It’s Only in Season if Its Local

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April 16, 2015 at 11:05 am

That Thing Touched Upon But Not Yet Mentioned

Photo: Spurgeon Veggies - East Galesburg, Illinois

Photo: Spurgeon Veggies – East Galesburg, Illinois

Let me start by saying, I was on this kick before Bruce Sherman talked to MikeG over at the Reader. I started complaining about how Spring would be treated on April 6. The Reader piece where Sherman states, “as long as I’ve been here at North Pond, it’s always been seasonal first, local second,” came out on April 8. And I’ve been making these arguments for years e.g. here. I’ve tried not to make it personal. A few years ago I said:

Listen, I’m not going to name names here. There are too many chefs that I wholly respect. Too many chefs that do so much already for our eat local scene. I’m not going to blame anyone specifically. Still, there’s too many folks out there who work so hard to rely on locally-focused menus, even in Winter, that just cheat this time of year. Even something like ramps, they’ll jump ahead and get from some other part of the country.

Bruce Sherman would fall into that category. He is surely helped Chicago diners understand that there was no table with out the farm leading to it. He showcased area farms, and he showcased the usefulness and of area produce. He and Rick Bayless especially gave people a purpose to go to farmer’s markets. The whole eat local movement followed from there. So, how can you say that. Something can not be in season if it is not local. After all, something is always in season somewhere. Are grapes in season now? Cherries? Blueberries?

MikeG saw the problem and asked, “if you can get anything from around the world now, any time of year, how do you decide what’s close enough to be seasonal?” Sherman responded that “in season within the fifty states.” He said that, but I do not really think he meant that. For instance, is he including Hawaii? What’s in season there now? Area grocery stores have this rash of Florida produce now, and I’m not talking honeybell tangerines. I mean blueberries, and tomatoes, and sweet corn. Should we group them on our seasonal menu? What Chef Sherman, intends, I believe, is that he follows a pre-determined path of seasonality. One where it is assumed that asparagus and peas go on April menus and we wait until July or August to use those corn and tomatoes regardless of where or when we find them in the 50 nifty United States. That’s the way it is done.

Why does it have to be done this way? Why, really you ask, does it bother me so. Why do I get so worked up each Spring. Put it this way, would North Pond put asparagus on their menu if not one wanted to eat it? Actually, I think that’s a poor argument because as any grocery store from Jewel to Whole Food can show you, people want to have asparagus no matter when or how you define its season. Still, the argument would go, that people expect it now, and more importantly, they don’t want anything else now. In other words, I’ll dangle heirloom tomatoes at you in August to make you forget you still want asparagus. Why cannot I live with that?

I could tell you that we have enough around now to make due. I have, and will continue to, document what I’m finding in April. I can also argue that if we believe in eating local, we should always believe in eating local, not in eating local with a special Spring dispensation. I do understand, however, that no one needs to give themselves over to absolute locavorism. I understand we always want and need things from elsewhere. It’s Spring time that gets me mad, and I’ll tell you why.

When chefs punt come April it drags the eat local system. In the Reader piece, Chef Sherman talked about convincing farmers too grow green garlic (farmers always had green garlic, he means harvest garlic when it’s green). Well, how can we convince them to work their hoop-houses for more frost-kissed spinach? Over-winter their parsnips so they are sweeter than in the Autumn. We cannot if the chefs are looking elsewhere in the Spring. That’s not even my biggest rub. I want to seasonally detox with nettles. I want to see the ramp fad extend. I don’t necessarily want to pay the price for morels but I want someone else to. As I mentioned the other day, we are very limited in a certain type of Spring crop because of the way our markets are organized, and because there are so few Spring markets. I want to break the system of false seasonality and fill it with foragers and robust Spring markets. My friends over at the Band of Farmers talk about greater penetration CSAs have in Madison compared to the Chicago area. What about the greater presence that market has in April compared to anything we have in the Chicago area. There’s so much to mimic from up there, including how they allow foragers and farmers to only show up to a few sessions. Can we try?

Let’s try to live within what is in season when it is in season. I would argue that are more fully rewarded. We wait in anticipation for our birthday and celebrate then. Would it feel as good if we jumped the gun a few weeks because we were tired of watching others have their birthdays? Let things have their time. And I, for one at least, believe that things like asparagus only reveal themselves when they are local. In a recent article, a California asparagus farmer talked about all the things he needed to do because, “freshness is paramount when it comes to asparagus quality,” and he implied that others did not do it that way.  So, why not just get the local?  Harold McGee has been oft quoted about preferring frozen peas over “unpredictable fresh peas,” as peas are another crop that does not last well after picking. If things really go my way, we would also be rewarded with things we hardly know now. What will be the new ramp?

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One Comment

  1. David Levinson says:

    It’s not just about the quality. What if someone harvested those tomatoes in Florida, put them on a jet, and flew them to Chicsgo? It’d be just as fresh as a local one, but you’ve burned gallons of jet fuel to get it to you. Local means sustainable.

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