Most of my favorite chefs, food writers and food-crazy friends more or less agree on one food principle: people should eat seasonal food that is produced locally.
I agree with this principal — it seems to me a worthy goal to pursue. But, as reality always reminds us, it is also full of ‘un’: unreasonable, undefined, unlikely and for many — unworkable and unusual.
The concept of seasonal eating unravels and becomes unreasonable for many because the playing field is not level. People do not have the same financial resources, access to the same food or even the same desire to eat asparagus exclusively between early- and late-spring. And in terms of staple ingredients like onions, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, salad and a lot more…well, we’ve pretty much given up on any notion of seasonality for those items.
Maybe the definition is problematic. Is the concept of ‘seasonal’ different depending on where someone lives? For example, a Sicilian tomato is fully ripe in late March. I can buy that tomato at my local farmer’s market roughly 3–4 days after it is harvested. It is delicious — by far the best tasting tomato of the year. But is it in season for me when I live 1,000 kilometers away from the farm that produced that glorious tomato?
Locally produced? Forget about that too. It is unlikely people will fill their pantries and refrigerators exclusively with produce that is regionally produced. Think about what you have in your kitchen right now. Do you have garlic? Where is it grown? Do you know? Do you care? Do you even know if garlic is cultivated anywhere remotely close to where you live…or even when garlic comes into season?
Eating whatever the season offers puts people living in the colder regions of the world at a distinct disadvantage during the cold winter months — at least in terms of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. For these people, eating seasonal and local becomes unworkable. I suspect there is a limit to the number of preserved vegetables a person can eat during winter before the desire for a fresh tomato kicks in. Are we really expecting those who live furthest from the equator to sacrifice their diets and cooking habits when the weather turns cold in order to promote seasonality? That kind of diet seems unusual to me. Isn’t it better to eat some peas and spinach during winter instead of no fresh vegetables at all?
I think about food a lot. Food is everything to me as a chef and food educator. I think about nutrition. I consider variety. And yes…I think about what’s in season in my region. I enjoy pleasing my sense of taste. I have access to a farmer’s market at least 4 times per week throughout the year — winter included. I can easily visit nearby farms and harvest my own vegetables and fruits when they are in season. if I desire (and I usually do), I can purchase ingredients I have never heard of simply to see what they taste like.
I am also the first to admit I do not always stick to seasonal and local purchases — although I love the principle.
I know my patch of the playing field is tilted in my favor when it comes to eating seasonal and local food — I’m one of the lucky ones. And yet it is not always practical or possible for me to completely embrace seasonality. I imagine it is far more challenging for others to buy and cook whatever the region and season offers.
I think there are many who have chosen (without much consideration) to eschew supporting local farmers and consume seasonal produce. I’m sure it is easier to think about other things that may be going on and passively submit to local supermarkets and whatever they have on hand at any given time (preferably something on sale).
Maybe the real question to consider is, ‘can more people eat more seasonal food that is produced regionally?’
Walk into any large supermarket just about anywhere and you will be presented with a colorful array of fruits and vegetables. If you look a little closer, you will notice the vast majority of the offerings originate from somewhere else — mostly locations requiring a lot of travel before the produce ends up in a huge storage facility to undergo artificial ripening. This is a fact of our current life. The laws of economics guarantee this worldwide food distribution model will survive for many years. One-stop shopping for whatever you want is simply damn convenient for many people.
This is the point where I tend to get a bit stuck in my thinking — I see one side of the equation, but I know there is another side of at least equal importance.
On one hand, I get it — people mostly want convenience. We want to take advantage of modern advancements made during the past hundred or so years. Seasonal variances in products and the concept of locally-produced don’t mean much in our shrinking world with high-tech farming and speed of light distribution. Especially if the price is right.
But on the other hand…
Food is more than convenient fuel. It is also more than short term satisfaction for the ego. Food, along with water and air, are necessary ingredients for humans to live and thrive. We should want…actually demand…the absolute best in terms of nutrition to support our bodies. We should also get the most flavor out of our foods. But these demands clash with the current model based on low price and convenience.
I know I am not going to change the world of food distribution. But I can impact the world around me by the choices I make in what I eat and what I buy. I believe you can too by adding some ‘in’ to your life: intention, information, inviting, inspiring and hopefully incredible.
Shopping intentionally is a bit of trend phrase. It usually means paying attention to brands that are aligned with one’s values. Or perhaps it might mean purchasing fewer consumer items to support a minimalist lifestyle. I think it could also mean choosing to pay attention to the food that goes into your shopping cart. For example, does that bag of washed lettuce in your cart promote seasonal and regional produce? What about that avocado? Are there alternatives that support seasonality and local producers? Maybe there is a farmer’s market in your region…or even a farm?
Having a plan to make intentional purchases is certainly helpful. Getting informed and discovering what’s currently in season in your region is certainly co-equal in terms of importance. Books on gardening will help…getting to know a local farmer will help even more. I like to talk with local farmers as much as possible. I learn about the soil, the impact of the weather, what products are just about to hit their prime, what type of fertilizer (if any) they tend to use, plus a lot more. Farmers love to talk about what they are growing — they are a gold mine of information.
Taking the time to examine the world outside your own default habits will allow you to see an open door — an opening you can easily walk through to enter an inviting new world of cooking. Most people are shocked to discover they actually enjoy a well-prepared dish of lightly cooked Brussels sprouts…or massaged and quickly-sauteed curly kale…or roasted cauliflower florets…or grilled eggplant and mushroom burgers…or steamed carrots, etc. And this is just the simple stuff. The vision of the world completely changes once you decide to add a new dimension to your life and welcome infinite new food possibilities.
Witnessing someone doing the things you value yourself creates a powerful urge to mirror that behavior. In other words it is inspiring. I witnessed this kind of inspiration several years ago by urging others to shop for products that are in season. At that time, I offered cooking courses in what’s in season to local hobby cooks. My course was 3 hours of tasting very fresh produce — some things people have never seen before. We prepared a 3- or 4-course menu during the evening and the participants always enjoyed the concluding meal experience — usually served with some nice wine. We also left a booklet of the recipes for all the participants and general information about the products we presented. The inspiration part came during the next visit to the local farmer’s market, where I always encountered students from the previous course visiting various stands while clutching their handout from the course. I was inspired to keep teaching…and those who attended were clearly inspired to incorporate more seasonal food in their diets.
Be your best — be incredible. I mean this from a health perspective. When you expand your diet to include a lot of fruits and vegetables, you will automatically increase your fiber, nutritional intake and daily hydration. Your blood profile will thank you and reward your efforts with increased energy, improved overall health and a glowing skin. Now who wouldn’t want those results in their life?
I enjoy the benefits of eating seasonal and local produce. I get the best nutrition from the products I choose to buy and consume. I enjoy maximum flavor from plants that have little or no pesticides and were harvested at peak maturity. I know I am doing what I can to protect the environment as much as practical while supporting local farmers and the regional economy. I am happy living most of the time in a balanced state with nature’s own cycles. Sure…I make some allowances like buying that fully ripened Sicilian tomato in April because the flavor is so damn good to pass up. I also buy bananas and avocados even though they do not grow anywhere near my home. But I do this guilt-free because I know most of what I choose to consume is seasonal and regional. My aim now is to see if we can all move a few steps closer to eating seasonal and local…more or less.