Eating Seasonally: What’s the Point?

Posted on January 13, 2014 in Blog


Eating Seasonally: What’s the Point?


By E. A. Garcia


If we could go back in time 50 years and ask our grandparents or great-grandparents whether they “ate seasonally,” they would find this a ridiculous question. Chances are they had little choice but to eat seasonally most of the time. The food shipping and preservation technologies that today allow Canadians to enjoy fresh pineapple at Christmastime or Floridians to barbecue salmon in March simply did not exist until recently; for most humans, eating seasonally has not only been the normal way— it has been the only way.


I grew up in New England in the 70’s and 80’s in a family of enthusiastic home cooks, what you might call “early adopters” of whatever new foods came onto the market. My parents prioritized buying high-quality ingredients over spending on other things, and I always got a kick out of telling schoolmates about the foods they experimented with for our dinner table— sheep’s brains, fiddlehead ferns, beer soup. Yet I still don’t recall tasting fresh avocado, mango, or persimmon until I was in my 20’s; those foods were not available even at the giant Super Stop and Shop a few towns over which we nicknamed “Stupor” because of its grand scale. I certainly had never tasted a smoothie with kale in it!


I’ll also never forget, at the age of 30, tasting fresh-picked lettuce for the first time at a farmer’s market in Berkeley. “Oh!!” I reveled. “This lettuce actually has a flavor! Lettuce flavor! This is why people like lettuce.” I ate lettuce every night in my house growing up, but for most of the year it was greenhouse lettuce. Which tasted like the plastic it came wrapped in. The green, almost sweet flavor of young lettuces picked and sold and eaten at the right time provided a total ah-ha moment. My own awareness of eating seasonally was born, as well as the folly of eating out-of-season produce thinking that it’s the real thing.


I’m not trying to romanticize life before contemporary agricultural technology, when yeah people ate seasonally but a weevil invasion or particularly dry summer might literally leave whole communities starving. This still happens of course, just not so much in the United States. It’s fortunate that advances in pest control, refrigeration, food preservation, and shipping have all made the American food supply more varied and secure, if not more nutritious. So we can be glad for that.


The problem is that —as in all such equations —we do lose something. In this case the loss is real but hard to measure. Can we be certain that a South American cantaloupe, picked while unripe in order to sit in a shipping container for eons before being consumed in a snowstorm, has the same vitamins and as-yet-undiscovered other compounds as a freshly-picked August melon? Do we even benefit from consuming those nutrients out-of-season? And how do we measure the individual health impact of greenhouse gases and pesticides produced by such a global food system? It’s difficult, as is reading labels to figure out where every single item in one’s grocery cart comes from.


Fortunately, flavor is one very tangible thing we gain when eating local seasonal foods. Have you ever eaten an out-of-season greenhouse tomato, white and mealy, and literally wondered “What’s the point?” (I believe this experience is why so many kids today think they don’t like vegetables.) Compare that with a flavor you might expect from a fresh Brandywine tomato, still hot from sunshine on the vine, enjoyed perhaps with a leaf or two of basil and a drizzle of flavorful olive oil. In a blind taste comparison, you might not recognize that these were the same food.


On the same token, would you expect to enjoy a smoothie made from flavorless greenhouse strawberries? Or from greens that were picked out of season and kept in cold storage for weeks, tough and bitter from age? The only way to make a drink with one of these ingredients taste good would be to add masking flavors (like ‘vanilla protein powder’) or tons of sweetener. This is what you can expect from smoothies made through large-scale commercial production and pasteurized for sale in supermarkets and chain stores.


Flavor is one indicator of nutrition, and I would expect a lab analysis of our two tomato samples to reveal the Brandywine as a richer source of lycopene, Vitamin C, and many other things that are good for us. But our great-grandparents did not use lab analysis to guide their choice of fresh fruits and vegetables, so I don’t either. I’m a simple creature— I just want things to taste good naturally. So I rely on color, smell, texture, and flavor as indicators of how ripe and therefore nutritious something is.


These skills are less important in the 21st century but we can nevertheless master them. Because despite all the advances in flavor engineering, I still believe people can discern the difference between test-tube tomato flavor and the real deal. And the real deal makes life worthwhile. Which is you will find me compulsively sniffing and squeezing produce in the grocery store, searching for “Product of” labels, even consulting my seasonal foods wheel (http://www.localfoodswheel.com/) to see what might be tasty and cheap this week. Why after a long winter of hard squashes and root vegetables that have to be cooked for hours at a time, the first raw snap peas of spring taste that much sweeter. And why GreenSurge uses fresh, seasonal produce to make smoothies with no fake stuff required.

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