THE READER
January
2007

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Off-Site Kitchen News

Seasonal Eating in the Wisconsin Winter

by Josh Perkins, Off-site Kitchen Manager

Back in the old days, but in living memory for many among us, eating seasonally, like eating organically, was not an heroic or especially political gesture. Not even a matter of choice at all, in fact. Before the interstate highway system and cheap oil made trucking food over long distances a profitable proposition, before the proliferation of chemicals spawned in the military laboratories of WWII, just about any food that made its way on to your table would have been organic, local and seasonal. A paradise on earth, right? Maybe, if things went well and you lived in an area rich in climate, soil and egalitarian spirit. If you were a potato farmer in Donegal in 1846, maybe not.

These days, out-of-season food is like the mass media—whatever opinion you might have of it, you grew up with it and it’s all around you. It’s part of our cultural conversation, and the profit incentive inherent in it has guaranteed that it will continue to be a political pivot point at least until the oil runs out. Lots of thought and energy from the level of small growers all the way up to Archer Daniels Midland have gone into how best to breed, store and market food crops over long distances. For many of us, and for manifold reasons, eating food grown as close to home as possible is the most desirable state of affairs, and it has always been a focal point for the Willy Street Co-op to promote this option for its members. I’d like to do is discuss what it means to “eat locally” in the Upper Midwest; how it affects us all when the long cold winter bares its teeth and how to keep your dollar at home as much as possible while waiting for the first signs of spring.

So....it’s January in Madison

You can’t see out your windows for the ice crystals. Your jewelry is falling off and your skin looks like a topographical map. And you want to eat local. How about cannibalism?
Seriously, though, it’s a plain fact of life that with a growing season like the one we “enjoy” here in Wisconsin, there’s a good-sized window in the year during which absolutely nothing is growing out-of-doors, an eight-to-twelve-week period of almost total dormancy for plant life. “Traditionally,” citizens of our part of the world have adopted a diet during these months that consisted, in the main, of preserved meats, cellared crops (meaning those that could safely be stored in the root cellar—a once-universal feature of farm kitchens: a crude enclave, sometimes dirt-floored, located off the pantry or the stairway to the basement, with a thin outside wall that protected from light and frost but allowed the ambient temperature to drop to 34-40 degrees) and canned crops. Dairy, of course, continued to be available to some extent during the winter as well. It’s no accident that we all get hungry for bakery around this time of year either—flour and butter keep very well with little or no refrigeration and provide lots of fuel for the body on cold, dark days.

Transportation and refrigeration

What it all comes down to is that two major aspects of life have changed and have, in turn, changed us: transportation and refrigeration. The vast improvements in these two forms of technology in the previous century meant that out-of-season and non-native produce could, for the first time in history, be brought to any climate and stored for long enough to make it a marketable commodity. Quite literally, that changed the world. Whether you believe that was for better or worse is a matter for you to decide. Many people now feel that because many of our most popular forms of commercial transportation are ecologically unsustainable and local economies are more responsive to their constituencies (I feel safe in positing these ideas no matter the context), that eating food from local producers is an important step towards rebuilding our independence and integrity as a culture. I happen to agree.

Winter’s staples

The root of the matter is that not all that much has really changed about what grows when in the places that we live. In Wisconsin, eating a tomato that did not come out of a can in the month of February is still a deeply luxurious, if not pleasurable, act. Winter’s staples are the same—root vegetables such as beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and the mighty tuber family, along with milk, cheese, eggs and meat—these remain the building blocks of a locally produced winter diet for us. Some still do can at home and can thus take advantage of local fruit, tomatoes, beans, corn and pickles all through the cold season. Because commercial canning enterprises seek a large, steady and uniform supply (qualities not associated with the seasons of nature as they affect sustainable agriculture), home canning is still the best way to enjoy locally grown high-season produce as the snow takes over. Many online resources are available if you wish to learn more about this time-honored resource. A good place to start would be Andy Johnston’s recent Produce News article found at Reader - August 06 or the UW Extensons Infosource or the Dane County Cooperative Extension at 262-3980. Both have online information or hard copies of bulletins and publications available on request.
Making it work
Whether you’re in Madison or Berkeley, though, the primary challenge is one that can be enjoyable, which is to say using your creativity in the kitchen. The well-known restaurant Chez Panisse, dedicated to seasonal cuisine, may have access to a variety of food and a growing season that is the envy of many chefs—but they still have winter in Northern California, and I have read testimony from some of their early chefs detailing the difficulties of cooking the same three ingredients for 21 straight days while still trying to keep the customer interested and satisfied. Famously, they succeeded in doing so, which should serve as a lesson to all of us. Eating seasonally and locally is a serious commitment. To leaven the potential monotony with something other than asparagus from 2,000 miles away, you need to dig in to your store of recipes and, more importantly, your imagination, and figure out how you’re going to be lovin’ on some parsnips for a month.

You can hardly call most spices local around here, but their imperishability means they sort of transcend the concept of seasonality, and nothing helps a carrot out like a little coriander and cumin. Not so the herb. Drying herbs is fine, but why not try keeping a pot or window box going in the kitchen for the fresh stuff? You will likely not have much luck with the fragile, leafy herbs like basil, parsley or cilantro, but sturdier, woodier ones like rosemary, thyme and marjoram may do well, given a little attention.

The sum of the equation

Winter or no, we are living in the middle of an agricultural cornucopia that has few rivals. Supply is not the issue. Eating locally and seasonally in Wisconsin through the winter is something that our forebears did for a couple hundred years with enough success to allow me to be writing and you to be reading. The skills to do this are still resident, if dormant, in many among us, and all it takes is the discipline to break some new habits and cultivate some old ones. See you at the stove—I’ll be the one sopping up the bacon grease with a biscuit.