By Mordechai Schmutter
In honor of Tu B’Shevat, we should really talk about eating some fruits and vegetables, because come Purim, we’re going to switch over to junk food for a month, and then after that who knows what we’re going to do to our diets?
Unfortunately, we have no idea how to actually buy produce. This is not something they teach in school.
(You’d think that, as a teacher, I wouldn’t be complaining about what they teach in school, but I’ve basically been in school all my life, and all I really know is how to be a teacher.)
The issue is that with most foods, such as yogurt, there’s an expiration date clearly stamped on the package that says exactly when people are going to be nervous about eating it. Produce has no such date, though. How are we supposed to know? I guess they figure that if you take your cucumbers out of the fridge and find that they’ve completely changed consistency, you’ll probably know on your own not to put it in a salad.
But how are you supposed to know, when you buy it, what date this is going to happen? They can’t put a sticker on every piece of fruit that shows an expiration date? They’re putting stickers on them anyway. What information do the stickers give you? Which company produced the apples? They’re apples. That company did not make the apples. All they did was pick them, and they can’t even tell you when.
At least with milk, they put a stamp on it, so you can know to pick the ones in the back of the display fridge. If I ran a store, I wouldn’t bother ever changing out the ones in front, because no one buys them anyway. They’d be several years old. And probably full of Elmer’s glue. I’d just have 12 different bottles that I’d switch out for each other, because milk does not have a year on it.
What are you supposed to do when it comes to produce? Just take the ones at the bottom of the big pyramid and have them all come cascading down and then hope you can rebuild the whole thing before the poor fruit guy shows up? You definitely want to dig to the bottom anyway, because who knows how many people touched the ones on top. This is the main reason we have to wash fruit. It’s not because it grew from the ground. The fruit store has sprinklers going the entire time to take care of that.
You definitely should be eating more produce, because the last time you weighed yourself, you broke the supermarket produce scale.
So here are some tips:
- Cherry tomatoes. Look in the container and make sure that none of them look raisin-y, like they’ve been sitting in the bathtub too long. Shake the container a few times to make sure.
- Grapes. I think you’re supposed to taste them. If they taste like grapefruits, don’t bother.
- Bananas. Buy green bananas if you plan on letting them ripen at home, and yellow bananas if you plan on eating all of them in the parking lot.
- Lemons. I don’t know how to pick a lemon. I assume you do it like an esrog. You peer at it with a magnifying glass: “I don’t like this lemon. This is not worth my 79 cents.” Because what are you going to do if life gives you bad lemons? You can’t even make lemonade!
- Navel oranges. I think you have to look at the navel. This is the part opposite the stem, and it’s usually an innie. If the navel has lint, it’s old.
- Butternut squash. These are good for like a year, and then all of a sudden, they go soft—usually when they get sick of waiting for you to be in the mood for squash.
- Onions. I’ve heard that older onions make you cry less. Or more. I forget. Point is, the best way to tell if an onion is old is to start digging into it and see if it makes you cry. Also, a fresh onion should have no smell at all, so pick it up and smell it, in a different part of the store than all the other onions.
- Strawberries. You have to turn the container over a few times and see if there’s a moldy one in there. This isn’t easy, because they usually hide it in the middle.
- Avocados. You have to know exactly when you’re eating avocados and buy one that will be good on that day exactly. You also have to know if it will be in the afternoon or evening. Generally, when you buy it, it will be hard as a rock, but if you then store it at room te — never mind. You missed it.
- Corn. Open up the husk a little and take a peek at the top few kernels. You can guess about the rest.
- Watermelon. To know if a watermelon’s good, you have to drop it off a roof. If you want to be slightly more socially acceptable, you need to bring a stethoscope to the store.
- Eggplant. Press your finger against the skin, and the skin should bounce back. If your finger goes through it, it’s not ripe. Or you pressed too hard.
- Cabbage. Your cabbage should feel heavy considering how small it is. You have to emit an audible “Whoa” when you pick it up. How on earth are you going to take this apart? Just buy a bag of coleslaw. You’ll just tell everyone the stuffed cabbage fell apart. (“Yeah, I don’t know what happened.”)
- Blueberries. Turn the container upside down to make sure that there aren’t any crushed or spoiled berries … and that the container was closed properly.
- Cantaloupes. Supposedly, you’re supposed to be able to smell it through the rind. I don’t remember ever experiencing this, and I can’t tell you how many store cantaloupes I have touched with my nose. I think the rind’s been getting thicker as a defense mechanism.
- Celery. Celery should stand upright when held from the bottom. The same goes for carrots.
- Mushrooms. You want to pick mushrooms that don’t look moldy, which is not easy, because mushrooms are mold. But you don’t want any new mold growing from them that isn’t strictly mushrooms.
- Potatoes. If they have eyes or any other kind of facial feature, you don’t want them. If your potato is growing another potato, you don’t want it. Also, unlike, say, melons or pineapples, when you press your nose against it, you should not smell potato. Or pineapple.
- Leafy greens. Experts say two things: 1. The leaves should be smooth and unbroken. 2. You want to make sure that the leaves give a good snap if you break them. So in other words, you need to break one in the store, but if you find one already broken, there’s probably something wrong with it. It wasn’t just the guy before you breaking them to see if they were fresh. Because if he broke it and it was fresh, he would have taken it. Unless he tried several because he wasn’t sure what classified as a “good snap.”
- Peppers. These should be symmetrical and pretty, as should everything else. Otherwise no one will eat it, even though, if you grew them in your own garden, they probably wouldn’t be symmetrical either, but you’d say, “I grew these myself!” and everyone would say, “Wow! Yum!” But if it’s going to taste like the store, it should at least be symmetrical.
Also, according to experts, most of these vegetables should be served on the day you buy them. So whatever day of the week you buy your produce, you should eat all your produce that day, and then you’re set for the week, health-wise. Or you can ignore all this advice, because you only have to worry about the experts’ rules of how long you can save things if you keep to their rules of when to buy things. If you ignore their rules, it’s anyone’s game. Live life on the edge. That way, you can be surprised when things work out, and you, too, can be the kind of person who says, “This is really good cantaloupe!” so that everyone around you tries it and thinks, “I don’t know what he’s talking about. It just tastes like cantaloupe. I don’t know what I was expecting when she said that.”
As it is, between the thumping and the pushing and the rubbing it on your nose and the leaving fingertip impressions in everything, most experts seem to believe that you have your own private fruit store that you go to that no one has to pick through afterwards. It must be Gehinnom to own a fruit store — just watching people do these things to your merchandise all day and ruin it for each other. Someone stands in front of the tomatoes for ten minutes, and now no one else is going to buy tomatoes. You just have to grin and bear it and occasionally clean up all the picked-through stuff and turn it into pre-cut fruits and veggies or something. Where did you think that comes from?
Your best option when picking produce is to try to get someone your mother’s age to help you.
“Young man, are you crying?”
“(Sniff.) No. I’m just trying to figure out the onions.”
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.