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Friday, March 30, 2012

Seasonality

Fresh onions, Santa Monica Farmers' Market, LA
As spring rolls into the Northern Americas, advocates of seasonal eating are all abuzz about ramps, asparagus, tarragon and lamb. Even here in Houston, where we seem to be having a bumper crop of loquats and mulberries, but I'm not seeing much use of these ingredients in restaurant menus. Perhaps, in large part, because the major suppliers don't carry these crops, as trees all over Houston produce fruit to be plundered by birds and squirrels

Loquats ripening in the sun, Tampa, FL
I have to wonder, though, have the planned merits eating seasonally backfired?

In a sense, the drive to eat seasonably evolved as a backlash against the enormous efforts we take to preserve and transport produce from different climates to ensure consistent availability in all markets. But all that effort is driven by the demand for consistency and predictability - such that it's unimaginable for a cheeseburger in Alaska not to have lettuce and tomato in it.

"Fresh" produce at Target. 
So, advocates of eating seasonably must contend with a dining populace that demands predictability - even from the changing seasons. Which is to say that people expect seasons to be predictable: a set of prescribed crops must come into being regardless of how things really turn out in the field. It's tomato season, it's pumpkin season, it's turkey season. But, despite the dewy pastoral vision people paint of farms, crop loss and overproduction are more common problems than not, and dealing with hiccups of predictability is part of the challenge. As we learned here in Houston, we had to make do without a proper oyster season.

Phenomena such as climate change and genetic drift are altering what we can predict from our crops. True respect for seasonal eating includes the flexibility to adjust to unpredictability; adopting a narrow definition of edibility is simply fueling the demands that underlie the giant factory farming process.

Pindo fruit, another commonly grown local crop on ornamentals. 
Retaining a large and flexible enough repertoire of techniques to improvise should define seasonal cuisine. That's why innovation thrives in pauper cuisine - when locusts ate the crops, people cooked the locusts. We find morbid fascination with contests where chefs are forced to come up with dishes within an hour of being presented with a strange wriggling ingredient, maybe in part schadenfreude, and in part the wonder of seeing a new cooking tradition being born.

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