I moved to Manhattan this past spring, making this summer my first spent entirely in the city. I knew a lot would be different – no weeknight whiffle ball, no having to mow the lawn – none of the must-haves for summer in the ‘burbs. By early June, the realization of this hit me pretty hard, making me wonder: without these quintessential elements would the season even exist? I mean, besides some subtleties like my apartment transforming into four-room furnace, would anything make the city summer distinct? The matter was too pressing to leave up to chance. Something had to be done.
I developed a two-pronged attack – two simple rules that would serve as a kind of intravenous drip, force-feeding my body what it couldn’t absorb naturally. The first regarded music: for the entire summer, I would only listen to the Margaritaville and Buffalo Soldier radio stations on Pandora. I decided that if my body was going to be in the city, my mind was going to be on the beach. Wearing a tropical shirt and Tevas, most likely.
The second rule was a little more open ended, restricting me to eating only “summery” foods. Apples, chili, and heavy IPAs were out. In were peaches, corn, and hefeweizens. I went out and bought a grill pan to fire up makeshift barbeques in my apartment (absolutely a fire hazard). I started getting live fish from Chinatown and cleaned them on a folding table I found on the roof (absolutely a health hazard). Blueberries found their way into almost everything I ate.
Though I allowed myself plenty of room for experimentation with this second half of the plan, I made sure to keep one element constant: watermelon. To me, no food better encompasses the nostalgia of summer than a wedge of fresh watermelon. Served cold with just a couple seeds for spitting, it can take me back to a thousand childhood memories in an instant. For my plan to work, there would have to be some in the fridge at all times.
It’s been about 3 months since I started following the watermelon rule and I have to say it’s had a pretty profound effect on me. For one, it absolutely served its purpose in underscoring the summer (it’s very hard not to feel good when you start your day with a watermelon-mint slushy). More importantly, following the rule woke me up to the idea of eating seasonally.
Now that I’m on the other side, it blows my mind that I never really thought about the seasonality of food before. It’s not that I was completely oblivious to the concept. It’s more like, while I could have told you that raspberries only grew in the summer, I wouldn’t have made the very logical jump that they therefore didn’t grow in the winter, spring, or fall. But then again, why would I? You can get raspberries any day of the year. With the advances in cultivation and distribution, you can make a pumpkin pie in April or use peaches as stocking stuffers. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and that’s what I really learned this summer.
There seem to be many benefits to eating only what’s in season. For one, as was the direct intention of the watermelon rule, it allows you to more fully appreciate the season itself. Months develop true identities as they reclaim what’s rightfully theirs; they get more colorful. Also, not surprisingly, food tastes better when it’s on its natural schedule. Not only does produce have a greater chance of being grown locally and more naturally, it’s just more special. This concept may sound romantic, but it’s really all business. Take green beer, for example. If they had green beer year-round, would it sell? Probably not. Serve it on St. Patrick’s Day, though, and people can’t get enough. The same goes for produce – when availability is down, perceived value is up.
This last idea begins to address what I think is the most important benefit of eating seasonally: not always getting what you want. More specifically, the realization and acceptance of this. Modern technology, while responsible for many great things, has spoiled us. No longer must people take a back seat while nature makes the rules. When we want blueberries, we get blueberries – they’re not a gift, they’re a right. But rights and entitlements aren’t special like gifts are; they go unappreciated and overlooked. And for a fresh bowl of blueberries to go overlooked in the peak of July is a shame.
So many of life’s greatest pleasures come from the ground. Eating seasonally is really just a way to accept the gifts that nature is already trying to give.