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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Big Freeze of 2011

February 14, 2011

Modern-day disasters are highly publicized these days. In an era of 24-hour news cycles and instant reporting via the Internet, we know way more than we even want to know about the destruction a natural disaster can bring to a town, city, or region.

Strangely, there is a recent disaster that hasn’t received a lot of coverage, but it is about to make a huge impact on all of our lives over the next several months.

Last week I received news from one of our produce suppliers that tomato prices were about to skyrocket. Actually, by the time you read this, they will already have skyrocketed.

A few weeks ago extreme freezing temperatures hit a broad section of the major growing regions in Mexico, and most growers lost between 80-100% of their crops. It was the worst weather those regions had seen in 50 years.

Every February and March, Mexico is responsible for supplying a huge percentage of North America’s row-crop vegetables. Whether you agree with it or not, the only way to keep up with the United States’ year-round demand is to use produce grown in Mexico during this season. Even the most ardent of locally grown produce advocates are typically eating fresh vegetables grown in Mexico this time of year.

At our restaurants, a case of 6×6 tomatoes was $24.00 (already high) one day and $50.00 the next day. Bell peppers went from 13.95 to $48.00 in a two-day time span. This freeze will also affect green beans, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, and asparagus.

A few years ago there was a tomato shortage, and many restaurants across the nation stopped serving them altogether, or offering them by request only. Look for that to happen again. Ultimately, they may have no choice.

Some might say that the easiest solution would be to always grow vegetables locally. Whereas, we are huge supporters of locally grown produce, and will be entering our second year with a two-acre organic vegetable garden for the restaurants, there is no way that most states can grow anything this time of year. The nationwide produce demand is too great.

Normally, Florida is a major supplier of row crops during these months— and, any other time, they might be able to pick up the slack— but Florida growers were hit with severe freezes in December and January. Actually, the Florida growers had been making up their shortages and filling prior commitments by purchasing from Mexico. That is no longer an option.

The produce experts I have contacted have said, “Expect immediate volatile prices, limited availability, and mediocre quality at best.” There have been huge “blossom drops” (loss of flowers) on all of these crops so it will probably affect produce supplies for the next two months.

As I write, growers are meeting to decide whether they are “Able to immediately re-plant, hoping for a harvest by late March to early April, or disc the field under and wait for another season.”

Even the shade house tomatoes were affected by the freeze. Strangely, this disaster hits just as we were beginning to talk about what to plant in our Spring garden at the Purple Parrot Café and Crescent City Grill. We’ll be growing again, but our seeds won’t even hit the dirt until after Good Friday.

In the meantime most restaurants will be scrambling for produce and doing their best to keep prices in check. I’ve found, it’s better for business in the long run to just absorb the temporary increase, grin and bear it, and don’t raise prices. Hurry Spring!

Delta Tomatoes

2 Tbl Butter
1 Tbl Olive Oil
1 /2 cup Onion, medium dice
1 /2 cup Celery, medium dice
1 /2 cup Bell pepper, medium dice
28 oz can Tomatoes, diced
1 /4 cup Sugar
1 /4 cup Brown sugar
2 Tbl Fresh basil, chopped
2 tsp Dried basil
2 Tbl Cornstarch
2 Tbl Balsamic Vinegar
2 tsp Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 /2 tsp Black pepper
1 1 /4 cup Seasoned breadcrumbs
1 /4 cup Melted Butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sautee onion, celery and bell pepper in butter and olive oil. Cook until onions are soft and translucent. Add tomatoes, both sugars and both basils. Mix cornstarch in vinegar and add to tomato mixture. Bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper and pour into a greased casserole. Mix together breadcrumbs and butter. Top tomatoes with breadcrumbs and bake 30-45 minutes or until filling is bubbly and breadcrumbs are lightly browned. Yield: 10 – 12 servings

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