I first worked on a vegetable farm in the summer of 1999 and I immediately fell in love. It’s hard to remember how I first got the idea, but I was hooked. I ended up taking a year off from college and staying for a whole year. This is the year when I first began to cook, inspired by the first-rate produce I was bringing home from the farm. Guided largely by Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I would spend each night carefully making a new dish or two, enjoying my successes and learning from my mistakes. This was the beginning of a real education in cooking, spending an hour or more per day trying out new dishes, refining ones I’d made before, and absorbing the philosophy of Italian home cooks.
Working that year was also an education in eating in season. On the farm, I would have lost all respect had I run off to the store to buy tomatoes in December or kale in July. I ate what we had, which happened to be the freshest produce one could wish for. Even after I left the farm and returned to college I kept the habit, by and large. Watermelon in March and asparagus in July began to seem very strange indeed and not at all appealing. The little free time I had was spent in the kitchen, and the vast majority of my weekly work-study income went to shopping at Whole Foods Market, which was a revelation and an education in itself.
Now that we raise vegetables for a small group of our own subscription customers, I’ve been thinking often of people trying to eat in season for the first time and how to encourage the habit. Some, at first, might find such a rule limiting and uncomfortable. But like most such rules, being faithful to it actually becomes liberating instead of limiting because it provides a structure by which we can organized our culinary lives. Too little choice can be crippling, but too much choice can be overwhelming and paralyzing. We seem to need just the right amount of structure in our lives, and eating in season helps create that in the kitchen. Getting to know the sequence of vegetables — asparagus first followed by spinach, beets and broccoli in mid-June, lettuce all summer long if you’re careful — is exciting and fun. Reflecting the rhythm of the seasons in one’s cooking is a glorious and meaningful way to eat.
P.S. Katie Parla offered a wry reminder today from a Roman’s perspective on her blog, ParlaFood.