I've always rather disliked folks who were legalistic about food. "Sorry, can't have flour, I'm gluten free right now." (I've been gluten free, for long periods of time, shouldn't I be more understanding?) "Sorry, can't have meat at the moment, I'm trying out vegetarianism." (I was a vegan for a year of my life, so should be more sympathetic, for sure.) "I'm off desserts, no sugar for me, do you know how bad sugar is for you?" (Yes, I do. And yes, you're probably right. Now go soak your head, you remarkable paragon of self-control.)
And on and on. It makes cooking for people very difficult. And I have an enormously picky daughter, so I have had to figure out work-arounds for many years and several thousand meals. It makes going out to eat difficult too, as almost no one place can satisfy everyone's special food needs.
But I have a confession to make. I am one of those people.
It was made extremely clear to me the other night, out for dinner with friends. We were at a perfectly nice restaurant, and I was perfectly prepared to get off my high-food-horse for a night and enjoy myself. But one look at the menu, and I found myself climbing right back into the saddle. Wild Shrimp Scampi, with grape tomatoes? Dungeness crab cakes with a sliced cucumber salad? Pappardelle with cherry tomatoes, sweet basil, eggplant, and zucchini? Come on, now, I thought to myself. It's early April. Are we really eating 'Freshly prepared and artfully presented California cuisine" as the menu advertised? Ok, wild Pacific shrimp, that's good, that's fairly local, I'm ok with that. But grape tomatoes? Do you know when grape tomatoes ripen in my garden,a scant ten miles from this restaurant? They ripen at the end of June. We might be lucky to get a handful in mid-June. Dungeness crab cakes, sure, it's probably frozen crab meat, nothing wrong with that. But sliced cucumber salad? Those cucumbers are coming from Chile or Mexico for sure. And zucchini? I mean, who are we kidding, here?
I made the mistake of saying something out loud to our friends. These are folks that I adore, admire, and respect. But the answer I got was something along the lines of, "There's really no reason to beat yourself up about this. This food is readily available everywhere, anytime, and what does it matter if we eat it?" I was deep into my second gin and tonic (and I don't drink very often, so you can imagine I wasn't quite at my witty best), so I confusedly nodded and said a very weak, "yeah." Way to stand up for your beliefs, Elizabeth.
And yet, if I had been in my usual (ahem) clear state of mind, and been able to articulate my reasons for not eating this out-of-season (even in sunny California) food, wouldn't I just have made everyone at the table uncomfortable? Wouldn't I have become, yes, THAT person, the one with the lists of 'things I DO NOT EAT?" Wouldn't I have been putting my feelings off on to everyone else, and wouldn't they have felt guilty for eating whatever the hell they wanted to eat? Very likely, yes. And I don't want to be the bummer at the table. In fact, I'm a big proponent of zero shame when it comes to food. We've all been shamed enough in our lives, thank you very much, about what we do and do not eat; my companions do not need me to add to that.
What does it hurt if we don't eat seasonally?
In an article in the UK Guardian from 2014, the reporter wrote about the results from a 2000-person poll, conducted by the BBC. Out of those 2000 people, only 5% could say when a blackberry was ripe; 4% a plum. All this when 86% of the folks said they shop seasonally and think it's important. I think the results of a similar poll over here in the US would probably be even worse.
But, how are we supposed to know when a strawberry is in season? I mean, really. They're available year-round in the grocery store. Even organic strawberries are in Whole Foods 365 days of the year. Cucumbers? Peppers? The same. And we all know those insipid pale tomatoes in the store in January can't possibly be good, but by golly, they're there if we must have them. Very few people grow their own food, or if they do, it might be limited to an apple or lemon tree, or a pot of herbs. How are our children supposed to know when it's time to eat blueberries? How do they learn these cycles if we don't teach them?
There are lots of reasons for eating seasonally, and knowledge of farms and of farm cycles is but one of them (though I would argue that it's more important now than ever, considering farming is a profession that most of us don't have any experience with, and might be the absolute most important one). Here are a few others.
1) Fruit and vegetables taste better, and are at the peak of their nutritional content, when picked and eaten ripe. It's no mistake that an August tomato, dripping with juice, satisfies on a level a January tomato cannot. It's full of itself, it is the very essence of what a tomato is supposed to be. The redder a tomato is, the more beta-carotene it contains. As a sweet pepper moves from green to red, it increases beta-carotene 11 times, and has 1.5 times the vitamin C. Most foods begin to lose nutrition immediately after harvesting. Spinach and green beans lose two-thirds of their vitamin C within a week after harvest, according to UC Davis. Think about that peach that has traveled from tropical climes to get to you: It's been picked before it was ripe, and even though it will soften on its week-long journey, it will not ripen further. Is that worth it? It's lost nutrition and never even had a chance at full flavor.
2) Fresh food is cheaper. When you pay for produce to be shipped from South America or Mexico, you are paying a premium for the cost of bringing it across the world to you. How much did that lamb from New Zealand really cost you? It's a fact that we can buy more, better, fresher produce if we just buy locally.
3) Eating fresh and local food reduces the energy needed to grow and transport it. Think of the environmental costs of eating beef from Argentina, instead of buying an animal that was raised in your county. Are you willing to have that footprint on your conscience, when the same item is so readily available here? For things that don't grow in your area, I could understand it - coffee, chocolate, bananas. But just because we want asparagus or an orange in July doesn't mean that we should be able to get it.
4) Things taste better when they are only available within a short window of time. Cherry season. Tomato season. Crab season. Oyster season. Corn season. Artichoke season. There's a reason we look forward to these times. Or, rather, there was once a reason. In my twenties, I dated a man who bought a pound of cherries every day during cherry season, and ate them constantly. His motto was, when they're here, eat them! and I remember thinking that was a very different way of eating. He's a doctor with the CDC, so I imagine his advice is good from a health standpoint. But even more, think of how good a fresh ripe cherry tastes, when we haven't had one for 10 or 11 months. A little delayed gratification is a good thing.
These are just a few reasons, and you may discover even more. I really don't want to be the bummer at your dinner table, and my goal isn't to make you feel bad about what you're eating. Rather, I'd just like us all to start thinking about it, rather than mindlessly consuming. How to know what's ripe in your area at what time? There's a neat website called Sustainable Food Table, which you can access here: just put in your state and the time of the year for which you're searching, and find what's ripe in your area. It's not infallible; it has no distinction between Northern and Southern CA, for instance, and there are things ripening in San Diego that are months away here. But it's a start.
And, of course, the very best way to find out what's ripe locally is to visit your local farmers' markets. It'll be readily clear what's available to buy, and you may be surprised at the things you find. You might need to learn how to cook or prepare a new vegetable, like celeriac or rutabagas. (You know my philosophy on that, right? Lots of olive oil and salt, and a long slow roast, will improve almost any vegetable.) And that sounds like an adventure!
So enjoy, and have fun figuring out what grows in your area at what time. Who knows, you might be motivated to start a cold frame or two in the winter, just so you can have fresh arugula.