A quote from Leah Chase reminds me of the special gifts of each season
The famed New Orleans chef, Leah Chase, has some words of wisdom about the specialness of food at certain times of the year. A tradition in her New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase, is Gumbo Z’herbes–a rich stew of greens and meats. This once-a-year dish happens on the Thursday before Easter. For 95 year-old chef, Leah Chase, this is a wonderful time of year with a unique, seasonal dish to commemorate it. When fans ask her to make Gumbo Z’Herbes more often, she replies “Leave things be special.”
As Leah Chase notes, eating seasonally is important.
Reserving certain foods for the seasons in which they are produced allows food to retain the flavors and qualities they are known for–keeping them distinctive. Seasons provide things when they do. The anticipation of a thing–looking forward to it all year–adds to the pleasure. There is no way to rush the winter, or leap into autumn for apples. Our attempts to create access to foods year-round, gives us false choices. It seems that we have strawberries in December, but they are not the sweet, memorable strawberries of early June. Our first strawberries of the season represent more than just a berry–they are the welcome sign that summer is here. If there is enough sun to ripen a strawberry, there is enough for other outdoor pleasures.
When it comes to our tables, there are no more seasons.
With modern transportation, we are spoiled with year-round foods globally. When we eat whatever we want, whenever we want, we diminish our own quality of life in the process of diminishing the earth’s ability to sustain us. This is not to say we can’t have our favorite foods from far away, we can–but when something loses its “special,” we lose value. And this loss always comes at a steep cost environmentally and socially.
People in the northeast US can have oranges and strawberries in the winter. Floridians can have cranberries. Anyone, anywhere, can have a cup of coffee for a couple bucks. Chocolate comes in boxes, with new marketing for every season. Foods appear. Standardization means more than loss of local flavors, it is an insipid attempt at replicating something genuine that cannot be artificially reproduced. Regional cuisine is overwhelmed by box stores and faceless chains offering irresistible prices.
This superficial abundance and instant access is a marvel of human and technological advancement. It is an industrial accomplishment beyond the comprehension of our ancestors. But what has it done to us? Is anything special anymore?
In my little corner of the world, considered the Mid-Atlantic region, there are distinct growing seasons. The earth gives us unique treats in each season.
In early spring, the lengthening sunshine triggers chickens to lay more eggs. So, in that season, eggs are on the menu every day, in every way. In fact, a chef’s hat has 100 folds to represent the 100 ways to cook an egg. We need all those ways to prepare the millions of eggs without getting tired of them before their season is over. We even hide colored eggs to celebrate a season of rebirth.
At the same time, in the culturally rich corners of New Orleans, Leah Chase stands over a pot of Gumbo Z’herbes honoring and preserving her “special.”
All year, we look forward to the first glimpse of sweet strawberries in late May to early June. Two to three weeks of strawberries is all we get for that year. But those strawberries are rich, juicy, delicious and everything a strawberry should be. Not the dull flavorless fruit grown in deserts and trucked through states across asphalt.
Some foods that store well, or are available year-round, provide nourishment to large populations. Breads, beans, dairy, grains, fall/winter root vegetables are among these. But still, each region has specialties all its own. Each farm has a terroir that gives its products their own flavor, distinguishing them from others. And often, these plentiful foods are the culinary canvas for the specialty items. Fresh milk from cows eating fast-growing grass, yellow butter, and the plentiful eggs of spring offer a backdrop for sweet strawberries. Custards, ice creams and shortcakes are the delightful outcome.
Delicate heirloom tomatoes start plumping up mid-June to July. The yellow ears of sweet corn with creamy butter melting on top next to braised meats. Last year’s excess milk, slowly aged, shows up as a variety of cheeses on our plates.
A burst of colorful squash blossoms light up the garden. Meanwhile, the soil beneath holds earthy beets, carrots, and starchy potatoes. The brightness is beautiful next to the deep purples of ripening eggplants.
Slowly, the leaves turn, the produce changes and the garden gives us the last tomatoes, the last fruits. Soon, soups simmer while we sip tea from faraway lands. Mugs of hot cocoa keep our hands warm on cold mornings. Then comes a celebration. And sometimes a few of the now-precious eggs and cream give us a winter eggnog treat.
We mark these cycles with holidays–each holiday known for its gifts of food from an abundant earth, lovingly tended.
But have we lost the “special” that comes with honoring the seasons? What is special anymore if we can have strawberries all year round and don’t think about where our coffee, tea, and chocolate come from anymore? Who tended the land? Grew the trees? Or harvested what we take for granted?
This is not an appeal to never eat a banana, mango, or avocado if they don’t grow in your region. Part of the beauty and fun of food is the diversity. Staying mindful of food rhythm and origin can actually add value to it. Some foods deserve to be “special.” Can we cherish a connection to a time of year and to the growing practices that make those foods special? Can we add a local and seasonal side-dish to our meal that evokes history and conversation of old ways at our tables?
As my part of the world rolls into winter, I wonder what Leah Chase is making in her kitchen. And we celebrate–each culture in our own, unique ways. These celebrations are special. We can honor them thoroughly with the deep appreciation of treats that come once-a-year–the Earth’s gifts to us–if we can “leave things be special.”
Wherever you are in your personal journey toward clean living and local food, thank you for joining me in mine. I look forward to sharing it with you.
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