The Joy of Cooking Seasonally

9 Apr

DSC01570I went to the farmer’s market this past weekend, and I felt my heart sink a little as I saw what is left in this season. It had been a frighteningly dry summer, a dry fall, a long winter, and a cold spring. That hardly spells agricultural abundance. Should it be any wonder that when I go to the market, I don’t see some of the vegetables I was hoping for like carrots, potatoes, and onions? In fact, of winter storage vegetables, there were hardly any. There were some beets, sweet potato, rutabaga, turnips, and radishes– the hardiest of storage vegetables. We are talking about almost zero selection, and of what is left, it’s starting to look a little sad (although I am thoroughly impressed at the farmer’s abilities to keep those vegetables for so many months! I can’t keep vegetables for more than two weeks, so I am amazed at what they can do).

Also at the market were plenty of greenhouse greens and tomatoes. This is exciting– mixed greens, arugula, bibb lettuce, and spinach are all available finally. The only problem? A small head of lettuce or a bag of spinach costs upwards of six dollars, not exactly affordable on a student budget or on a first-year-out-of-college-in-a-bad-economy working salary. I didn’t even look at the tomatoes because I think they are expensive per pound when they are grown with free solar energy in the summer, let alone energy from an operating greenhouse out of season!

So, I walked away having purchased cheese, meat, and a few root vegetables. On my now gluten-free diet, I didn’t even look at the tables with breads. All in all, it wasn’t the most economical trip I had ever taken to the market. Nor was it the most fulfilling trip in terms of robustness of selection. Yet I walked away feeling exhilarated.

I was contemplating on my bike ride from the market why I purchase seasonally. I will admit, in terms of cost effectiveness and convenience, a local and seasonal diet does not have the most to offer. When I hear others say that they enjoy the farmer’s market in the summer when everything is flourishing, but it’s too hard the rest of the time, I understand sympathetically. In a way, one really does have to go the extra mile to eat seasonally all year round. Eating seasonally means spending more money per weight on animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs. It means spending more money on other non-vegetable products like oils, nuts, grains, and canned goods. Eating locally also means having to pick up an inventiveness in the kitchen….what the heck to do with parsnips in winter?!? In our industrial-agricultural society, the teaching of cooking skills with anything that is not carrots, potatoes, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, or celery is virtually non-existent. Not to mention, but beets, potatoes, carrots, rutabaga, and other root vegetables make up one’s diet for at least six months out of the year because they are the only things available pretty much all year here is Wisconsin. Who wants to eat rutabaga November until April?

I do. And I say so with a smile on my face.

As of late, I am realizing just how much I love cooking and eating seasonally. I think I must get a rush of endorphins every time I cook– it just makes me really happy. And it makes me all the more happy to know I am cooking with ingredients that supported local farmers, have a soft footprint on the environment, and are safe and healthy for me to eat. I love the process of working with what produce I have and scouring my cabinet for a variety of herbs, spices, oils, beans, and other other ingredients to concoct a unique meal. I love that each time I cook, what I cook is never quite the same. I never have to make an extra trip to the grocery store because I make do with what I have. If I don’t have a certain ingredient, I use an alternative ingredient.

For me, eating locally and seasonally is a political statement, to be sure. But it is more than that. I find that eating seasonally nourishes my sense of creativity, and it always gives me an exciting challenge. But it is also spiritually nourishing. It is sort of my way to make a compact with the Earth. By eating seasonally, I say to the Earth, “I choose to live with you and in you as a true partner and a true dependent. I trust that you have true wisdom and will nourish my body as it needs.” In the summer I eat plenty of fresh vegetables because I want to keep cool, and I want to eat lightly in the hot season. But in the fall, when food is plenty, I eat abundantly to prepare my body for the upcoming winter. In the winter, I eat rich, heavier foods that are warm and easier to digest because they are cooked. In the spring, I eat what is left, building up the excitement for the new foods that are about to arrive. By eating seasonally, I give my body an annual rhythm as nature intended.

This process of eating seasonally harmonizes myself with the Earth in another way. It helps me to understand the discipline of limits. Someone recently asked me, “You really don’t eat foods out of season? But they are available at the grocery store! Why wouldn’t you eat what is available?” I responded that I really don’t eat foods out of season to the best of my ability. For me, eating within the availability of my locale is my way to respect the limits that exist in this Earth. If it were not for our large-scale global industrial agricultural system, zucchini in winter wouldn’t be available. And why should it be? We don’t want to starve, of course, but do we really need zucchini in the winter when we have other vegetables that are available? When I eat seasonally, I am choosing to understand the idea that I live in a finite world, one with limits. It is a way to humble myself.

The discipline that comes from living in a world of limits provides some surprising joys. I read in a book last summer that by restraining from consuming foods out of season, we can increase the excitement, joy, and sacredness of eating those foods. Because I eat asparagus (which I love) only in May and June, I very much anticipate that time of year when asparagus is available again. It gives me something to look forward to. And when the season finally arrives, I savor it so much more. And then come July, I savor the watermelon. Come August, I savor the tomatoes. Come October, I savor the squash. In the winter, I savor all of the canned foods stored from the summer. When I withhold in other parts of the year, there is always something to look forward to. Because certain foods are not available all the time, it becomes tradition to cook with them once again. We can think about this conceptually as similar to holidays. If we celebrated Christmas in every month, we would look forward to it much less than we do because it is only once a year. What becomes routine loses it’s sacredness and specialness. It is the same for food. Food is fun and exciting to me because I can’t have certain foods at all times, and so it’s extra special when I can have them.

What I am saying is not an argument against agricultural trade. I am as much a consumer as the next of tea, coffee, fruits, spices, salts, oils, and grains that can’t be found in Wisconsin. Just because we don’t find it here doesn’t absolutely mean we shouldn’t trade it. It is reasonable to do some trading. But the question becomes, at what point does the ecological footprint become too large for such trade? What is the cost to the Earth? At what point to we degrade the quality of the food through nutrient loss and chemical application in order to have that food available all year long?And at one point do we sacrifice the local cooking tradition in order to obtain continual availability? At what point do we forget the sacredness of food and how much energy goes into procuring it? At what point do we lose our connection with what enters us?

Eating seasonally for me is a call for creativity and ingenuity, a spiritual practice, a political statement, a tradition, a practice in humility, and mood uplifter. It has become easy and wonderful for me because I have incorporated it into the very fabric of my life. I understand that for those who haven’t done much cooking in their life, or for those who didn’t even know there was a winter market in Madison, the idea of seasonal cooking is intimidating at best, but more likely seemingly impossible. Just remember, though: I was also once in that place, too. I am a proponent of baby steps, adventurousness of spirit, and self-graciousness in mistakes. It’s worth giving it a try. I want to spread the joy of seasonal eating simply because there is so much joy to be had for it.

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