Greens, Fruits, Roots, and Beets: A Study in Seasonal Eating

Mary Scott Manning – I will never forget the chilly day I went to a farmer’s market in November. Farmer’s markets mean all the things I love: bright, beautiful flower bouquets, yellow squash and spicy peppers and tomatoes, berries and peaches and plums. I brought $20 to splurge and a tote bag for my bounty. But the farmer’s market let me down. Only a few card tables and tents were set up, offering some dusty potatoes, a few smelly onions, and greens I neither recognized nor knew how to eat.

I stood, stared, then sped to a grocery store that offered produce all year long. Wandering along the refrigerated aisles, I put strawberries and tomatoes in my basket, grabbed a few other items, checked out, and headed home. But later when I washed and dried and sliced one of the tomatoes, I felt a whole different kind of disappointment: the center was almost completely white (ripe tomatoes are mostly red), the taste was watery, and the fruit felt like mush on my tongue.

So on that chilly November day, I began to learn about the benefits of seasonal eating. Seasonal eating means buying and eating the produce that is in season where one lives. For us in North Carolina that means tomatoes and blueberries and peaches in the summer, carrots, onions, and potatoes in the winter. Spinach, asparagus, and mushrooms are best in late spring, while muscadines, cucumbers, and apples taste best in autumn. Collards and cabbage are usually good year-round (sigh of relief).

To learn more, I tapped into the best source I have: my mom. Come to think of it, she only ever baked us blueberry cobbler in the warmer months, and she had us wait to shuck corn at the end of summer. I asked her why we should eat foods in season. She replied that it is because things in season would be locally grown instead of trucked from a long distance; therefore, seasonal foods are fresher—that sounded about right to me.

My friend and I traveled to Pasadena, California, in early October over fall break. Because food in the Los Angeles area is ridiculously overpriced (think $11 smoothies), we walked from our hotel to Target to stock up on snacks. To my surprise, their fruit selection was truly incredible! There were gorgeous, deep pink raspberries and juicy blueberries. In October, in Target, of all places. Here is the thing: berries are seasonal in California in the fall. Those fresh, juicy Target berries hardly had to be trucked anywhere. But when we want raspberries in North Carolina in late autumn, they must be shipped from warmer places like California. Then when they arrive, they have lost nutrients along the way and are not nearly as fresh and delicious. Plus, as my online research revealed, foods sold out of season are often coated with pesticides, waxes, and preservatives. I don’t have to know what these do to know I don’t want them in my body.

Because sometimes we need information sources other than our moms, I reached out to Theresa Allen who runs the College Farm on Grey Road with the same question. Why should we eat in season? Theresa explained that each food has its own ideal growing conditions, related to soil temperature, amount of sun, wind, rain, and even gravity and the phase of the moon. A grape tomato, she says, that has been grown in season, locally, and in ideal conditions, tastes like candy. And once you taste produce of that quality, you will never go back to mismatching produce with their seasons. No more tomatoes in November. What’s more, Theresa tells me, when we buy seasonal foods we support our local economies. We can shake hands with our farmers, and we can thank them for our food. Furthermore, they get to see the community’s delight in the literal fruits of their labors. Goodness goes all around.

After reflecting on farmers and seasons, fruit and soil, all I want now is a bowl of blueberries. On a shelf at Harris Teeter, there are boxes upon boxes of blueberries—all “fresh” from Mexico. But it is only April, and Carolina blueberries are truly best in the summer months, so I just roll my cart along.

There is something beautiful about the anticipation of, and the patience required to enjoy in season produce. Gathering up all the ripe apples that fall, cooking them in pies and cakes, chopping them up for salads, baking them with cinnamon, slathering them with peanut butter, and gobbling them up like they’re going out of style, is delightful. Indeed, they are going out of style, except for a brief, few golden months. When we connect with the seasons, we connect with creation. We live in sync with the earth’s creative rhythms—perhaps that is the way we were always meant to live.