on my grill.

And I have lived in Texas where I buy snapper and shrimp and oysters right off the boats.

And I have lived in Kansas and Nebraska where our neighbors grew fields and fields of various types of corn that they simply gave to us.

And I have lived in New Mexico where during chile season, I have walked the fields of Hatch and bought my own peppers to take home and eagerly consume.

And I have also lived in New York, California, Arizona, Florida, Missouri, and about twenty other places that each offer their own fresh products of one type or another.

However, as I say, I'm sure you're correct. I'm sure my perspective would change if I just got out more.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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And as an American, I fall into your broad, sweeping generality. Clearly I must care more about appearance than taste.

However, I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, including Italy, and I lived in Germany for three years.

And I also have lived in the Philippines, where I ate pineapples plucked from plants in my yard, lobster, prawns and other seafood just pulled from the ocean, and the world's best mangos and other tropical fruits.

And I have lived in Alaska where I ate halibut and salmon and snow crabs that I had caught myself earlier in the day.

And I have lived in Panama where I had four avocado trees and a papaya tree in my yard, and where the Chinese that remained in Panama after completing the canal now run produce stands where the aroma of the ripening fruit is so overpowering it almost makes one dizzy, and the fresh fish I brought home from deep-sea expeditions was a nightly staple on my grill.

And I have lived in Texas where I buy snapper and shrimp and oysters right off the boats.

And I have lived in Kansas and Nebraska where our neighbors grew fields and fields of various types of corn that they simply gave to us.

And I have lived in New Mexico where during chile season, I have walked the fields of Hatch and bought my own peppers to take home and eagerly consume.

And I have also lived in New York, California, Arizona, Florida, Missouri, and about twenty other places that each offer their own fresh products of one type or another.

However, as I say, I'm sure you're correct. I'm sure my perspective would change if I just got out more.

you're an exception. :wink:

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But to say that "most Americans" have never tasted a good tomato, or other good produce, and choose by appearance over quality, is to my view incorrect.

How can you make such an assertion. Tomatoes in American grocery chains are exactly them same in January as they are in August. There is no such thing as a 'season' anymore.

I am no fool, Mr. Camp. Obviously I know that.

What I said, and what you didn't quote in your selective editing, is that in my view, most Americans have either grown their own tomatoes, had access to a family member (often grandparents) that did, or buy their tomatoes in the summertime from roadside stands and farmer's markets.

Furthermore, in that exact same post, I myself said that supermarket tomatoes are "second-rate." Please read my posts more carefully before you comment. I hate having to re-explain things.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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And as an American, I fall into your broad, sweeping generality. Clearly I must care more about appearance than taste.

As a fellow American. I do not understand what your personal experience has to do with the total American market as a whole. I clearly understand that my eating habits had nothing to do with the way that most people eat in the United States. American chain grocery stores would go broke catering to my tastes. It is clear that you are atypical in the same regard.

I make the sweeping generalization that most Americans buy on appearance not on taste. You would make the generalization they are all like you. I think a simple trip any large grocery chain store is contrary to your assertion. A store selling equivalent quality could not survive in Europe, but they prosper in the United States.

It is clear that you are a serious and dedicated student of cooking and food and that you will go to great lengths to create wonderful things to eat for family and friends. However I would disagree with your position that you are a typical or even average American consumer.

By the way thanks for the interesting mini-food blog.

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jaymes, if so many people have access to these tomatoes from family gardens, who's buying all of those nasty things at the thousands of supermarkets across the nation?

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However I would disagree with your position that you are a typical or even average American consumer.

By the way thanks for the interesting mini-food blog.

I am not saying that I am a "typical" American consumer. Obviously I understand that I am not.

What I did say is that in my view most Americans have, at one time or another, tasted a perfectly delicious, vine-ripened tomato, and that they prefer them.

You made a direct statement to the contrary -- with which I disagree.

Oh. And you're welcome.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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jaymes, if so many people have access to these tomatoes from family gardens, who's buying all of those nasty things at the thousands of supermarkets across the nation?

Tommy. Someone here said that "MOST AMERICANS HAVE NEVER TASTED" a good tomato (edit: okay, 'produce'). Do you honestly believe that? Never?

