Seasonality: Eating and Living in Rhythm with the Changing Seasons
Alice Waters started a culinary revolution based on local, organic food in season when she open the renown Chez Panisse restaurant in 1971. Her belief that “food is not just something to eat, but a way of life” lead her to found the Edible Schoolyard project in one school in Berkeley, CA. That project has spread to thousands of schools worldwide. In this excerpt from her latest book, We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto, Waters explains how eating foods in season puts us in harmony with nature and awakens our innate attraction to ripeness and flavor.
Seasonality means eating and living in rhythm with the changing seasons. We are all aware of the seasons and their impact on our daily lives. But not many people understand what the seasons mean for our food supply. When we eat foods that are in season, we are connected with the local cycles of germination, growth, fruiting, death, decay, dormancy, and regeneration. Understanding the seasons teaches us patience and discernment and helps us determine where we are in time and space and how we can live in harmony with nature.
In the very early days of Chez Panisse, I knew the importance of the flavor and freshness of our ingredients, but seasonality wasn’t uppermost in my mind. We’d have a chilled soup in the summer and a warm one in the winter, but we were more focused on following traditional recipes and figuring out what made a good menu. We had a different menu every day, but not strictly because of what was in season. It was more of an intellectual exercise: because we served only one fixed-price menu in the early 1970s, we had to make sure it was interesting and different every evening so we could please the clientele. This was a big challenge. Back then, desserts were the arena where our cooking was more seasonally determined, though we weren’t consciously talking about it that way at first. It was more along the lines of “Oh, God, the fruits that came in aren’t good enough—we’d better make an almond tart instead.” The truth was, seasonality was an invisible force out there that we were grappling with every day, but we weren’t fully committed to understanding what it meant. At a certain point, instead of feeling limited by seasonality, we started to embrace it. We could focus on exactly what was ripe and perfect in that moment and surprise people with the taste of a fruit or a vegetable they didn’t expect. It invigorated our daily menu, which is now entirely inspired by the seasons. I can’t think of planning a menu any other way.
The shift to seasonal cooking at Chez Panisse came with our connection to the farmer Bob Cannard, and the aliveness of the food that came into the restaurant from his farm. In the late 1970s, my father and mother were tasked with the job of finding a local, sustainable farm to partner with the restaurant. We wanted a farm that we could rely on to provide a significant portion of the produce we needed every week. My parents visited at least twenty-five farms in the area and ended up choosing one: Bob Cannard’s. When my dad first went out to Bob’s farm, he looked out onto the fields and couldn’t even see the lines of crops. What was Bob even growing? It looked like fields of weeds to my father, a man who had long prided himself on his immaculately mowed lawns and fastidiously weeded gardens. Then Bob took him on a walk through the fields, pushed the weeds aside, and unearthed a beautiful carrot that was unlike any other carrot my father had encountered. The taste of it was transcendent, and it changed my father’s entire outlook on business and agriculture.
When we started our work with Bob, we were disappointed that we couldn’t get things from his farm that we’d hoped to get all year round. We adapted quickly, because the ingredients we could get from him were so remarkable. Part of this was because of his semi-coastal Sonoma microclimate; part was because he knew precisely which vegetables and fruits he could grow successfully at different times of the year. He would send us vegetables we didn’t even know were in season. Finding something in the winter like Bob’s carrots or chicories—which were so beautiful and flavorful—was an edible education. His ingredients made us realize that there were new and different flavors to be found, whatever season we were in.
Ripeness is the key to seasonality. There’s a subtlety to ripeness, and it takes discernment to know when something is ripe: the right amount of give to an avocado, the color of the shoulders of the Blenheim apricot, the scent of a passion fruit. You must look carefully, evaluate the flavors, and figure out the essence. I find that practice at the restaurant deeply stimulating, and I’ve gotten better and better at it over the years. It’s an exciting and educational process to understand different gradations of flavors. Discernment is not the same thing as judgment; it’s not merely This is good; this is bad. To understand ripeness, you have to learn through trial and error—you have to taste and taste again.
