There’s a reason for the season. The reason, however, is not the one you might immediately think of when you hear that phrase. I’m talking about seasons in food and farming. Before the advent of airplanes and superhighways and 18-wheelers, people ate seasonal foods. Asparagus and peas were early spring, tomatoes and green beans were summer, broccoli and cabbage were fall and turnips, rutabagas and kale were winter. The only way you had an out-of-season food was if you had dried or canned it during its season. Although we now have many of these foods year round, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Shipping food from one hemisphere to the next does increase the options at the grocery store. However, it means the varieties will be chosen more for qualities such as durability than taste or nutrition. If you don’t believe me, next summer after the tomatoes in the farmer’s markets are ripe because they’re locally grown, buy some of those red rubber balls at the store and try a taste comparison. Shipping for any distance, even if it’s in the same country, increases the odds that the fruit and vegetables will be picked green so they don’t get ripe before you buy them; in many cases that means they are on the verge of rotting by the time they do get — sort of — ripe. Finally, shipping means we use a lot of irreplaceable oil that I suspect we’re going to wish we had in the future.
Eating out of season increases your costs, primarily because things have to be shipped for many miles, pampered in greenhouses or otherwise manipulated to make them available when it’s the off season. I did a quick check at our local grocery the other day just for kicks, and the out-of season foods cost anywhere from $1 to $3 more per serving compared to the in-season stuff. Compared to what is home-grown and sitting in my freezer or panty, those foods may cost $5-6 more per serving because what I grow costs so little.
Having milk and eggs year round leads to animals that die young, worn out from producing without a break. A milk cow, for example, should be dried off for at least two months before the birth of her next calf to give her body a rest before the next one. And there’s a difference between milk and eggs raised on the lush green grass of late spring and summer. That’s why wild animals are born then — mama can give the baby maximum nutrition in the last stages of pregnancy when the fetus does most of its growing, and during the period when the baby drinks the most milk.
There’s one more thing we humans miss when we eat out of season — the joys of anticipation. Checking daily to find that first asparagus spear is a springtime ritual around here. Those early shoots are often no thicker than a pencil, easy to miss in the grass and wonderfully sweet. Snow peas and cherry tomatoes taste best when you eat them off the vine after months of eating them canned or frozen. I suspect that vegetables and fruits picked and eaten in season and just at the right point of ripeness are also the ones that are loaded with the most nutrients. And as for taste — well, words fail me…