Positive, definite statements are in my mind in the same category as sweeping generalities.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Guy Jones of Blooming Hills Farm in upstate New York

Tim Starck of Eckerton Hills Farms in Pennsylvania

Cherry Lane Farms of Roadstown in Bridgeton, NJ

Mario Batali stands by them too; they are his three primary vendors at Babbo.

Are these producers growing standard tomato varieties like you see in Italy or are they special "heirloom" types.

Are they organic? Are they available in stores or only to people like Batali?

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Look, I've got to go. I can't keep this up.

This is what I believe.

The average American consumer does value convenience and cost (but not necessarily appearance) over flavor and taste. In the instance where both are equal; that is, the convenience and cost factor are the same, they, like everyone everywhere, prefer the better-tasting products.

Where they are not -- for example, tomatoes in January -- they choose inferior products over having none at all.

Is that a good thing?

I don't know.

I'm heading to the supermarket now to pick up some peaches from Chile.

:raz:


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I think what a good tomato is depends on ones experience. I periodically had to readjust my notion of what a good tomato was during the years I lived in Rome. "Ah so what I thought was 10/10 is in fact only about 8/10 and this tomato is a 10". And then again a few years later, until now, living back in England I am rather exigent and hard to please. Luckily things improved a bit while I was away, and some tomatoes have some flavor so all is not lost (and Italy is only a short plane ride away).

I think even a regular visitor to Italy won't really scale the heights of tomatodom. You need a few years south of Florence to get to the bottom of it.

(metaphors mixed deliberately :wink: )

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- the selection of the dishes

- the rhythm of the meal

- the way those dishes are cooked

Secondly, people don't eat a full meal -- it is very rare in London for people to have antipasto, pasta and secondo. If nobody does this then you compensate by making the pasta dish have a lot more sauce so it is more of a piatto unico, and it all gets twisted into a variant of the French style meal  starter/main course/pudding.

And the third thing is the chefs can't resist the temptation to fancy it up. And put extra garnishes or ingredients in the dishes.

I think these things get to the heart of the problem for Italian restaurants outside of Italy.

This urge to add is a disaster for many Italian dishes. What I have seen done to carpaccio is brutal. The restaurants just can't leave it alone.

I have also see many Italian restaurants struggle trying to get the customers to order multiple course meals and setting portions to take this into account and then they just give up and increase portion size.

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jaymes, if so many people have access to these tomatoes from family gardens, who's buying all of those nasty things at the thousands of supermarkets across the nation?

Tommy. Someone here said that "MOST AMERICANS HAVE NEVER TASTED" a good tomato (edit: okay, 'produce'). Do you honestly believe that? Never?

i suppose if you're splitting hairs, then yes, you might be correct. but i don't know if the tale of our families' gardens holds up very much. actually, i don't even know if more than 50% of americans ("most") have had really good tomatoes. one theory is that if you put the average american in front of an heirloom tomato, and a nice red round one, they'll pick the red round one. i suppose this would hold true for most produce.

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jaymes, if so many people have access to these tomatoes from family gardens, who's buying all of those nasty things at the thousands of supermarkets across the nation?

Tommy. Someone here said that "MOST AMERICANS HAVE NEVER TASTED" a good tomato (edit: okay, 'produce'). Do you honestly believe that? Never?

but i don't know if the tale of our families' gardens holds up very much.

Actually, according to recent Harris Poll , gardening is the number one favorite hobby of Americans, but if you will reread my post, Tommy, I didn't say that everyone has a family garden.

For one thing, you can add "friends' and neighbors' gardens" into the mix. Who do you know that has never had to figure out yet another way to use up some friend's endless supply of zucchini? (Of course, they hoard the tomatoes for themselves.)

But primarily, in addition to private gardens (not to mention people like me that don't have a "garden" but that grow tomatoes in containers on our patios), there is an abundance of farmer's markets, roadside stands, and the ubiquitous fellows selling tomatoes and other produce from the backs of pickup trucks along the highways.

When I lived in California, the "strawberry man" came twice a week to all of the offices in the neighborhood where I worked, selling strawberries and other products from the back of his truck. I remember one day his offering the strawberries at a great discount and apologizing because they were "picked yesterday." Here in Austin, there are several Mexican fellows that make the rounds of the offices downtown selling fresh produce from their family's farms in the valley.

