11 Tips from Chefs for Shopping at Farmers’ Markets

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Farmers’ markets are a summertime staple, just like corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes, and watermelon—all of which you can find at a farm stand. Here, 11 chefs share their secrets for getting the best deals and produce fresh from the farm.

1. HEAD TO THE MARKET WITHOUT A LIST.

Bill Briwa, a New York chef and culinary instructor, advises shoppers to forgo the ingredients list. Since farmers’ markets provide seasonal, local fare that changes weekly—instead of grocery stores’ standard variety of shipped-in produce—your shopping should take a different approach. "Keep an open mind. You’re going to see some great produce here, but you may not know what it is just yet," Briwa says. "You’ll recognize it when you see it, and that’s when your menu planning should start."

2. BUDGET FOR SPONTANEOUS PURCHASES.

While it’s smart to set a budget for your farmers’ market excursion, don’t be afraid to set aside a few dollars for non-food purchases. Chef and food writer Gail Simmons suggests not spending all your budget at one place, instead leaving some wiggle room for unexpected finds like flowers or early-season fruits.

3. BE SUSPICIOUS OF NON-NATIVE PRODUCE.

Wooden baskets overflowing with colorful peppers.
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Lenny Russo—a St. Paul, Minnesota, chef—recommends understanding what’s grown near you to ensure you’re getting top-quality produce. "If you go to a market in a northern climate and see vendors selling oranges, you can go ahead and assume that these people are actually buying stuff from some sort of clearing house or packing house, and then reselling them," he says. If fresh, local fare is what makes your mouth salivate, avoid these vendors and opt for in-season produce.

4. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH FARM VENDORS.

Meeting area farmers is the best way know you’re getting truly local produce and products. Tamara Reynolds, chef and author of Forking Fantastic!, suggests building friendly relationships with the farm stands you frequent. You’ll learn about how your food is grown and harvested and also open the door for special requests or cooking advice. Plus, you’ll have the chance to share feedback (both good and bad) on the items you purchase.

5. AVOID IMPULSE BUYING.

Farmers’ markets allow you to select from a variety of heirloom and unusual produce varieties. So to avoid being overwhelmed, curate your purchases like a chef. Food Network chef Geoffrey Zakarian advises shoppers to just look for the first 30 minutes, ask for samples, then decide what’s worth purchasing. Taking a calm approach helps you avoid overspending and overbuying.

6. PRESERVE THE BEST DEALS.

Woman shopping for fruit.
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Top Chef competitor Sam Talbot suggests thinking ahead—like, way ahead—when you’re out shopping. If you’re skilled at preserving foods, take advantage of seasonal bounties when they come around. "I like to buy it fresh and preserve and pickle it all for winter pies for Christmas gifts," he says. Your future food cravings will thank you.

7. BARGAIN FOR UGLY OR BULK PRODUCE.

Many chefs agree that trying to bargain for lower prices as soon as the market opens just won’t work. But in some cases, you can score a deal on misshapen foods or large quantities. Brooklyn chef Matt Benero recommends chatting with vendors about how you’ll use the produce. If you're looking to can or preserve fruits and veggies, farmers may cut you a deal on ugly produce, bulk amounts, or produce they really need to get rid of.

8. DON'T DISREGARD NON-ORGANIC VEGGIES.

Selecting produce from certified organic vendors is one reason many people spend Saturday mornings at farmers' markets. But don’t just brush off market vendors that don’t have the certification; instead, ask how they grow their food. Chicago chef Stephen Wambach explains that some farms still follow organic practices but don’t carry the certification (a process that can be cost-prohibitive).

9. CUT DOWN FOOD WASTE WITH A SHOPPING ROUTINE.

Rows of fruit and vegetables at a farmers' market.
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Top Chef judge (and chef) Tom Colicchio advocates against food waste by only purchasing ingredients you’ll use that day (or soon after). Instead of stocking up for a week’s worth of meals, make shopping a daily task—a more viable option for regions with daily markets. "Put it into your routine, on the way home from work, hit the farmers’ market and get what you need for the night," Colicchio says. Plus, your fridge and counters won’t be overwhelmed by produce.

