Turn, Turn, Turn
Eating in harmony with the seasons
by Michael Braunstein
It started with asparagus.
Michael Pollan was researching his latest book, Omnivores Dilemma, and shopped at a local health food store in his home town of Berkeley, Calif., for his sample organic meal. He chose, among other items, a bundle of asparagus. He considered it a delicacy since it was January and asparagus was far out of season, even in the temperate clime of the Bay Area. Yet he found some organic asparagus grown in Argentina and available at his local.
That simple food choice led to an online dialogue between Pollan and the CEO of a major food chain about Pollans portrayal of the liabilities of shipping asparagus to the United States from South America just to provide gourmet dining in the dead of winter, (wholefoodsmarket.com/blogs/jm/).
Pollan questioned the propriety on a variety of levels. His major concern seemed to be the appropriateness of spending gallons of jet fuel to cart the stuff up here. His other concerns included the bland and tasteless quality of the industrially produced organic vegetable he described as tasting like cardboard. He mused that something like that should be acquired locally but that would also mean in season. Finally, the CEO sent Pollan a gift certificate to compensate for the bad experience with Argentine asparagus.
There is a season
Mentioned but certainly minimized was the notion of eating within season. This means choosing foods that are currently coming ripe locally at the appropriate time of year. Its something we have gotten away from as technology has presented the means to counteract nature and deliver crops and foods from around the globe and around the continent that would ordinarily be out of season.
Eating in season is one of the most natural choices we can make. Our bodies are part of nature and change along with the seasons just like plants and other animals do. Even our nutritional requirements are keyed to seasonal changes. Our bodies do best when we feed them foods that are in keeping with seasons.
It doesnt take a multi-million dollar study by a major university, (probably financed by some corporate food giant,) to convince me that eating in season is the sensible thing to do. Common sense tells me that the human body has evolved to do just that. After all, we have spent eons eating that way. Only with the development of rapid means of transportation over the past hundred years or so and the subsequent development of the economic pressures placed by multi-national food conglomerates have we given up the pattern of eating that evolution had led us to.
The bad news is that current generations dont even understand what is in season or isnt. The good news is that we arent totally devoid of common sense and our powers of observation.
Turn, turn, turn
As we move into autumn, the traditions of the season can educate us as to what foods might be considered optimal. October, November and December are big on harvest-style celebrations. Fall crops of pumpkins and squashes, late season corn and the beginnings of root crops are coming into their own. Consider the traditional Thanksgiving menu. Meats, potatoes and minces, autumn apples and ciders, green beans, walnuts and cranberries all grace the table because of tradition but more importantly because tradition often reflects nature.
Pumpkins and other orange-colored crops are high in beta-carotene, an important immune system fortifier. It makes sense that it would be something to eat entering the chilly part of the year.
Moving into winter, heavier foods and cellared root crops make it to the table. After all, for those of us living in the Midwest, there isnt much growing locally as we go into the deep winter of January and February. This would be the time of year when we rely on cured meats, stored nuts, root vegetables and grains. Parsnips and turnips develop their best flavor after the first frost of the season.
Think of a typical New Years Day feast with its origin in pre-Boeing 747 days. Ham, sweet potatoes, walnut stuffing, some cellar-stored apples or canned peaches, breads and puddings make up that menu. All are are dense and energy-packed foods. The oils of nuts, the proteins of meats and cheeses and the concentrated nutrients of root plants are crucial to health in deep winter. Vegetables that can last in a root cellar, like onions and garlic, beans, squash, yams and potatoes all provide us with exactly the nutrients our bodies crave at that time.
Come spring, the lighter, leafier lettuces and early radishes pique our appetites and prepare us for the approaching summer. Now is when that early asparagus is welcome at the table.
Summer has the full bounty of growing crops ranging from sweet corn to watermelon. Each comes ripe at its perfect time to match the clime and the season. There is no reason humans cant be smart enough to recognize that.
An eloquent source on the topic of eating seasonally can be found at rivercottage.net. For now, just leave that Argentine asparagus on the shelf, okay?