There is an entire "underground" economy out there making a buck from fresh produce.

I mean, I know it is absolutely always completely in fashion to disparage Americans in every way, shape and form. And sometimes we even deserve it. But I think saying that "most" of us have "never" tasted good produce, and don't prefer it when it's available, is ridiculous.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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aside from the one or two times that every american has had "good" "produce", who is buying all of that crappy stuff at the thousands of supermarkets across the nation day in and day out? yes, of course if everyone in the country has had a good tomato once (and clearly that can't be proven, and i don't believe it). and if more than half have had a good tomato once (which i also don't believe), then craig's comment is out and out wrong. but i don't think he really meant that. i think he was employing hyperbole to make a point. and perhaps that point is that most americans chose the roundest tomatoes from Shop Rite, rather than traveling to the roadside stand (although it wasn't that simple). i agree with this assumption.


Edited by tommy (log)

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aside from the one or two times that every american has had "good" "produce", who is buying all of that crappy stuff at the thousands of supermarkets across the nation day in and day out?  yes, of course if everyone in the country has had a good tomato once (and clearly that can't be proven, and i don't believe it).  and if more than half have had a good tomato once (which i also don't believe), then craig's comment is out and out wrong.  but i don't think he really meant that.  i think he was employing hyperbole to make a point.  and perhaps that point is that most americans chose the roundest tomatoes from Shop Rite, rather than traveling to the roadside stand (although it wasn't that simple).  i agree with this assumption.

I adore you Tommy, and once again you're right.

You can use me as an example.

I go to the supermarket and:

I buy second-rate cherries because I don't live in BC.

I buy second-rate bananas because I don't live in Panama.

I buy second-rate salmon and halibut and crab and blueberries because I don't live in Alaska.

I buy second-rate mangoes because I don't live in India.

I buy second-rate pineapple because I don't live in Hawaii.

I buy second-rate lobster because I don't live in Maine.

And I buy those damned old dried-out hard coconuts because I don't live in the Philippines.

So shoot me.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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They grow mostly heirlooms and some of the normal ones. Guy Jones is organic and I'm not sure about the others. Both Jones and Starck sell at area greenmarkets to the public, and I'm not sure about Cherry Lane. But what does that have to do with the question "Are they as good or better than in Italy?"

On the question of "Have most Americans tasted a great tomato," how does that bear on the inquiry? And what kinds of evidence might we present one way or the other? Certainly, most Americans do not have gardens, because most Americans live in cities and close-in, tightly-packed, virtually-no-backyard suburbs where gardening is atypical. At the same time, those who dwell in the big cities and have money will typically have access to markets that perform at a very high level. In the end, though, it doesn't really matter what "most" Americans do because there are so many people here, so even if one out of five Americans does something, and every Italian does the same thing, there are more Americans doing it than Italians. In the New York Metro area there are 10 million people, and of those people are millions upon millions of big-spending consumers who should be able to support virtually any commercial enterprise imaginable.

Finally, I think it's incorrect to say there's no seasonality in American supermarkets. Tomatoes in season are quite different than out-of-season tomatoes at, say, any big suburban supermarket in New Jersey. Most every supermarket I know of in New Jersey sells New Jersey-grown produce in season. Nor is the out-of-season stuff always terrible.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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On the question of "Have most Americans tasted a great tomato," how does that bear on the inquiry?

Because the implication is that Americans are served crap in crappy restaurants because Americans cannot tell the difference between "good" food and crap, and when they can, they actually prefer crap, if said crap is good looking.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Well...

Having spent three wonderful years in Austin, I can see how Jaymes is bristling at the assertion that American produce is uniformly inferior. In Austin it just isn't. But Austin has the best grocery purveyor in the country as well. Supermarket produce in the Northeast, like in Pennsylvania and NJ is, indeed, inferior. Selection is bad, quality is bad, even the aesthetics are sometimes bad.

As we've been noting previously, America is a BIG place, and some parts of it are more culinarily deprived than others... or at least some parts of it are populated by enough people who don't give a damn that they encourage inferior produce vendors to thrive and multiply. The hunt for good produce is materially hampered by the demand for out-of-season produce at all times and the vendors who capture that market and use it to lever their inferior goods onto the shelves when better alternatives are available too.


Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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