Seasonal Eating: The Comfort of Limits

I bought tomatoes today.

This is not earth-shattering news. But they were the first fresh tomatoes I’ve bought in months except for some romas for a friend’s Mexican-themed dinner party. This didn’t take a heroic feat of delaying gratification. But that’s what is so interesting about seasonal eating. It can come on slowly and naturally to the point where it’s just comfortable and sensible.

Aside from the obvious benefits of seasonal eating—health, taste and supporting local agriculture—there are several no-less-important aspects to it.

The joy of novelty.

There is a certain kind of joy when we experience newness. This is why the anticipation of a first kiss is so good. The desire for the taste of basil or sweet corn never dies. But the wait makes the getting so much better. What comes with nearly always getting what we want when we want it, is often an unsatisfying gratification. The forced slowing down and waiting till the tomato seed germinates, flowers and then bears fruit makes tomatoes taste much better than if you’d been eaten them all year—whether it’s you or someone else doing the growing.

Cupping the velvety warm tomato gave me a little jolt of excitement. It was just waiting for a drizzle of good olive oil and some basil that finally decided to produce some leaves. A mouthful of summer.

Simplicity and creativity.

The tyranny of too many choices can suck the potential joy out of any endeavor, leaving you spending more time deciding than enjoying. Within the limited parameters of eating with the seasons, you’re free to be more creative. Without limits, there’s more chaos.

Take asparagus, for example. If you ate asparagus only during the weeks it was in season near you, you’d be more likely to make soup once, try a risotto next time, toss it on the grill after that, add it to a salad one day, throw it in a pasta another day. Frankly, till you’re sick of it! This simplicity of choice forces culinary creativity. If you ate asparagus whenever it appeared in the grocery store, you’d prepare it the same way you always do.

The clarity of seasonal.

There is no doubt that you become more sensitive and aware of what grows when, how it grows, what it pairs well with, how weather impacts a harvest and what is involved in getting it to you, when you eat with the seasons. In other words, the whole picture becomes clear, and with that clarity comes knowledge, intelligence and respect.

Once, heavy rains prevented the artichoke farmer from showing up at the market, which meant nixing my dinner party centerpiece of grandma’s stuffed artichokes. I could picture and appreciate mud-caked wheels and freeing a tractor stuck in the earth.

Many wince at the cost of raspberries. But there’s no better way to appreciate their high cost than to squat next to a raspberry bush, scratched arms and all, gingerly plucking the succulent jewels off the vine. You can only get this kind of clarity when the fruit is in season.

The conviviality of local.

By definition, seasonal eating is local eating. It is said that shoppers at farmers markets have 10 times the number of interactions than at a typical grocery store. The visual appeal of markets and farms puts people in a more open and engaging frame of mind. Recipes, stories and information shared among shoppers and farmers fosters a sense of community. This lively exchange is not happening in the cereal aisle at Safeway.

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I often remind myself that I live in a bubble here in the Pacific Northwest. There are many food wastelands in this country. In the middle of the heartland in Peoria, Illinois, for example, where my mother lives, fresh, seasonal food is nearly nonexistent. This, despite the ocean of corn (for animal feed, sweeteners and additives) spreading out for miles and miles. I am under no illusion that access—not to mention a 10-month growing season here—makes seasonal eating much easier.

This is just [good] food for thought. Do you have a seasonal eating tale? Is it easy to do where you live? Do you grow your own food? Share your thoughts.

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There are many great sources on seasonal eating. Here are just a few:

• Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

• Epicurious: An Interactive Seasonal Ingredient Map, including other goodies on that page like interviews with Alice Waters and Michael Pollan.

A New Way to Think About Eating, review by Jason Epstein on Michael Pollan.

0 comments

  1. eileen says:

    The conviviality of local: I love talking to the producers at the farmer’s market. This past Saturday when it was raining for the first time in ages, everyone was wet and giddy with it, producers and buyers.
    And at the stand at the end of the row I spotted gorgeous color: the first apricots! I made a beeline to wonderful little orbs. The guys working the stand just said: they’re finally ready, just starting to soften a bit – we’ve already eaten a whole box! What better endorsement for a product? And the grouchy restockers at Safeway have never told me that.
    My first stop at the market is always Charlie Koiner’s stand. He’s 90 and grows his stuff on a double lot in the middle of “downtown” Silver Spring with the help of his daughter. They made a documentary about him: “Corner Plot”. It was shown at the Documentary Film Festival in June at the American Film Institute (AFI). http://cornerplotmovie.com/ I want to be able to do that if I live to be 90.

    • Ah apricots. Just bought my first the other day. I think they are probably the symbol of seasonal, get-it-while-it’s-there, and do something fast with them! What are you going to make? I wonder if that’s the guy who has the little cornfield in Silver Spring. My brother lived next to someone with a double lot who grew lots of stuff. Thanks for the movie link Eileen!

  2. Erica says:

    Ah, the Pacific Northwest! We were so spoiled by the markets there. We have a very good market here in the midwest, but it doesn’t quite meet the bar set by Seattle.

    After a couple of years of eating local, I can’t stand to go to the grocery store. The food is boring, and I miss not knowing the people responsible for producing my food. It’s such a big deal to us that my husband and I have agreed that a good farmer’s market is among our top 5 required qualities for any place that we might live. (Though I might be able to squeeze by without one if consoled by having my own garden empire.)

    There is no joy that quite matches the taste of the first strawberry after a winter of stored apples.

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