One of the intangible souvenirs we’ve brought back from our travels is the habit of eating seasonal foods. When in France and Japan, we don’t have to make a conscious effort to eat what was in season because it happens naturally: grocers offer produce and other foods as they become available. Many foods have a particular time of year when they are at their maximum yield and/or peak flavor. In Japan, the word for this is shun 旬. Some Japanese grocery chains, like “Life”, make a huge point of this annual gastronomic cycle by regularly changing their stock according to the time of year. So, even if you wanted to eat a traditional winter dish in the summer, you’d have a hard time finding the ingredients.
However, in the United States, grocery stores and produce companies literally go to the ends of the earth to offer us the luxury and convenience of eating foods out of season. Berries are my favorite example. Every summer as a child, I went berry picking with my grandmother in Canada. I’d wait all year for that heavenly sensation of a tiny wild strawberry melting in my mouth and gently releasing its delicate flavor. We’d also pick wild blueberries and raspberries to eat fresh, and Saskatoon berries for pies. Then there were the horridly sour and tannic choke cherries that would shrivel up my mouth when I dared to eat one straight off the tree; but, they made lovely jelly that we could enjoy back home in the winter. The Saskatoon berries and choke cherries have yet to make a splash in the mass market so those are flavors that remain deeply linked to the places where they grow. Yet, thanks to some very industrious and crafty companies, I can enjoy summer berries all year round. On their websites, Driscoll and Naturipe explain how they manage to accomplish this amazing feat by shipping my berries thousands of miles from countries the Southern Hemisphere when it is winter where I live. It is astounding. Eating a raspberry in winter that has been shipped thousands of miles must truly be the epitome of luxury.
Yet, for some reason it doesn’t feel like a treat: I don’t enjoy those berries as much as the ones I had to wait all year to eat. Despite the extravagance of having blueberries shipped from Argentina for Thanksgiving, I take them for granted precisely because I can have them anytime I want. I suppose I’m a bit spoiled. Groceries are beginning to offer a bit of this same kind of luxury in France too. But, in the States I can really cook anything I want at any time of year. I’ve never had to hesitate before making a recipe to wonder if I’d be able to buy the ingredients.
In Japan, this anticipation of the first fruit or vegetable of the season is part of the joy of eating. For me, it made the year more dynamic and life more enjoyable. I waited each year for the pleasure of warming my hands on a bitterly cold winter day with a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts. Eventually, I’d grow tired of the winter cold and sick of eating chestnuts and begin longing for the first signs of spring: the delicate cherry blossoms embellishing the once naked branches of the craggy old trees meant fresh tastes of my old familiar spring favorites: bamboo and asparagus. I think part of the intense pleasure that I got from eating food seasonally came from the long periods of deprivation. I really appreciated the food because I knew I couldn’t have it whenever I wanted it. I made a conscious effort to savor the flavors and textures as if trying to store them in my memory to enjoy during the seasons when they wouldn’t be available. Perhaps it is a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.
So, in the States we want to eat seasonally too. We aren’t militant about it. But, we do want to experience those indulgent feelings that only come from eating things at their peak. It requires a very conscious effort to eat things in season here.
In my case, this is particularly true because the harvest times are very different where I live now (in Central Texas) from where I grew up (in Southeastern Ohio). So I’ve adopted two main strategies to make it easier: 1) I buy fruits and vegetables when I notice that they are cheapest and most plentifully stocked in my regular grocery store –this generally works because when a food is in season the market is flooded with that item and thus the price generally goes down; 2) I started a small backyard garden.
The funny thing is that many things have a very different season here in Texas than the ones I associate them with in France or Japan, for example: in Texas, eggplants are in season in the fall whereas I associate them with hot muggy summer days in Japan.
Buying seasonal foods is a bit easier for Francis, he grew up eating particular dishes at specific times of year and so it just seems natural to him to eat things like melon in the summer and citrus fruits in the winter. Unfortunately, he sorely misses going mushroom hunting in the forest with his uncle in France each fall. We haven’t been able to reproduce our fond childhood memories of hunting and gathering in the wild.
Discovering the local produce that is popular in Texas has been a fun experience for both of us though. Our favorite Texas vegetable is currently in season: Kale. Take a peek at our Facebook page where I’ve posted our favorite Kale recipe from a dear Texan friend married to a French fellow. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sojourner-Tours/624378897602636