A local solution to spinach withdrawal

September 29, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

I was eating a wrap the other day, and some of the baby salad greens fell out. I think one might have been a spinach leaf.

I ate it anyway, and live to tell about it. My name is Jean, and I'm addicted to spinach.

As the E. coli scare goes on, desperate people will do desperate things. I've been in spinach withdrawal ever since the bagged stuff was implicated in a nationwide outbreak of a particularly virulent strain of E. coli that has sickened 183 people, killing one of them. (A Hagerstown woman has also died, her family believes, from eating bagged spinach, but officials haven't confirmed that her death is related to the outbreak.) The E. coli has been traced to spinach grown in three counties in California, by far the country's largest producer, and stores took the bags off their shelves.

It's suddenly easier to get crack than spinach. (Well, maybe that's always been true in Baltimore.) While it's trickling back into some grocery stores, with the Giant this week starting to offer spinach from Colorado and Canada, I think it's going to take a while for me to get over the idea that there may be dangerous microbes in those handy plastic bags. The bags apparently aren't the problem - suspicions are that the E. coli came via runoff water contaminated by manure from nearby cattle farms - and yet because that's how most of us tend to buy spinach these days, there's that guilt-by-association thing.

Bagged salads and spinach have become to the health- and weight-conscious what Big Macs have been to the diet-oblivious - the perfect fast food. Women in particular seem to have embraced these no-wash, no-chop, no-fat, no-waste bags of goodness. A girlfriend e-mailed me after the first news reports of the outbreak, which noted most of the victims were women: "Of course! Men don't eat vegetables! I have to go home and throw out a huge bag of Costco spinach now."

Meanwhile, at the farmers' markets I go to, the one local farm that has had spinach in recent weeks always seems to be sold out by the time I get there. I guess I'll just have to start waking up earlier, or wait a week or two or three when other local growers promise to start harvesting and selling their fall crops of spinach.

The small area farmers say the E. coli outbreak reinforces what they've been preaching for years: It's best to eat locally and seasonally. While no farm is immune from possible contamination, when most of a single vegetable is grown in one place, any problem suddenly becomes a sprawling, national problem rather than a confined, local one. So far, the E. coli outbreak has hit 26 states and Canada.

Jack Gurley, who owns a 5-acre farm, Calvert's Gift, near Hereford, said that the more people and machinery who touch your food, the greater the likelihood of some kind of contamination..

"It's just my wife and me and one worker," Gurley said of the organic produce he sells at a couple of area markets and through the Community Supported Agriculture program, in which area residents buy shares of the farm's output. "It's not like there's a huge chain that it goes through between the field and the grocery store."

Gurley has been receiving phone calls from restaurants, trying to buy spinach from him now that they can't get it from the suppliers who deal in California spinach. California grows three-quarters of the nation's spinach, most of it in the Salinas Valley and surrounding areas.

"It's pretty scary that 75 percent of the spinach comes from one area," Gurley says. "That worries a lot of people. It certainly worries me. To rely in this day and age, that's just like an accident waiting to happen."

Gurley, who had spinach from his farm for dinner this week, says he'll be selling the leafy green in about a week. He's not in any rush to get it to market despite the spinach-hungering masses out there. He still has summer produce coming off the farm and figures he has all of fall to sell spinach.

Patience, counsels Joan Norman, a neighboring farmer. Whether it's asparagus or tomatoes or spinach, it tastes better in season, and when it hasn't traveled thousands of miles to your plate.

"You can't have everything at the same time," she says.

In other words, to everything a season.

So for the spinach-deprived, Norman offers this advice: "Let them eat chard."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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