Signs of the Season

by mkriegh

As I anxiously awaited the arrival of quinces this past fall, I thought about the foods that become available only when in season. Rhubarb and ramps in the spring, heirloom tomatoes and fresh corn in the summer, quinces in the fall. I have fallen in love with quinces and dream about their spicy apple fragrance for the ten and a half months of the year that I can’t get them. And then, mid to late fall, there they are, spicily aromatic harbingers of the winter to come.

We made three dishes with them this year. The first was a tarte tatin. Quinces are ideal for this delicious upside down pie as they are relatively dry and hold their shape well. Then there was the quince jam, a mediteranian delicacy used in a variety of ways both sweet and savory. Finally there were the lamb chops with poached quinces and balsamic pan sauce, which was food for the gods.

Quinces are among the small set of seasonal foods that are not available all year long and only appear in a relatively narrow window of time. I really love that there are foods which are available only at certain times of the year. They help define the character of the season in which they appear and provide sensual experiences that reinforce the arrivals and departures of those seasons.

This year we began our commitment to preserving food. In the northeast, we have four distinct seasons, and a relatively long period of time when we can’t grow much of anything. In the winter, we rely on our supermarkets to bring us food from places like California, Mexico and New Zealand. Our goal is to preserve enough food from spring, summer and fall to get through the winter. It will take us a while to get there, but already we have canned some preserves and frozen stocks and meals made with the growing season bounty. I am excited about the prospect of bringing these foods out during the winter, remembering when and how they were made and reliving the tastes and smells of spring, summer and fall in the midst of deep cold winter.

Our methods of food production and our wealth have created the conditions under which we can have anything we want any time of the year. This includes foods that can’t be grown where we live, sometimes flown from half way around the world to our markets. This is the hallmark of wealthy civilizations, and more recently, civilizations run on “cheap” energy. Goods and foods from exotic places become available increasingly to the general population.

This comes at a price. We have been progressively divorcing ourselves from the flow of time and place that is particular to where we are within it. We have accepted a food production and delivery system that is less healthy both nutritionally and spiritually and that relies heavily on salt, artificial flavor enhancers and artificial coloring to look appetizing and taste like anything. We have allowed science and industry to manage us into complacent livestock raised on these inferior nutrients and we exchange the fruits of our labor as payment for this base system of sustenance. In place of the natural signs of the approach of a new season, we gather around our televisions and anticipate the sporting events that have become national pastimes and distractions from the real thing. Football announces fall, basketball winter, baseball spring and summer.

We, of course, can’t all be farmers or even grow all our own food. And much of the fruits of civilization arise in cities where growing your own is largely out of the question, the urban farming movement not withstanding. But we can have fresh and seasonal food ingredients as the popularity and spread of farmers markets across our cities has demonstrated. And we can question whether our so called conveniences are really convenient or desirable. As I have become a better cook I have begun to realize that many of the convenience foods we buy are quick and easy to make at home with results that are superior and healthier. Mustard, crackers, hummus, and cranberry relish, to name a few.

In his essay, Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher quotes Ananda Coomaraswamy as follows about what is a machine and what is a tool.

“The craftsman himself…can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”

I think there are similar distinctions to be made when thinking about what we allow to be produced for us and how it is produced. And we need to be mindful of these distinctions because the wrong choices are not only “destroyers of culture,” they are also destroyers of health and well being.