Friday, May 25, 2012

Maybe Grandma knew best, Vol. 2: Seasonal Eating

There's been a lot of talk lately about seasonal eating, as though it's some new idea that's just recently been discovered. You can find all sorts of reasons to embrace this philosophy: seasonal food tastes better, doesn't have to travel as far to reach your plate, can often be grown with fewer pesticides since it won't be traveling as far, tends to be much less expensive since you purchase it when the supply is highest . . . you get the idea. Seasonal eating tends to go hand-in-hand with local eating, which offers all of the above benefits plus supporting your local economy and minimizing overall environmental impact in your food choices.

These ideas aren't really new, though. Just a few generations ago, prior to World War II, the options found in even a "supermarket" would have seemed extremely limited by today's standards. Produce, especially, was limited to fresh items that were grown nearby or items which stored well, such as potatoes and apples. Families either grew and canned vegetables and fruit or purchased commercially canned produce. Later on, commercially frozen vegetables and fruit became available. This meant that for families in the northern United States, whole winters could pass without a fresh salad. Spring, with its promise of new and abundant green edibles, was truly an occasion to celebrate!

Housewives of this generation would have scoffed at the idea of purchasing fresh strawberries in the middle of winter, except perhaps as a very rare luxury. Even if they'd been readily available as they are today, they certainly wouldn't have been a budget-wise choice. Food budgets of this era took a much greater portion of the family income, in a time where fathers worked and mothers kept house and cared for their families. Food wasn't processed and manufactured to the extent it is today, and the agricultural system still relied on smaller family farms. Meat was raised on these farms as well, and was much more expensive than today as a result. An average housewife had to really stretch her dollars carefully when it came to planning meals; the prices she paid reflected the costs of production on a smaller scale. She didn't really have to make any special decisions regarding seasonal or local eating, she simply purchased food to feed her family. The rest was a given.

Today, we can purchase a dazzling array of foods at prices that are relatively low when compared to our income. It's hard to know what's in season in terms of fruits and vegetables, because practically everything is available year-round. Production of most foodstuffs takes place on a grand scale, with "factory farms"raising cattle and chickens by the thousands and enormous commercial farming operations over-producing corn and soy, so far exceeding demand that the government must pay them for their crops to keep them in business. Breakthroughs in science and technology have made it possible for farmers to grow disease- and pesticide-resistant crops, and for animals to be raised with the ideal body for us to eat. Because production costs are much lower, cheap processed foods are widely available. Unfortunately, this doesn't always mean they are good choices for us to buy and eat.

Which brings us back to seasonal eating, and why it makes sense and always has. Even if we have the option to buy fresh summer fruit like melons and berries in the middle of the winter, the fruit will have most likely traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to reach our local supermarket. Though there may not be any budget-related reason to leave the fruit at the store, such as with the average housewife of years past, the environmental costs of the fruit's travels would be a good reason to think twice before placing it in the cart. In addition, if you've ever tried a tomato fresh from the vine or a plump, just-picked blueberry, you know how much better food tastes when it's truly fresh. As tempting as middle-of-the-winter watermelon might seem, it's likely to be a let-down when you take the first bite. Stick with what's in season as much as possible; learn to prepare it and enjoy it. Not sure where to start? It wasn't uncommon to find seasonal menus in cookbooks of years past; if you can find one of these or its equivalent (online, perhaps), it can be a great guide to recipes and different combinations of foods. Give seasonal eating a try; this is certainly the easiest time of year to do it! I think you'll be glad you did - and your grandmother? She'll be proud of you.


  1. Here's a list of what's in season when for Oregon:

  2. That's awesome! Thanks Laura!
    I have a cookbook with a year's menu using seasonal foods, one week of meals for every month.