As a kid, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder series The Little House on the Prairie. (I’m talking about the books themselves, not the soft-focus 1980s Michael Landon TV show). Laura Ingalls was a badass pioneer chick and one of the best heroines of all young adult literature. She was also one of the original farm-to-table trendsetters, with detailed descriptions of the pig butchering, candle-making, maple-sugaring and canning for winter that were crucial parts of successful pioneer life.
Not remotely as cool as the books.
The series chronicle her early childhood through her first few years of marriage, from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Dakotas. It’s a great series I’d highly recommend to all ages, but for the committed food fan, one stands out: Farmer Boy, a year-in-the-life of her husband’s childhood in 1860s upstate New York.
The book is structured nicely, starting in deep winter – presumably January – and wrapping up the following year. As the title might lead one to suspect, Almanzo Wilder is a farm boy who spends the year waking up at ungodly hours to do various chores, with breaks for school, play and above all, eating. Here’s a sample winter menu from quite early in the book:
“Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin.” (Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Farmer Boy.New York: HarperCollins, 1981. 28)
And that doesn’t even include dessert (inevitably pumpkin pie).
It a good book to read when hungry, but it’s especially interesting to see the variety and downright deliciousness of food grown on a local farm in the middle of nowhere before refrigeration and a cross-country trucking system.
It’s also how I was raised, growing up in an agriculturally blessed region of China before it developed a sophisticated food distribution infrastructure. When plums were in season, we ate plums – kilos and kilos of sweet yellow Asian plums. When they were out of season, they were out of season, with no way to get any. It gave us something fun to look forward to as the year passed. It also associated food memories to seasons. I can’t go through a Christmas season without craving clementines. Mangoes herald summer’s arrival. New York is miles and miles north, with a less friendly growing season than southern China, but over the last couple of years I’ve tried my best to follow the same habits.
By the time summer rolls around, Almanzo is tucking into watermelon and ice cream.
“She made a big milk-pail full of yellow custard. They set the pail in a tub and packed the snowy crushed ice around it, with salt, and they covered it all with a blanket. Every few minutes they took off the blanket and uncovered the pail, and stirred the freezing ice-cream.” (Ibid., 206.)
The siblings eat their full and then share an exchange my roommate and I have at least once a week in July:
“…but the others didn’t want any dinner. Almanzo said: “All I want is a watermelon.” (Ibid.)
Eating seasonally isn’t something I pondered on and decided to do for ethical reasons. For me, it’s more a cost and flavor thing: fresh fruits and vegetables just taste better. Local produce will often be varieties that aren’t bred to be shipped long distances, and what we may lose in the looks of a vegetable we generally gain in taste. It can often be cheaper, too, especially at peak season. And watermelon for dinner is simple enough that even a non-cook can serve it with great success. Who doesn’t love watermelon?
If you’re not waking up at 4am like Almanzo to plant the vegetables you’re eating, one of the best things about eating seasonally is shopping. I live a short walk from the Union Square Greenmarket, where I buy almost all my produce from May-November (and lord knows I try the rest of the year). If you don’t live in a place with farmers markets or farmstands, you can still keep track of what’s in season and buy appropriately. Grocery stores will often mark where the produce is coming from, which is a great guide. Hopefully it’s local.
Is it local?
Although the winter may seem more daunting than the heady watermelon and tomato summer months, in a 15 minute November trip to the Greenmarket, you can find all the ingredients you need to make Almanzo’s Christmas dinner:
“He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips…He couldn’t help seeing the fried apples’n’onions, and the candied carrots.” (Ibid., 324)
Or for those cold months in the bleak midwinter, try your grocery store’s freezer department. Frozen spinach or Brussels sprouts may not seem like the sexiest vegetable option, but they’re actually picked at peak season and maintain almost all of their nutrients – as well as the taste. Toss them in a stirfry or throw them in a stew and you’ll be one step closer to the 19th Century agrarian lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of.
Farmer Boy has other qualities to recommend it – you’ll learn lots about breaking oxen and cobbling shoes, not to mention cutting ice – but for those of you ready for the next step in eating in, it provides some inspiration for what can be done and a good reminder that you don’t need a sous-vide oven or a sophisticated menu to enjoy good food. A good appetite and some local turnips are enough.