Nearly two years ago, I sat down with Judy Rodgers, chef and co-owner of Zuni Cafe to talk about food after spending some a few days in her kitchen. Writing my earlier post on there being a new owner of the San Francisco iconic restaurant, I recalled our conversation and some of the things she said and, though some of these sentiments are in the book I was working on at the time (Reach), I wanted to post them here.  What with all the talk these days of agribusiness and our food production and growing concern over obesity and how we eat, Judy’s words are as salient now as they were then.  I don’t think they can be said enough:

That’s what we’re up against, that it’s perceived as at triumph that you can get strawberries in January as opposed to a catastrophe.  Not all choice is good.  Even if the January strawberry tastes OK, even if you have a really good strawberry that’s organic, I still know you turned down other things for that to happen.

A lot of our culinary habits in this country developed after refrigeration and freezing and certain technologies were inexpensive, whereas most other old world countries’ culinary traditions evolved before you had all those things.  And so you had dried apples—not to put in your Cheerios, you had dried apples so you had something to eat.

That’s something I can do is try to make the menu, as much as I can, reflect a lot of the natural rhythms of this part of the world and reflect used to be the way you would eat before you could cheat.

There are a lot of reason not to buy Chilean blueberries. Let’s do nuts or chocolate or dried fruit for dessert. Part of not getting tired of food and cooking is not having every option every day, it’s responding to your constraints.  You don’t have that much to work with, so you have to be more resourceful.  If I were in St. Louis, I’d have a different palate of flavors to play with.  I’d probably be more aggressive about putting stuff up myself during the season.

And guess what?  That’s what culinary tradition is, making the harvest season last all year long.  My God, the most unique holiday we have is Thanksgiving, it should be something that if you really ponder what Thanksgiving is all about, you would really understand food.  But people think it’s about gluttony, as opposed to truly revering this your great harvest celebration, and now put stuff up so you don’t starve over the winter.  But people don’t think about it that way—here, it’s the beginning of the eating season.

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5 Wonderful responses to ““The Eating Season””

  • becky

    Very interesting…I do agree that having all foods available all the time can make eating less pleasurable. For example, I never eat fresh apples out of hand…except for every fall, when I pounce on the Honeycrisps from Door County.

    Still, I wonder about the practicality of eating seasonally and putting food up for winter. With a full time position in academia, a working spouse, and a toddler, I think I’m doing well to get anything homemade on the table most days. Would I love to can and preserve and put up those tomatoes from my garden, so that I have homemade sauces and local veggies all winter? Absolutely…and maybe someday I’ll get there. But in the meantime, I can’t promise that I’ll limit myself to root vegetables until next May in the name of eating locally.

    I’m not saying this to argue Rodgers’s point, because I strongly believe in supporting the local farmer. I’d love to, however, tap the knowledge resources of everyone here–how DO we live sustainably in a time-crunched world?

  • rockandroller

    I was just talking about this today on another board. I think so many people think of healthy eating as an “all or nothing” approach, and I think it’s not being “sold” the right way to the public. They hear “This is bad for you, that is bad for you,” they think “There’s nothing left to eat! So they throw up their hands and grab whatever they see that looks and sounds good and is quick and easy (and cheap) or they drive through wherever is closest.

    I think we have gotten so far off the path of what we are supposed to be eating as human beings that it’s just going to take gradual tweaking and tweaking and doing your best to make the right choices when and where you can. It’s not about being perfect and starting to can your own veggies or make your own jams as that’s not feasible for many of us (including apartment dwellers like me). However, my grocery cart in the checkout line today is nowhere near what it was 5 years ago, and is on a completely different planet from 10 years ago, but I know I’m still “not there” and I continue to tweak when and where I can. And I *enjoy* it. I don’t feel like it’s a chore. I like finding out that this product is better than that one or that I prefer this one to that one because their company or farm does things I approve of and the competitor product does not. It has made shopping enjoyable for me again instead of a chore.

    There’s a big misconception about scratch cooking=TIME and though I find her irritating, Rachael Ray is doing a great job of smashing that barrier for the “average American” (whatever that is). I think at the same time, despite the hard work of many like Ms. Rodgers, the whole “seasonal” thing is not being explained well or pushed out to the masses the right way. I keep thinking if we had someone like Rachael Ray who could show QUICK and SIMPLE and TASTY and INEXPENSIVE as well as SEASONAL, seasonal shoppers would help drive LOCAL by virtue of demand, instead of putting out the local produce (which I see even in the big chain groceries now, albeit in limited quantity/variety) and them buying what they’re used to buying because they always buy it and they don’t know what to do with radishes or parsnips or why tomatoes from less than 20 miles away are better and fresher than those trucked in from the other side of the country.

    Maybe you can only make one thing and put it away for winter right now, and it’s a fun, family project that you do for Thanksgiving instead of everyone gorging as Rodgers points out, and then you enjoy it when those dark and cold days come in January and February and it feels like the winter will never end. And it makes you smile. And that’s what it’s about.

  • kristin

    I have recently had a great deal of interest in learning to braise food. I am mastering that skill now, and I think I have done it well.At the same time I am learning what to do with celery root. It is amazing how many different types of food we see through the seasons that are maybe out of our normal paradime of what we may or may not eat. This summer I learned how to grow and harvest fennel. Of course I can say that much of my interest in these things comes from the vast amount of reading I do. Whether it be on egullet, Food and Wine, Gourmet or a blog, a great deal of interest in food comes from what is out there in the media.

  • Adam Fields

    A lot of eating seasonally definitely revolves around techniques for cooking food that’s available at the time.

    Fall and Winter foods are certainly harder to cook, since you typically have to do something involved to the ingredients to make their flavors come out. This is a decidedly different approach to cooking than most Spring and Summer food, where you’re likely to get the best results by staying hands off and letting the ingredients speak for themselves.

    Also, I think there’s certainly a distinction between eating Chilean blueberries in February and eating commercially preserved blueberries (assuming they’re done in a way that’s reasonably healthy and natural). Nobody says you have to do all of the preservation work yourself.