10. PICK PRODUCE BASED ON YOUR SCHEDULE.

It makes sense to buy the ripest produce on market day, right? Not if you’re waiting a few days for a special meal. Pace Webb, a Los Angeles chef who owns an invite-only supper club, suggests selecting ripeness by your meal plan: "For example, if you want avocados, ask the vendor to help you select a few 'for Thursday' so they won’t sell you ripe ones today." Don’t forget to ask the best way to store produce so that it’ll ripen to perfection.

11. KNOW HOW TO STORE YOUR FRESH FINDS.

Australian celebrity chef Curtis Stone warns against refrigerating fresh produce that will hold its own on the counter—particularly tomatoes, which taste best at room temperature. Avocados, peppers, apples, and stone fruits also usually do great outside the fridge, while leafy greens and vegetables keep best in a cold fridge drawer with tons of air circulation. And, always avoid storing fruits and vegetables together since the ethylene gas from fruits can speed along ripening of veggies. Even if there’s another market coming up, there’s no reason you shouldn’t fully enjoy your seasonal finds.

Graham Crackers Were Invented to Combat the Evils of Coffee, Alcohol, and Masturbation

tatniz/iStock via Getty Images
tatniz/iStock via Getty Images

Long before they were used to make s’mores or the tasty crust of a Key lime pie, graham crackers served a more puritanical purpose in 19th-century America. The cookies were invented by Sylvester Graham, an American Presbyterian minister whose views on food, sex, alcohol, and nutrition would seem a bit extreme to today's cracker-snackers. Much like the mayor in the movie Chocolat, Graham and his thousands of followers—dubbed Grahamites—believed it was sinful to eat decadent foods. To combat this moral decay, Graham started a diet regimen of his own.

Graham ran health retreats in the 1830s that promoted a bland diet that banned sugar and meat. According to Refinery29, Graham's views ultimately inspired veganism in America as well as the “first anti-sugar crusade.” He condemned alcohol, tobacco, spices, seasoning, butter, and "tortured" refined flour. Caffeine was also a no-no. In fact, Graham believed that coffee and tea were just as bad as tobacco, opium, or alcohol because they created a “demand for stimulation.” However, the worst vice, in Graham's opinion, was overeating. “A drunkard sometimes reaches old age; a glutton never,” he once wrote.

Graham’s austere philosophy was informed by the underlying belief that eating habits affect people’s behaviors, and vice versa. He thought certain foods were "overstimulating" and led to impure thoughts and passions, including masturbation—or “self-pollution,” as he called it—which he believed to be an epidemic that caused both blindness and insanity.

Illustration of Sylvester Graham
Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Graham's views directly influenced Victorian-era corn flake inventor John Harvey Kellogg, who was born a year after Graham died. Like his predecessor, Kellogg also believed that meat and some flavorful foods led to sexual impulses, so he advocated for the consumption of plain foods, like cereals and nuts, instead. (Unsurprisingly, the original recipes for both corn flakes and graham crackers were free of sinful sugar.)

In one lecture, Graham told young men they could stop their minds from wandering to forbidden places if they avoided “undue excitement of the brain and stomach and intestines.” This meant swearing off improper foods and substances like tobacco, caffeine, pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish, and peppermint. Even milk was banned because it was “too exciting and too oppressive.”

So what could Graham's followers eat? The core component of Graham’s diet was bread made of coarsely ground wheat or rye, unlike the refined white flour loaves that were sold in bakeries at that time. From this same flour emerged Graham's crackers and muffins, both of which were common breakfast foods. John Harvey Kellogg was known to have eaten the crackers and apples for breakfast, and one of his first attempts at making cereal involved soaking twice-baked cracker bits in milk overnight.

Slices of rye bread, a jug of milk, apples and ears of corn on sackcloth, wooden table
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However, Kellogg was one of the few remaining fans of Graham’s diet, which began to fall out of favor in the 1840s. At Ohio’s Oberlin College, a Grahamite was hired in 1840 to strictly enforce the school’s meal plans. One professor was fired for bringing a pepper shaker to the dining hall, and the hunger-stricken students organized a protest the following year, arguing that the Graham diet was “inadequate to the demands of the human system as at present developed.” Ultimately, the Grahamite and his tyrannical nutrition plan were kicked out.

