If you have ever wondered who created the great classic recipes, the answer, in most cases, is “nobody.” They sprang from the garden, farm and orchard, just as a carrot sprouts in the row or an apple falls from the tree. No Italian chef set out to invent minestrone; it is simply the contents of harvest baskets, varied over the centuries by the custom of the planter or the cook. No American householder decided that corn and beans would taste good together and pronounced them succotash. Together they grew, entwined in native plots, and together they were cooked, supplying carbohydrates, protein and fat all in one big, nourishing pot.
Along the way, cooks have certainly created, embellished or put their own stamp on a certain dish. But time and again, when you look at the way foods have been traditionally combined, you see that they follow the seasons. Take pasta primavera, a dish made with the first of the fresh spring vegetables, not any old vegetables at any old time of year. Or ratatouille, a stew made of produce that is bounteous in summer — tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and onions. Or take fruit cup — the world’s most dismal dessert when composed of inferior ingredients. It’s only worth eating in response to the avalanche of fruits that ripen in summer and fall. Pistou, that wonderful French soup with beans, basil, vegetables and garlic, is another such cornucopia.
Even the cold seasons have their traditional treats. Thanksgiving occurs at a time when frost has made the Brussels sprouts mild and tender. No wonder they make their yearly appearance then, sometimes cooked with fall chestnuts. For many families Thanksgiving is the one meal in the year where they actually make seasonal choices in their diet, insisting on turnips, squash, cranberries and pumpkin pie. I wonder how many people even consider why.
New England boiled dinner is a winter dish — meats and their broth enlivened by whatever vegetables are in the root cellar — crops which nature designed to be stored. Leek and potato soup is a great winter pairing. Even certain winter greens are traditional in countries where they are cultivated. France — no less frigid than our middle Atlantic states — has its traditional “MBC” salad of mache, cold roasted beets and chicory. Not at all difficult to assemble in winter, especially if you keep a cold frame.
The more I eat with the seasons, the more I enjoy my food. I look forward to the specific tastes each month brings, just as I look forward to its other pleasures. I associate preparing the garden in spring with the sweetness of just-dug parsnips. The freshness of new peas and new potatoes, mixed in a salad, go with the sensation of bare feet on warm ground. Buttered corn and watermelon go with boiled lobsters, eaten under a tree, the grass absorbing the casual mess of husks, seeds and shells. The first tomatoes, the first artichokes, the first Charentais melons are tastes I ‘d rather wait for than settle for pallid out-of-season versions throughout the rest of the year. No wonder towns have events like strawberry festivals. What better occasion to celebrate than the annual return of a much-loved flavor?
Modern refrigeration and easy global transport have made it possible to eat nearly everything all the time. Once a luxury of the Victorian estate dwellers, with their stove-heated glasshouses, year-round availability is now considered an entitlement. Many palates are now so jaded they don’t even know how superior fresh, local food, in its season, tastes, let alone how miraculous it seems if you’ve had to wait for it. They’d consider a return to the old ways a form of severe deprivation.
Nonetheless, seasonal food has begun to catch on. Enlightened chefs, for whom “seasonal salad” on the menu does not mean cucumbers in February, are often leading the way, along with kitchen gardeners (who’ve always understood) and home cooks who feel inspired by the season’s offerings. I, for one, find a limited larder inspires greater creativity, just as writing within the narrow lanes of a sonnet is somehow easier than the open road of free verse. I’m not a purist. I love my grapefruit and lemons, my Alfonso olives from Chile. And I do preserve a few warm weather crops for winter use. But I’m also content to gorge on chanterelles when they’re in the woods, then wait months for them to come around again. I appreciate how much more nutritious foods are when grown, harvested and eaten fresh at their proper time.
I’d hate to see seasonal food become just another dietary “don’t” — a fad to be embraced with grim determination. None of us are very good at regimens that involve voluntary sacrifice. Better to see this one as an enthusiastic choice, one that makes every meal, and the raw materials that inspire it, a joyous moment in a festival year.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener Cookbook.”