This piece was originally featured in Farm Table Foundation’s newsletter, “The Beet.” For more information, visit http://www.farmtablefoundation.org
“Eating the way our grandparents ate,” is a phrase used often at Farm Table. It makes sense to eat what grows locally and abundantly, as well as take a portion of this bounty and put some away for leaner times. This act of attuning our diets and even activities to a yearly cycle is known as seasonality. Going even further, seasonality can be thought of as phenology (the cyclic seasonal natural phenomena), coupled with the annual sequence of domesticated local foods, and the seasonal holidays or traditions humans celebrate. While it is intrinsically practical to eat what is “in season,” eating according to natural cycles makes sense from more than just a pragmatic lens.
In the 21st century, in many parts of the world, we can get fresh (unpreserved) produce year-round, no matter what season it is. These modern conveniences may free us from the restrictions imposed by a rainy and dry season, say, or a cold and warm season, but they also loose us from the connection to our present location on the planet. With grocery store shelves stocked year-round with every manner of fresh vegetable, the necessity of obeying the seasons is lost.
Living a life devoid of seasonality tends to lack a natural rhythm. In the absence of a slower season followed by a busier season there are fewer pause points, fewer benchmarks to tie us to reoccurring annual events and the community that shares those same experiences. To have a vast buffet constantly available is paradoxically characterized by gluttony coupled with emptiness. Without natural limitations to respect, we can begin to feel terribly alone and must constantly reach for something to connect us; to make us feel a part of something larger. We lack the small celebrations, the simple pleasures, that keep us humble and bring a sense of contentment.
If people begin to live and eat seasonally, each annual passage through life takes on a familiar ebb and flow. There is something deeply satisfying and comforting having a framework within which to live and go about our business. One doesn’t need to believe in a religion to benefit from ritual. Thus: ramp season, spring violets, elderberries ripening. The return of robins, passing of swans, migration of monarchs. These cyclical reminders, looked for at the appropriate time, indeed mark the passage of time much more accurately than dates on a calendar.
This seasonal awareness invariably creates a sensory memory of a certain region. Thinking about a Wisconsin autumn may conjure falling leaves, ripening apples and pumpkins, or the anticipation of autumnal holidays or the first snowfall. What we perceive as seasonal occurrences in western Wisconsin define our experiences of this place. A September day in the southern hemisphere may inspire memories of seeding the first crops, days getting warmer and longer, and a completely different set of quintessentially seasonal foods.
Seasonality and how we inhabit this place is also deeply tied into the dominant culture of the place. We live in an area dominated by white descendants of western and northern European immigrants. These cultures make up the backbone of our farming styles, our holidays and traditions, what we grow, and how we cook. As we become more of a global society or start to listen to the people we displaced in order to reside here, however, we begin to open up to other food cultures. Embracing other cultures doesn’t mean that we have to lose our own traditions, but it does provide for opportunities to create new, more equitable, traditions.
Where then, the connection between seasonal living and community building? When one lives by the seasons, they become an inhabitant of that place. Others living nearby, also a part of that ecosystem, are naturally connected, even if by nothing more than shared geography. Even those not very attuned to seasonality know when their neighbors are picking apples, harvesting deer, making sauerkraut. Those that share the logic of the seasons know how to survive both times of abundance and times of lack. There is always a neighbor in need, whether dealing with a frozen fuel line after a cold snap, picking up tomato trellises after a windstorm, or trading for new chickens after a fox breaks into the coop. Those that share the same seasonal wisdom will have the compassion, the connection, and the knowledge to help; for these are the things that happen, in this place at this time.
Sal is the Purchasing Manager at Farm Table Foundation and co-hosts their weekly series of Victory Garden videos (available on Farm Table’s YouTube channel). Sal also runs Roosterhaven, a diversified produce, pork, and poultry farm near Deer Park, WI.