Much like Kellogg’s corn flakes, someone else stepped in and corrupted Graham’s crackers, molding them into the edible form we now know—and, yes, love—today. In Graham’s case, it was the National Biscuit Company, which eventually became Nabisco; the company started manufacturing graham crackers in the 1880s. But Graham would likely be rolling in his grave if he knew they contained sugar and white flour—and that they're often topped with marshmallows and chocolate for a truly decadent treat.

7 Tasty Facts About Tater Tots

bhofack2, iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2, iStock via Getty Images

Whether you associate them with your school cafeteria, your childhood home, or your local dive bar, tater tots are ubiquitous. Creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside, the bite-sized pellets rival French fries for the title of most delicious potato product. But they’re more than just a tasty side dish—they’re also an upcycling success story, a casserole ingredient, and one of the few foods that’s more popular frozen than fresh. Here are some more facts about tater tots you should know.

1. The first Tater Tots were made from French fry scraps.

Brothers F. Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg founded the Oregon Frozen Foods Company, later known as Ore-Ida, in Ontario, Oregon, in 1952. One of their first items was frozen French fries, and after seeing all the potato scraps they had leftover, they came up with an idea. By chopping up the potato parts, seasoning them, and molding them into pellets, they were able to create a new product. With help from a thesaurus, they landed on the name tater tot and debuted their creation in 1954.

2. Tater Tots are the main ingredient in Hotdish casserole.

Hotdish casserole with tater tots.
ALLEKO, iStock via Getty Images

Tater tots are typically served as an appetizer or a side dish, but in certain states, they’re part of the main course. Hotdish follows the long Midwestern tradition of tossing whatever’s in the kitchen into a casserole. It’s made by mixing together ground beef and frozen vegetables and topping it with a layer of tater tots before baking the whole dish in the oven. It’s a hearty match for Midwestern winters, plus, it’s a way to sneak more tots into your diet.

3. The name Tater Tot is trademarked.

If the golden nugget of potato-y goodness you’re eating is not Ore-Ida brand, it’s not really a tater tot. The Grigg brothers trademarked the catchy name shortly after developing the product, and Ore-Ida still holds its trademark on tater tots today. This doesn’t stop people using it as a catch-all term for the generic version of the food. Ore-Ida tried to combat this in 2014 by running an ad campaign warning customers not to “be fooled by Imi-taters.”

4. Tater Tots have different names around the world.

The all-American tater tot has spread around the globe, but it’s usually sold under a different name abroad. Tot-lovers in New Zealand and Australia may refer to them as potato gems, potato royals, potato pom-poms, or hash bites. The food is so popular in New Zealand that Pizza Hut launched a pie with a hash bite crust there in 2016. In Canada, they’re called tasti taters or spud puppies, and they’ve been labeled oven crunchies in the UK.

5. Homemade tater tot recipes may not be worth it.

Tater tots on a plate served with ketchup.
MSPhotographic, iStock via Getty Images

Tater tots are the ultimate convenience food—unless you try making them from scratch at home. Recipes online involve peeling and grating pounds of potatoes, frying them once, chilling them overnight, and then shaping them into tots and frying them a second time. Without the streamlined method and equipment of a factory, the process can take 12 hours. Even fine restaurants that feature tater tots on their menus often prefer the taste (and convenience) of the frozen stuff.

6. Idaho praised Napoleon Dynamite for featuring Tater Tots.

Napoleon Dynamite takes place in Idaho, and one of the ways the 2004 film pays tribute to the state is by prominently featuring the tot. The State of Idaho passed a resolution in 2005 commending the makers of the film, specifically thanking them for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.”

7. The birthplace of the Tater Tot is hosting a Tater Tot festival.

Nearly 70 years after tater tots were invented there, Ontario, Oregon, is honoring its patron potato product by dedicating an entire festival to it in August 2020. The Tater Tot Festival will feature games, food vendors, and a Ferris wheel, plus special events like a tater tot-eating contest and a tater tot-themed play. The fair will end with the crowning of the tater tot festival king and queen.

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