It’s within living memory, though fading with every passing day, that eating food out of the traditional 4- cycle seasons was an opulent fancy of the very wealthy. In most parts of the country, people waited, finger in the wind and eye to the ground for signs of snow melting and dormant plants popping up so they could spade up their home vegetable plots and stick the tiny seedlings crowding their kitchen window into the still chilly earth.
They savored each variety as it sprouted out of the ground or showed up in the grocery store, from asparagus and lettuces in the spring to cherries, cucumbers, peaches and zucchini in the summer. And even when overzealous plantings became a burden solved by unmarked midnight deliveries of zucchini on neighboring doorsteps, people continued to freeze, can, bake and dry whatever was available in the summer, knowing it wouldn’t last. They knew, as in the Leo Lionni children’s book “Frederick,” that they would eventually need to pull out the stored tomatoes and berries to make the winter food doldrums more palatable.
However, in Southern California, and the Coachella Valley particularly, we have always experienced the seasons differently than just about everywhere else. Our citrus begins to hit its sweet spot in December. The tomatoes really should get going in January and the lettuces are great in February. Before the dawn of the cross-continental rail and highway systems, this off-kilter bounty was the payback for the pioneers who persevered through brutally hot summers in places virtually cut off from Eastern culture. But as soon as farmers decided to glue romanticized renderings of their fruit on the side of wooden crop crates, people were trying to figure out how to transport crops to the folks pining for them on the Right Coast, and make money in the process.
Agriculture became part of what made California wealthy and famous. In the process we contributed to the creation our country’s insatiable desire to have what we want, anytime we want it. We helped form a nation of culinary toddlers, demanding to be fed according to the whimsy of our palates—around the clock and the calendar. At this point, it’s not so much “The Little Engine that Could,” travelling over the mountain with boxcars of oranges for good little boys and girls‚—it’s planes and cargo ships travelling from South America with loads of grapes for fruit salad in a hotel buffet on New Years’ Eve.
As I try to explain to my kids when we pass up those grapes in the supermarket, it’s not that we haven’t been “good” and don’t deserve the tantalizing produce from Chile or New Zealand. They would probably enjoy greeting their fruit at the airport terminal with a “Welcome, Kiwis!” sign. Meeting the farmers at our local outdoor certified market helps the kids understand that by eating only what comes from nearby agriculture we’re being responsible stewards of the environment and contributing to the economy of people who live near us.
It’s unappetizing, but effective, when I ask my son to imagine the bowl of grapes he’s dreaming of covered in petroleum— early in the year it would be, considering they come from Chile. It’s not too difficult to change the course of my Southern California children’s food fantasies, because seedless mandarin oranges are grown in California. This same discussion in other places in the country is a tougher sell.
It seems fitting to begin this conversation about reconnecting in a personal way to the source of our food in the springtime, when life begins anew. In the desert, Spring is the height of our tourist season, when we busily attend to the needs of the visitors who turn the wheels of our tourism machinery. The weather is perfect and everything seems possible. Hydroponically-grown tomatoes from North Shore are even back in the local certified farmers’ markets. From the perspective of spring’s abundance it’s easier to look at what patterns we might alter, new skills we could acquire, and projects we will commit to. Each change—consciously diverted, cemented in and added up can, over time, affect the health of our communities, environment and economy.