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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thoughts on seasonality

Last Thursday, May 16, I bought the first local asparagus of the spring.

Eating seasonally is hard at the best of times, but it's even harder when you live in a region - in an entire country - where there is effectively no growing season for more than six months of the year. (The growing season around here seems to be about 139 days, with an average last frost date of May 11.) I literally don't understand how inhabitants of Canada, whether European or First Nations, made it through the winters in the days before canning, chest freezers and February cherries from Chile. I suspect the answer involves a lot of unbroken monotony, a steady diet of the same winter-storage foods day in and day out, and (likely) quantities of salt that would make modern physicians frown.

I count myself lucky not to have to labour under such restrictions. I try to "eat local" with some regularity, but I don't deny myself the pleasure of a bell pepper in the middle of January. Of course, many fruits and vegetables suffer so much from intercontinental transport that I can't be bothered to buy them, because they don't taste like anything. Others, like asparagus, are so intimately associated with the seasons that even though I can buy reasonably tasty versions at other times of the year, I tend not to.

These thoughts come at an interesting time for me. The week before last, I was in San Francisco, where I visited the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and experienced unbridled jealousy toward California's bounty. I visited my local farmers' market on Saturday and was, as always, disappointed to see the same array of fruits and vegetables as can be found at any major grocery store. None of them, as far as I could tell, were clearly labeled as to their origins. What's the point of a farmers' market if the produce isn't local? What incentive do I have to choose it over the one-stop convenience of the supermarket, where I can also buy toilet paper, batteries and (if I so choose) lawn furniture?

It's not like there's no local produce to be had, either: I went to the market looking for rhubarb, which the Foodland Ontario Availability Guide assures me is available, but there was none to be found. (Fortunately, it doesn't look like this will be a problem in future years, since the house we've just purchased comes fully equipped with its own rhubarb patch.)

I was immensely pleased to see so much local asparagus, though. I'd been mostly resisting the urge to buy the bunches at the grocery store that had been shipped in from Mexico or the US, and I think last week's bunch tasted all the sweeter because of it, and I have high hopes for the bunch that's sitting on my counter right now.

I'm not sure what seasonality really does or should mean in Canada, in Southern Ontario, in the winter. But I have a much better idea what it means in the summer, and I'm determined to make the most of it this year.

(This post has been inspired in part by Russ Parsons' book How to Pick a Peach, which I've been reading recently, and by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon's book The 100-Mile Diet, which I just started tonight. You can read some interesting, often contrary, opinions about the 100-mile diet on this thread at eGullet, in addition to many other places.)


  • At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I picked up some rhubarb last week at the Landsdowne market and made a really yummy sweet and sour pork dish. Picked some more up today at Byward market and will make something sweet, maybe a pie. I keep How to Pick A Peach close to the kitchen, love that book. He has another book, something about a french fry.

  • At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Susmita said…

    I know what you mean. I live in Seattle, WA and in the last couple of years, I am keenly aware of "food miles" i.e., how many miles the food we eat has travelled. Washington has fantastic local produce in the Summer months, but I struggle with eating local during winter. I am goig to give some home canning a shot, but then again, most veggies don't like the can or freeze treatment. Love the book. If you haven't, strongly recommend Michael Pollan's 2nd book - In Defense of Food.


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