The oft-discussed 10,000 mile Caesar Salad, used to illustrate the degree to which our food system is drenched in fossil fuels, really is only a piker when it comes to the spaces that food can make you cover.
10K miles by airplane, refrigerator truck, etc… is nothing compared to the distances in time and place you can cover in seconds with food – consider, for example the space in time and distance a single evocative bite can offer you. Home you are transported to your mother’s table in Detroit from your home in Lyon with a single bite. Back you travel, 20 years and 5,000 miles to the island of your birth to eat street food, its sights and smells and sounds coming into place with a single taste of spice and vegetable. On you travel, 70 years and 7,000 miles to your grandmother’s table in a country that no longer exists in a place where you thought the past was gone. 10,000 miles for a salad – that’s nothing in the scope of where food can take you.
Eating seasonally, for me, involves a kind of travel that I do not do in body any longer – a cycle over long distances and through sense of place. Some are places that I know only in books or through friends who describe them, others places I have been or even belonged to. But as I cycle through the foods that are native to my time and place, I find myself drawn into food cultures that have evolved and emerged around the plenty that is present at that moment. This is a little different than the modern “Thai on Wednesday, Pizza for lunch on Thursday and shall we have Indian for Thursday dinner” model – it is rooted in a sense of place, and you stay there while the glut of whatever season bursts upon you. It is an extended visit – not a residency, but long enough to get to know a place. It sounds shallow – but when a glut lasts a month or more, you find yourself getting to know the ways of places that had a way with fava beans or komatsuna or squash.
What mean is this – that the reality of eating seasonally means for me being drawn to cultures that have adapted well to the kinds of foods that are available to me. I visit other places in my dinner and bring home what they have to teach me – but there’s more than just tourism here. What is growing in my kitchen and the thousands of other kitchens of people who have chosen to be limited by place and season and support local food economies is nothing less than a culinary revolution – the redevelopment of cuisines of place. Once upon a time, there were no other kinds of cuisine – the foods of Northern China and South Africa, for example, cannot be confused for one another – but for that matter, neither can the cuisines of Maryland and Montana. Place shaped our food in ways that were substantive, and from that shaping emerged the great cuisines on which we rely. Now, changed by our experience of those cuisines, of a world of food open to all of us, we are remaking the idea of a cuisine created by its place.
So as we reach late autumn and winter comes in, my tastebuds move north – where better to find the teachings of what to do with potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, celeriac – than the cultures that relied heavily on these cold weather foods. While it is true that the Sicilians, for example, have lovely recipes for some root vegetables, their winters are short and moderate. They were never pressed by place into the sheer creative force that made Scandinavians and Russians teach the lowly beet to dance.
Late fall is also butchering time for us, and after a quiet summer with little meat, we have lamb and chicken and turkey taking weekly pride of place. We knew these animals and wish to do them honor, and what better honor if you will eat meat than to eat it all, with real enjoyment, wasting nothing. We draw on cultures that use meat sparingly most of the year, but here we turn to festive recipes for larger pieces from many cultures.
In springtime, when the first greens come around, where to go? I can go to the French potager tradition, eating a bread pudding made with abundant spring eggs, wild greens and asparagus. Or to Vietnam, where delicate spring greens and herbs get wrapped in rice paper, and to the Middle East to find something to do with all the parsley, eggs and new green thyme. I pull out Paula Wolfert’s glorious book _Mediterranean Greens and Grains_ and find new ways to enjoy the season of leaves.
Spring is the season of milk as well, and we draw on a dozen cultures to make lavish use of our goat’s bounty – labneh, spread on fresh baked manakeesh bread, with a shake of sumac make breakfast. Cheeses proliferate – from Italy, England, Switzerland, Spain and France. We fill German pancakes with homemade Italian ricotta, local strawberries and wildflower honey to celebrate a Jewish summer holiday, and my friend brings an English-style Trifle and we eat too much.
