Lately there has been a great deal of interest in local and seasonal eating. Unfortunately, most of this enthusiasm really doesn’t go too far, as our society’s patterns of eating are so thoroughly conformed to a completely non-seasonal pattern of food production and consumption. You have to truly be radical to become a fully seasonal eater.
There are many reasons for the shift, for not too long ago, there was ONLY seasonal eating. With an air of modern superiority my father would say something like: “not even the King of England could eat fresh strawberries in January” as he ate his greenhouse grown strawberries covered in spray-can “whipped cream.” To him, this was an unqualified declaration of the vast superiority of modern living. He at least was sensitive to these realities, for most people are not, and blithely go about not knowing where their food comes from other than Kroger.
I guess I have the same sensitivity for these things that my father had, but I have a completely different attitude towards the matter. Just because we CAN have fresh strawberries in January doesn’t mean we SHOULD closely approximates my attitude. For the record, I apply this sort of thinking to everything else in life, too. For there is a time and season for everything. Sometimes strawberry pie, or strawberry jam, or strawberry leather should be preferred to fresh strawberries. And strawberries grown in a green house, or shipped half-way across the world, are not very good, hardly anything like a fresh-picked (when ripe) heirloom variety of strawberry grown outdoors in good soil. They may not be as pretty or as large or even as sweet, but they taste like strawberries. June was made for strawberries, not January.
But of course these seasons dictate that most fresh vegetables and fruits will not be available year round. Different strategies have always been employed to preserve the overabundance at certain times of the year in order to spread it out over the rest of the year. Since refrigeration was invented and widely adopted (a process that took nearly a century), human creativity regarding food preservation seems to have diminished. Practically every people and culture had unique ways of fermenting, drying, or converting perishable foods into more durable foods. I think cheese is the most excellent example, because it is the preserved food which most surpasses the fresh food it is made from (milk), but there are others that improve through preservation: sausage is better than the low quality fresh meat it is made from, and I like sauerkraut more than raw cabbage. Man alcoholic beverages can be viewed in this light; wines in particular retain considerable nutriment and I can’t really think of a better way to preserve soft fruits that rapidly spoil (Elderberries, Grapes) or hard fruits that are blemished (Apples, Pears, Cherries, etc. that are fit only for mashing and fermenting). Many Winter Squashes and Apples actually improve in storage, and without much intervention at all. In these cases, the aging of the food is something positive rather than fought against. Canning, freezing and other preservation methods, which require both energy and considerable effort, and which fight against aging, are to my thinking inferior, but still useful, and certainly better than struggling to grow certain fresh foods (Strawberries, Tomatoes, etc.) out of season.
Now, I am not at all opposed to refrigeration, canning, freezing, etc. in moderation. I am not even opposed to unheated greenhouses. We have a refrigerator, and they are truly a great invention, and one I think we could not get on without given that we have no cold spring, which was considered essential for anyone keeping dairy animals. And I am not opposed to canning, either pressure or boiling water bath, both effective ways to preserve appropriate foods for later consumption without using up precious freezer/refrigerator space. We have definitely considered low cost high tunnels for growing through the winter, but what always makes me hesitate with this is that it doesn’t put winter to work building soil, rather, it uses it. What I am opposed to is overuse of these things, or poor use of these things. I have seen several large families that have a half dozen or more chest refrigerators that churn away all year completely filled to the point they can hardly locate any specific food item in them. Often these refrigerators are filled with “foods” that have no business being in a refrigerator or freezer, like bread. Bread is something that should be eaten fresh, baked at least a few times every week. Freeze the flour if you will, but please don’t freeze bread!
Just as bad are vast heated greenhouse operations where tomatoes and other warm season plants are grown through the winter. Many vegans seem to think that their diet, which is only possible because of greenhouses, has less environmental impact that diets containing livestock products. I am quite certain that if plastic and energy to warm greenhouses is taken into consideration, it will be found to far more injurious to the environment compared to thoughtful livestock production, as all the domestic animals generate their own heat and come equipped with feathers or fur. They don’t need huge propane fires and layers of plastic to keep them warm like tomatoes do. But incidental use of unheated greenhouses I think is worthwhile. It is great for providing that little bit of thermal gain needed to keep lettuces, carrots, and other greens going right through the winter, and having some fresh stuff in the winter is both healthful and tasteful.
Eggs need no refrigeration, the chicken having provided perhaps the perfect containment vessel and the ontological answer to the question of what came first: the chicken makes the egg, the egg develops into a chicken. Butter and most fruits and many vegetables do not require refrigeration, plastic wrapping, etc. Instead of keeping a cabbages in cold storage where they slowly deteriorate, why not turn them into sauerkraut, which is a better food in many ways compared to cabbage? I saw one of the silliest things at a flea market recently: winter squashes that had been quartered and had plastic film applied. If they hadn’t been cut up, there would be no need for the plastic. And I am quite certain the healthy rind of a winter squash does a better job than plastic film anyway. But most folks don’t know what to do with a big squash–make it the main part of the meal–to them it is a merely side dish.
How I love squash, particularly winter squash, which, like an egg, is equipped with a containment vessel right from the field. If you can keep Cucumber Beetles off them (which scar the skins of squash), many winter squash can be kept at room temperature all winter long, and unlike many vegetables, one can really live off squash, and they are uniquely delicious, almost every kind has a particular dish or soup that expresses its unique flavor profile perfectly. Root crops (Beets, Rutabagas, Parsnips, Carrots) and potatoes are like this as well, but I am confident in asserting that these types of foods have greatly declined in consumption since refrigeration and greenhouses, because people prefer vegetables which are more rapidly prepared, like greens and tomatoes. We are loosing our culinary memories, and even motivation. All victims of almighty convenience.