Celery Tops: A Rambling Meditation on Produce

I need two cups of celery tops. OK, let me rephrase that. I want two cups of fresh celery leaves so I can make one of my favorite white-meat recipes.  Yes, this is one of those “first world problems,” and what’s wrong with celery stalks? Nothing, but . . .

Ten, twenty years ago you found a lot more whole produce in Ye Grocery Store. Celery came in pre-trimmed lots as well as full bundles with lots of leafy stuff still on them. I recall seeing clusters of fresh carrots, their tops tied together with paper-coated wire, ready for you to pick up, put into a bag, and take home. Depending on the season, I also remember red beets and turnips with tops, for those who wanted to eat the greens. Blueberries came in paper-board pint or quart boxes from Arkansas, Missouri, or Michigan and Minnesota. And strawberries appeared only between late March and July, in containers made of net-like plastic mesh that made great May Day flower baskets or Mother’s Day or Easter baskets and other crafts.

Now, I see more of what I’d call “exotic” produce but fewer whole vegetables. I like having mangoes and four kinds of mushrooms, sweet onions (usually ten-o-six up here), Fuji apples and Kiwi fruit, and fresh asparagus. Big-city produce shopping is an exercise in resisting temptation for me, because, oh, those look good, and I could use these in this recipe, and what’s that I’ve never tried that before and hey, these are on sale, and there goes my entire budget before I get past the potatoes. (Yesterday’s discovery – yellow potatoes. If they weren’t a dollar more per pound than the others, they would have come home with me.) And there are whole fresh herbs (pesto all the time!) and even up here, a small wedge of “organic” produce.

But no celery tops, or turnips with greens. I see strawberries in February and October, but don’t bother with them – no flavor and too expensive. I can’t find whole carrots for love nor money, because everything comes pre-washed, pre-trimmed, often in nice plastic bags with a bar-code on the bottom. Very convenient, very clean, but I want celery tops.

I realize that pre-trimmed produce is the price of variety. Why transport the bits no one eats when gas is expensive and refrigeration costs money? The slow demise of smaller truck farms means longer supply chains, so that I rarely see fruit, aside from melons, grapefruit, and some peaches, from closer than California and Florida. Mangoes are from Mexico, as are some of the tomatoes. Which is really strange in Texas, because we have the Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast, as well as the Black Waxy (the black-land belt in east-central Texas) that used to be major produce producers. I’m not a locavore by any means, but I’m not so certain that trading variety for entirety is such a good thing.

President Bill Clinton is reported to have opined that if the U.S. imported all its food, it would be better for the rest of the world. Not flippin’ likely. I don’t care to see what would happen if some of our “unfriends” took our food supply hostage. Besides, Canada would laugh all the way to the bank, because that’s where we’d get our wheat and cattle. (Yes, I’m blaming Canada.) As would Russia, which would make up the difference in what the U.S. was not exporting in food to the Eastern Hemisphere.

Even so, I miss celery tops, I miss quarts of blueberries. I want my carrots in a bunch, not run through a lathe and called “baby carrots.” I’ll trade variety for quality and entirety. {Update: A quart of blueberries is $5.95 at Le Mart de Wal this week. Ow. And they are in plastic.}


For those curious, you cook either pork roast or a chicken in white wine, garlic, chicken broth, olive oil, and celery leaves for an hour or two, depending on the tenderness of the meat. Serve with rice or really good bread to sop up the juice. Originally from “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines.”