As temperatures drop, jackets get thicker, and schoolwork begins in earnest, we also observe two changes in color: the leaves, which turn from green to red and yellow, and the CVS candy aisle, which turns first to orange and then to green and red.
If we’re to believe the recent buzz about eating locally and seasonally, the progression of seasons should be accompanied by more pronounced changes in our diet—perhaps more butternut squash. As it is, the only edible indication of our tilting away from the sun is the repackaging and reshaping of that most artificial of foods—candy.
With our dining hall lifestyle, it only makes sense that we notice the changes in one of the few foods we actively choose for ourselves. It is a sad state when we eagerly anticipate the shift from pumpkin-shaped dyed sugar to reindeer-shaped dyed sugar, but complacently accept eating hangover chicken breast after hangover chicken breast.
Although Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) has made a commendable effort to integrate local and seasonal foods into our monotonous diets, the proof is not in the pudding. Our dining halls and their all-inclusive meal plans supposedly exist to foster a culture of learning, even at mealtime. But those looking for information about why we should eat sweet corn in the summer and root vegetables in the winter will find few explanations.
In some ways, the answer is obvious: sweet corn is ripe in the summer, and root vegetables last into the winter. But the simplicity of this answer exposes the error of the HUDS campaign. Seasonal eating is the natural result of having a close relationship with our food. We should eat the right foods at the right times not because we blindly follow what we’re told, but because we’ve actually experienced where our diets come from. Otherwise, we’re just subscribing to a packaging campaign, albeit less obvious than the colorful plastic wrappers at CVS.
We’re not suggesting radical action. One of us (Marianne) ventured into a field to detassle corn at 14 and quit after an hour of the hot sun and the mosquito bites. The other (Aliza) grew up in a home sustained by local organic produce co-ops, but still annually rushes to CVS to buy large quantities of discounted Valentine’s Day candy in the dawning hours of February 15th. We haven’t checked the “subsistence farmer” box on the e-recruiting Web site, and neither should you.
It’s a given that we do most of our eating in an environment that’s probably as far removed from the roots of our food as possible: not only does someone else pick the crops, but someone else plans, cooks, and arranges our diets as well. Our only opportunity for action lies in picking out the plumpest, juiciest hangover chicken from among its 19 pathetic fellows. But there are chances to reconnect with food when we dare to go beyond the confines of Mather Dining Hall.
One of the more obvious (but also more difficult) options is to visit a local farm and spend an afternoon picking produce. Even buying the “freshest” tomatoes in your gourmet supermarket cannot compare to plucking the plumpest, juiciest tomato off a vine from among its 19 shining comrades. Strawberries, raspberries, and apples also taste amazing when eaten fresh from the plants, and it’s not hard to find farms that invite visitors to take part in the picking process.
For those who can’t make it out to the fields, the well-organized HUDS farmers’ market sets up camp near the Yard every Tuesday, providing a symbolic buffer between the chemicals of Science Center laboratories and the ostensibly natural food of Annenberg. It offers students an ample opportunity to not only eat local produce, but also to speak with the people who grow it.
SHOW YOUR SAVVY
Even if you’re just going out to eat, you can still take an active role in your eating education. Asking whether fish, fruit, or vegetables are fresh isn’t only a good way to show off your foodie status to your friends; it also provides a chance to learn about where your meal comes from (though it’s unlikely any waiter worth his salt will confide that the trout has actually been sitting in the kitchen for several days).
Finally, don’t neglect the important task of making excursions to CVS to buy your seasonal candy yourself. Watching those wrappers turn is a good way to keep your yearly biorhythms in step.
—Staff writer Aliza H. Aufrichtig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at email@example.com.
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