I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and if you’ve read it or something like it (Michael Pollan’s books), you know where I’m coming from and probably where I’m going. There was a lot in Kingsolver’s book I already understood, though I’d taken it for granted in a way that meant I didn’t really understand it at all. Example. Last winter, I went to dinner at someone’s house, say it was February. For dinner, we had corn on the cob. This was probably one of the most shocking developments ever to happen in my culinary world. I know that you can buy corn on the cob in February at the grocery store. I’m not unaware of this fact. But no one in my family certainly ever did so. And that people did was, well, a little disconcerting. Another example. I was in college the first time I ate green beans from a store-bought can. I thought to myself, “Wow, are those green beans?” Thankfully, I was in Mississippi, and they were being used in green bean casserole. But did people eat those things without the benefit of large amounts of milk, cheese, and bread crumbs?
My family ate for the most part in season not because we were big into the environment. If you knew my family, you’d know how funny even that idea is. We ate in season, I think, because we knew what food tasted like, though for a long time, we didn’t even realize that we had this special knowledge. Corn on the cob in February was particularly shocking just because I knew that every second between the moment when you pull the corn off the stalk and put it into your mouth is moments of sweetness lost. Corn that had been pulled more than a couple of days ago was dicey for us, even if it had been in the fridge. How long did it take the corn to get to the grocery store, and how long did it sit there? Corn, I knew from a very young age, was on a steep downward decline from the moment it left your garden. Time was of the essence.
It took me until graduate school to fully realize that the experience I had of community in the town where I was from made me unique. Made me weird, or at least among those folks in graduate school. To have lived in the same place my whole life until college, in about the same place that my family had been living in for generations. That was weird. It took me longer to unpack all the weird assumptions I have about food, some of which I’m still working on, and others of which I’m adding.
Yet another example. I love tomatoes. Love, love, love tomatoes. Like, lanuage cannot express how much I love tomatoes. Telling whether a tomato will taste good or not just by looking at it is probably one of the best and most unique talents I have. In the summer, when tomatoes are at their full peak, I believe the acidity level of my blood actually increases due to the sheer volume of tomatoes I eat. When I worked on my grandparents farm, I would eat every other tomato I picked, and that was a lot of tomatoes. In my parents garden, I would spend hours in the tomato patch with a salt shaker, because there is nothing like the taste of a tomato when the warmth of the sun is still inside. I could go on. So, I realized at some point, given this rather passionate love for tomatoes, that it probably seems odd that in most restaurants, and always in the winter, I set the tomatoes aside and don’t eat them. “Robyn, do you want your tomato?” No, no, and no again. Those pale, pinkish things, full of pulp and lacking any tangy/sweet juice are not tomatoes. They are never warm, always cold. They never have the imperfections that make real tomatoes taste so good…the small, new, crack, or the brown circle of lines around the top. I don’t know what those things on my plate in winter are. Maybe they’re what happens to real tomatoes when they go to hell, but how could a real tomato ever end up in hell, I ask, because how can a real tomato sin?
We didn’t eat everything in season, and there are some things we never grew for ourselves. Carrots, for example, we never grew, even when I asked one year if we could. I’m still puzzled when they show up in my CSA bag. “Why carrots?” I think. But there was an orthodoxy, rules set in stone about some things like corn and green beans. And having read Kingsolver now, I find myself a little upset at the thought of buying an apple or a peach from the grocery store when they’re there at the farmer’s market. I won’t rehash what Kingsolver already says so well about the way in which eating in season reminds us that the things we eat actually grow somewhere, usually in the earth, and usually best at certain times of the year and not others. I will only say that I guess I’m kind of thankful that I know what a peach tastes like. Or a strawberry (which are also never as big as the ones from the grocery). And especially a tomato. Because that also means I know what a peach, and a strawberry and a tomato don’t taste like. And knowing the difference, I can wait.