Can't Get A Jump On Nature
In which the reader is begged to avoid fruits and vegetables grown outside his or her own space/time continuum.
Thursday, January 4, 2001
Once upon a time, there was a big war. After it was over, many new things were available to people all over the United States. Thanks to innovations designed to support the war effort, suddenly you could move great quantities of stuff from one side of the country to the other.
Thanks to improved freezing technology, perishable items could be preserved much, much longer than Mother Nature had originally intended. And since lots of people had more disposable income after the war, they not only bought freezers but they wanted luxury food items to put into those freezers.
Grocery stores became supermarkets. Fruit was judged by the color of its skin, rather than the content of its flavor character. Birdseye. Minute Maid. Safeway.
For my grandmother, surviving the Great Depression meant feeding her family the old-fashioned way. Doing a little gardening. Putting up sudden windfalls of apples a friend would bring into cold storage. Making jam--enough to last through the winter. When produce was fresh and abundant (and at its cheapest), everybody found creative ways to make use of it. Or, they''d eat as much of it as possible right on the spot.
Every autumn, we''d make a pilgrimage up to the Amish country of northern Maryland, where the orchards of the Catoctin Mountains were about to fall over from the weight of ripe peaches. We''d head for one of our favorite fruit stands and go into a ritual food trance over the fat, juicy peaches still warm from the afternoon sun.
After the initial feeding frenzy, my dad would start selecting a bushel of fruit, which we''d take home to Virginia. Peach cobblers started pouring out of the kitchen, followed by desserts of sliced peaches over ice cream. Peaches made guest appearances in our school lunch boxes. Then my mom would start on the peach jam.
How we waited for September and that first bite of warm, spicy peach. I now realize that part of why those peaches tasted so good was that we had to wait all year for them. "Anticipation," warbled Carly Simon, and she was so right. Think of those first tender spears of fresh asparagus that begin to appear in the markets and restaurants in the early spring. Or the first tomatoes of the season that finally emerge from local fields only after we''ve begged them to ripen.
Flavor on a Cosmic Scale
Many of us who grew up with the miracles of flash frozen peas--available all year ''round thanks to the folks at Birdseye--got a wake-up call in the ''70s when we tasted organically grown, local peas, sweet and crisp right off the vine. Whoa! Here was flavor on a cosmic scale.
So there was a point to the whole idea--which Europeans had always insisted on to the point of hysteria--of eating foods only in their season. Tender lettuces are best in cool weather--which we started learning when we got back to the garden in the ''70s. Tomatoes need an entire summer of sun to catalyze their juicy flavors. If you frequent your local farmers'' market long enough, you begin to get the hang of the seasonal thing. You start learning that if the local growers aren''t displaying tomatoes in May, it''s because they''re not ready yet. And that also explains why those pale pink and green disks that taste like cardboard on your restaurant plate aren''t real tomatoes at all. They''re Monsanto miracles, fit only to be ignored.
I once had the pleasure of watching Alice Waters raise her voice and tremble with indignation at a gathering of young chefs. The matriarch of Chez Panisse was delivering her tireless tirade against serving foods out of season, and the chefs were protesting--but our customers expect tomatoes all year ''round. "Well just tell them no!" was her firm retort.
Many people in that room that day went home and considered the possibility of restaurant dining without those stupid, tasteless, shelf-ripened tomatoes on the plate. Some of them thought, Why not? They started putting clusters of spun carrots and purple cabbage on the side of their entrees.
Then, when the narrow window of tomato opportunity finally opened--sometime in late August--those restaurants could showcase the succulent pomodori by offering them as an appetizer, or by adding caprese salad or fresh pasta sauce to the menu.
The temptation to feast on tomatoes every August and September springs from knowing that they won''t last long. At least they won''t last long at their best.
And that''s the whole point. If it isn''t ripe, if it doesn''t have flavor, why put it in your mouth? Why are the tomato fascists forcing you to consume vapid produce?
The Right Place
Living in our slice of the planet, graced with sublime Mediterranean climate and a bay still teeming with fish, it is a crime to ignore the possibilities for eating seasonally. As terroir is to winemaking, so selecting what''s fresh and local in the markets is--or could be--to nightly dining in Monterey County. The untranslatable term terroir refers to the unique taste, texture, smell and indefinable glory of a specific soil, climate and growing style.
A few weeks ago my sweetie and I sat down to dinner. A Chalone Chardonnay was poured--Central Coast grapes, Central Coast winemakers. Salmon from the Monterey Bay was paired with new potatoes and mixed lettuces grown less than a mile from where we sat. Call it sheer imagination, but we felt an unmistakable sense of place, of harmony in the meal.
It all seemed to make sense. Look at it in reverse. Would you travel to Mexico and ask a local where you could get a good Chinese meal? Would you order a BLT in Tuscany? You get my point. Be in the place where you are.
Chefs all over the county are picking up on what seems obvious to any intelligent tastebud. Next time you see a tomato in January--you''ll know you''re in the wrong place.