When We Spring Too Early
This topic has been weighing on my mind a lot lately, so I’m going to write it out.
Humans have a tendency after long cold winters (like the one we just had) to crave fresh, green, growing things and fresh fruits. Except, Mother Nature generally needs time to produce these things. As in, several weeks (at least) after the last hard frost. But we, Americans especially, are impatient.
So we’ve cooked up a food system where we can have “fresh” fruits and vegetables year-round. And while most people know that strawberries and asparagus aren’t in season in December, most people don’t seem to understand that they’re also not in season in March. In fact, strawberries aren’t in season until late May or early June for most of the US (except places like Florida and southern California, which have two growing seasons and provide most of the out-of-season strawberries for the rest of the nation).
Yep. May or JUNE.
And did you know that there are hundreds of varieties of strawberries, even today? And that for most of human history, people ate tiny wild strawberries, no bigger than your fingernail?
But we’re impatient. And Americans like things big. So we bred bigger strawberries that hold up better for long-distance transportation. But the thing is, for the most part, the flavor SUCKS. Strawberries are picked before they’re really ripe, so you get strawberries with woody or cottony flesh. They’re too tart, not sweet, not fragrant at all. Farmers who grow alpine strawberries (which are close relatives of wild strawberries) tell tales of old people at farmer’s markets exclaiming, “This is what a REAL strawberry should taste like!”
We’ve forgotten what a lot of things should taste like in a quest to satisfy primal cravings.
Which I think is wrong. But it’s hard to resist. I will readily admit to buying Mexican asparagus in March, and California strawberries (albeit organic) in May. In fact, I just bought a couple pints of “fresh,” Florida blueberries (not in season in New York state until at least July).
We do our local growers a disservice, I think, by not embracing delayed gratification. The Europeans still hold onto those traditions. Germans reveling in asparagus (which also has more than one variety). Italians celebrating fava beans and baby artichokes (the Italians love their food festivals). The French with strawberries. The British with new peas. But our globalized food system is chipping away at those old celebrations, and depriving local growers of business.
We also do ourselves a disservice. When we preempt the season, when we indulge in mediocre berries, starchy, shipped-in peas and fava beans, dry and flavorless radishes, and woody, tired asparagus and THINK we’re celebrating spring, we miss out on the real thing.
I try hard to eat in season and as locally as I can. It helps that I have a good grocery store that stocks local produce. But today, after my visit which resulted in both Florida blueberries and locally-grown kohlrabi (my first ever!), I noticed a sign near some on-sale bacon that read, “BLT season is here!” No, not it is not, and won’t be until July.
So my dear fellow Americans, please, for the love of fruits and vegetables, stop jumping the gun!
Celebrate asparagus, strawberries, English peas, new potatoes (really new ones, not just small ones from last fall), ramps, spring onions, baby lettuces, and other fresh deliciousness in their ACTUAL seasons. Your local farmers and your taste buds will thank you.
My goal this year? I’m going to try to go berry picking in the actual season. Strawberries in June. Raspberries (the wild ones around my house and the cultivated golden raspberries) and blueberries in July and August. Tart and sweet cherries in July. And I’m going to actually try my hand at canning, and freeze what we don’t otherwise eat.
Here’s a handy list of some common “spring” fruits and vegetables and their seasons (geared toward the northern bits of the northern hemisphere) in order by month:
- Ramps – March through June (depending on when your ground thaws)
- Fiddleheads – April and May
- Radishes – April through September
- Pea greens/shoots – April through June
- Asparagus – late April through June
- Rhubarb – May through July
- Garlic scapes – May and June
- Fava beans – May and June
- Strawberries – late May and June
- Carrots – June through September (2 1/2 months to maturity)
- English peas (and other pods) – June through September
- Cucumbers – July through September (65 days to maturity, so depends on when you plant)
So not everything is as expected. In fact, of all the favored spring vegetables these days, only ramps are available in March, and even then only if you live in an area where the ground has thawed enough for them to be dug up.
Do you eat in season? What are some of the rewards and challenges of following the local harvest?