You really come to understand ripeness when you grow food yourself. People who farm or have fruit trees and vegetable gardens in their yards—or tomatoes or herbs on their fire escape—learn through experimentation, and after a few seasons they begin to figure it out. At the Edible Schoolyard, for example, the kids now know exactly when the raspberries and mulberries are ripe, because they’ve learned from exploration. Before they started school, they had no idea what a mulberry was! But when they come back to school in mid-August and go out for their first science class of the year in the garden, they go straight for the mulberries. Ripeness pulls them in every time.
People might think eating only what’s in season is unfeasible, or means denying ourselves foods we have grown accustomed to eating all year. We have been conditioned to expect the endless bounty of summer foods through every season, even though that’s simply not the way nature works. I say this all the time, but in truth, when all year long you eat those same second-rate fruits and vegetables that have been flown in from the other side of the world or grown in industrial green‑houses, you can’t actually see them for what they are when they come into season, when they’re ripe and delicious. By that time, you’re already bored. You’re eating in a thoughtless way. Letting go of this constant availability doesn’t have to be restrictive. On the contrary. It’s about letting go of mediocrity. It is liberating.
Another argument I hear against seasonality is that we can’t possibly feed everyone on this planet if we have to survive on what’s locally grown. I don’t believe that. I’m convinced that using networks of small, local farms is the only way we actually can feed everyone sustainably. Yet I’m always told, “It’s all very well for you to talk about seasonality in Berkeley, but I live in Maine. We have a long winter. What am I supposed to eat?” I recognize the challenge. And it is true: in California, some fruits and vegetables do grow outside all winter long. Bob Cannard’s extraordinary farm is proof of that. We are lucky. But it is possible to eat seasonally in seemingly inhospitable climates. We are so unaccustomed to eating in season that we’ve forgotten the traditional ways people have preserved and cooked food. I am amazed by all the ways it is possible to capture seasonality: salting cod, curing ham, pickling cabbage or carrots or turnips, canning tomatoes or peaches—or cooking with all the heritage varieties of dried beans, lentils, pasta, rice, spices, nuts, and dried berries. As recently as sixty years ago, preserving was a skill that most families had. One of the few things I remember my mother did do in the kitchen while I was growing up was stock our New Jersey cellar for the winter with foods from our victory garden: winter squashes, canned rhubarb, applesauce. When you know how to cook and preserve foods, you can employ these ingredients in myriad ways. Freezing can also be used to capture a moment, as with stocks or fruit that can be made into smoothies and ice creams later in the year. Preserving food helps us all be less food insecure. And while I am completely devoted to seasonality and the primacy of localness, I do recognize the benefits of Carlo Petrini’s idea of “virtuous globalization”: buying coffee, tea, spices, chocolate, and other nonperishable goods from people in other countries who are using best farming and labor practices.
I am constantly inspired by other cultures and how they’ve eaten seasonally for centuries, whether in the mountains of Tibet or the deserts of Morocco. Living in the season is empowering—and there can be enough local food, even in the months when there are fewer fresh ingredients available. It’s possible to prepare yourself. You need to have cool places to store sweet potatoes and apples and nuts. You need to have the forethought to capture and preserve the bounty of the harvest when it’s at its peak.
Eating in season also challenges you to be inventive. I find I take much more care with ingredients when I’m eating seasonally. I’m more economical, too: I might candy the orange rinds instead of throwing them away, and I might make a broth using the green tops of vegetables and onion skins. I’m not as inclined to let things go to waste, because I know this is the one moment of the year to have that beautiful spring pea, or that September fig. I cherish it. The good news is there are also many ways to naturally extend the growing season. This is not the same thing as shipping food halfway around the world or building industrial greenhouses that rely on the use of pesticides. It’s a way of working creatively with our shifting seasons. We know from the farmer Eliot Coleman’s greenhouse operation in Maine, for example, that it’s possible to grow food organically all winter long. In Milwaukee, Will Allen is growing food on a massive scale right in the middle of the city, using green‑houses that are heated by the composted by‑products from local breweries. In cold climates, we absolutely need green‑houses where we can grow carrots and salad and herbs in a warm environment. One of the most extraordinary organic greenhouses I’ve ever encountered is at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, in Ireland; the sheer diversity of plants in it is staggering. It is an organic laboratory. They have taken the local agriculture around them and extended it through the winter. There are still limitations, of course—you cannot have a ripe cherry from a greenhouse in January—but your options can be expanded through skillful organic, regenerative growing practices. And it can happen all over the world