In summer, it simply make sense to go to hot places – to the Southern US and Africa where my beloved okra’s cuisines reached their height, to Italy and back to the Middle East, where eggplant, tomatoes and peppers form the perfect triad. Ratatouille? Sure! Eggplant with chiles from North Africa? Okra five ways? Beans – they have to be picked, after all, and eaten – long beans stir fried until wrinkly with chiles, broad beans with tomato sauce, green and white beans in Plaki? All, please, although maybe not at the same day. And with the ubiquitous zucchini – a thousand recipes, a thousand cultures, and in the end, rush back and pull the blossoms off and stuff them with homemade goat cheese and fry. It isn’t good for you, but it does spare you any more zucchini (for today).
Autumn is the time in which late summer and early winter merge – what shall we do with all those pumpkins, besides making jack-o-lanterns? Pumpkin stew with coconut from Jamaica? Pumpkin ravioli from Italy? Pumpkin pancakes with maple syrup invented by me in upstate New York – although I am certain they have recurred a hundred times across a hundred cultures in various forms. Pumpkin Pie? British, roughly in origin, but New World.
I could dig up the sweet potatoes, and cook them with a glaze of sesame in the Japanese fashion, or with lime and nutmeg as a Grenadan friend taught me. Out comes the corn, that essentially, quintessentially American food to be ground into tortillas and made into hominy and served with cheese as Romanian Mamaliga and as the British-Native American hybrid succotash with dried beans. And which of these shall I take around the world with me this week?
It is possible to go to many places, and we do, but each, in a way, in their time and season. For late season, watery tomatoes I’m drawn to a French way of baking them down and drawing out their essence. For the first tender and tiny beets, I go not to borscht but to the fresh salad that might be the Arab Salatat Shamandar or could be the Sephardi Jewish beet salad – as far as I can tell, it mostly depends on what herbs you use. Later, when the beets are large and have developed flavor in my root cellar for a while will I be drawn to hearty preparations.
It would be possible to imagine a map of the world, a trip around it – jumping back and forth a little bit from the first emergent greens in spring to the last pot of Portugese kale soup, last French style Leeks in Vinagrette, last stir fry of cold hardy pea shoots, bok choy and tofu, to the first serving of sauerkraut and the autumn’s kim chi, the first bite of a Winesap held in storage to develop its full flavor, the first cranberry – chocolate chip cookies that fuse several places and no places.
One of the realities of eating locally, within the limits imposed by the agriculture of your place, by time and season is that you begin to develop something that we once had an no longer do – a cuisine of place, one that uses the limits of time and place as a form, and allows you to perfect a cuisine. Here, limitations are not costs – no one who has ever visited Italy wishes that Tuscan food had emerged in the era of huge, bland flown in strawberries and frozen ravioli. What was done, what allowed us to temporarily say “Thai tonight, Italian tomorrow” was that ten thousand places developed and perfected a cuisine that worked well with what they had – a cuisine of limits. But limits are not bad – it is the limits of form that make a sonnet a sonnet, and the limits of form that make ballet ballet, and the limits of form – of the people who settled it, the foods available, the culture they emerged from that make dinner in Trinidad fundamentally different than dinner in Sweden.
Eventually, time and limits and reality will conspire to create new cultures of place – these will be partly dependent on the ones that emerged in places in the past – it is likely that the culture of the American southwest will always depend heavily on corn and chiles, that the northeast will always flow with milk from its steep grassy slopes. But more importantly, what emerges will have been enriched by knowledge of other places – the sweet potatoes grow here too, alongside the ubiquitous potato. My Hmong neighbors find ways to make my dandelions that I hope will come into the canon, along with the ways that our Amish neighbors do.
The limits of time and season are just beginning to evolve local cuisines of place – or to recreate and reinvent them in places that have been changed. It is an exciting and fascinating process to watch – to imagine – what will this look like? Where will we go – how far will we travel – and what will we find when we finally, completely, bring it all home to here?