Don't be fooled by the misleading weather. Autumn is here, and with it come the familiar sights of the season: Orange pumpkins swelling in fields and decorating roadside stands. Fresh apple cider served in a steaming mug or, if the fickle weather stays warm, chilled in a frosty glass. Thick stew bubbling in a pot and fogging the windows.
For me, fall is a time to indulge the senses, of which taste is certainly king. From squash in its myriad guises to slices of nutty pecan pie, the meals that crowd tables around and after the Sept. 22 equinox signal an end to the watermelon-and-iced-tea days of summer.
Is it a nostalgia thing? Probably. From as far back as I can remember, autumnal elementary-school projects focused on crafts involving ears of multicolored corn and cornucopias cut from construction paper. Even the amber-hued evenings with their sometimes smoky sunsets hinted toward post-harvest fires. The smudges on the horizon tinted the moon as it rose, hanging low and round in the sky, sluggish and lazy as if it had just finished a crusty hunk of dark bread, a slow-roasted slice of beef, and a medley of juicy carrots and potatoes of its own.
A more tangible explanation for this annual craving, however, is simply that this is the time of year when all of those delicious edibles are at their peak. Pumpkins tend to not ripen in late June otherwise, we'd be spitting their seeds around the pool in July.
Though I had never (until recently) heard of the term "eating seasonally," my body has always encouraged me to do just that. Each fall, my mouth waters for the fruits, vegetables, grains, and more that sprout up like clockwork.
Recently, my wife and I joined the Cal Poly Organic Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program. We buy a "share" in the farm, which insures income for the growers and brings us a box of fresh produce every week. Technically, the system is a bit of a risk, because if the farm doesn't produce, we don't get our veggies. But we've never been disappointed. In fact, we actually buy what's considered a "half share" and we split it with another couple but we regularly receive more food than we can handle.
Over the summer, we munched on crisp sunflower sprouts while investigating plants we'd never tried before: Parsnips. Rutabagas. Dino kale. I have a history of being picky, but I tasted and loved practically everything. Maybe my tastes have changed. Or maybe I was, for the first time, eating exactly what was growing, which also happened to be exactly what I wanted and needed whether my stomach realized it or not.
The Cal Poly Organic Farm's fall/winter CSA started the week of Sept. 18, and my wife and I eagerly signed up. Our first box of the new season was bursting with peppers and heirloom tomatoes, spring mix and carrots, braising greens and corn, Asian pears and summer squash, plums and Anaheim chilies. It's all local and timely. As a journalist, I look for those very same qualities in stories. Why should I settle for anything less for my palate?
A decision to eat seasonally may not change the world, but it will change the way thoughtful consumers look at the globe. Throw in a push for dining on the wares of local farms, and suddenly you're challenging everyday assumptions, from what vegetables should look and taste like, to the necessity of regularly shipping certain fruits across the country.
Douglas Coupland, who coined the term "Generation X," wrote a book in which a character lauded the fact that a member of today's society has access to an apple at any time. In another era, someone who wanted to snack on such a delicacy would have had to wait until that very fruit blossomed and grew. Nowadays, someone, somewhere is coaxing just about everything imaginable out of the soil. The global economy and vast shipping networks keep out-of-season foods rolling into grocery stores and onto tables all year long. Granted, shoppers see more of certain kinds of fruits and vegetables at certain times during the year, but if you've got to have a strawberry, you're going to get a strawberry.
I'm not necessarily saying that such a system is a bad one. Imported produce in one area means jobs and profits for someone who probably really needs them. Certain treats would never tempt my taste buds if I turned my nose up at everything that took root in a different time zone. And, sometimes, even I've just got to have a strawberry. Still, I have to say that I never realized what I was missing until I let the local fields determine what would be on my dinner plate.
For more information about the Cal Poly Organic Farm CSA, call 756-6139. For more information on what you should be eating now, consult your own cravings and local farms. Cal Poly isn't the only group with a local CSA. Find one near you, sign up, and taste what time serves for dinner.
Editor Ryan Miller's stomach started growling while he wrote this. Send him recipes for what to do with his seasonal bounty at firstname.lastname@example.org.