We live in an era in which our palettes are truly pampered. In one leisurely meal, we might dine on Hawaiian mahi-mahi and pineapple, Thai jasmine rice, fresh asparagus spears (in January!), and Belgian chocolate. Global gourmandizing is so effortless that we’ve forgotten what it means to eat according to the seasons. After all, while North America is in winter’s grip, that luscious asparagus is basking in summer—just a plane ride away in Peru.
Unfortunately for our epicurean inclinations, the environment pays for all the fossil fuels required to import goodies from far-flung locales. A fruit or vegetable’s current average road trip from field to fork is about 1,300 miles, according to The Eco-Foods Guide, by Cynthia Barstow (New Society Publishers, 2002). “Buying food grown near home is one action we can take that makes sense for us and cents for our farmers,” writes Barstow. “Shorten the distance, lessen the cost and waste, support your neighbor, and save valuable open agricultural land.”
Another problem is that food shipped long distances loses both flavor and nutritional value over time, says Deborah Madison, cookbook author and the founding chef of the renowned restaurant The Greens in San Francisco. Her most recent book is Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets (Broadway Books, 2002). “The fresher the food, the more vitality it has and the more it nurtures you,” she points out. “Too often, produce is picked before it’s ripe so it won’t go bad while trucking across the continent. Eating fruit should be a succulent, beguiling treat, yet shamefully, it rarely is.”
The solution is to eat foods only when they’re in season in your area, which means supporting local farmers. Take your basket to the farmer’s market, chat with the people who grow the food, and revel in the array of fresh-picked organic eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and summer squash just begging to be grilled with savory herbs and served over pasta. “When food is only hours off the plant, it tastes so good that preparing it isn’t complicated,” says Madison. “Simply slicing fresh vegetables and spreading them on a platter creates a flavorful masterpiece. Foods that are in season together always taste good together, which is why you can feel confident when cooking intuitively with food from the farmers’ market.”
Summertime is when the eatin’ is easy, but in winter, we’re tempted to buy nonlocal foods. With some effort, however, you can dine well by relying on the bounty of winter gardens and food cellars. Although farmer’s markets are likely closed for the season, you can get a rough idea of what’s in season by noticing which foods are most vibrant and affordable in your supermarket, Madison notes. Check our chart for buying and preparing seasonal produce, then start to plan delicious meals around the cycles of the earth—not around shipping and air freight schedules. Your taste buds and the environment will love the difference.
Sources:The Farmers’ Market Cookbook, by Nina Planck (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2001); Local Flavors, by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 2002)
Commit to seasonal eating
Shop at farmer’s markets. You can meet the growers of your food and ask how fresh it is and whether it’s organic. Farmer’s markets put money directly into the pockets of small family farmers who struggle to survive in an era of mega-agribusiness. Many markets close for the winter, but as more customers patronize them, farmers are encouraged to expand their facilities to accommodate wintered-over foods, says food writer and chef Deborah Madison.
Join a CSA (community-supported agriculture). Sign up with a local farm program, and for a fee you’ll receive a weekly share of just-picked food. With widespread support, local farmers can diversify their crops to offer customers a variety of seasonal produce or other farm products such as eggs and honey. CSA shares usually come in bulk, so you can capitalize on a bumper crop by canning, freezing, or storing those foods.
Ask your grocer to stock local foods. Large, corporate-owned grocery chains sometimes sell local foods, but they rarely identify them because the supply is too small to meet consumer demands, notes Madison. Shop at food co-ops or family-owned grocery stores that make it a priority to sell local produce.
Sniffing out local treasures
Follow your nose at your local market—along with your sense of sight, touch, and taste. Shopping for fresh-grown produce is a sensual experience, and when food is at its best, you’ll know it. Keep in mind that seasonal food that’s ripe in California may not reach its peak in Minnesota for another month—or ever. And half the fun of shopping locally is seeking out foods that are unique to your area: fresh-roasted chiles in the Southwest, hickory nuts in Wisconsin, green peanuts in Alabama, or Rocky Ford cantaloupes in Colorado.