Savor the taste of local

The best flavors you’ll ever find

By
April 16, 2007

The moment I spy the first inch of chives working its way out of the ground, I’m as thrilled as a girl can possibly be. Or the tiny sorrel leaves among last year’s dried foliage. Or the unfurling lovage rising from under its winter covering of leaves.

I absolutely can’t wait to have a spring herb salad, and I’ll rob the cradle at least once to do just that.

asparagus
Asparagus at a farmers’ market.

Which is to say I understand asparagus fever, too.

It happens every March, if not February, that asparagus becomes the It Vegetable.

Thick or slender stalks grace magazine covers and food-section centerfolds everywhere. It’s here in time for St. Patrick’s Day, Passover, and Easter.

There’s good reason for the green spear’s moment of fame: Asparagus is, after all, one of the first vegetables to appear in the spring, and that’s enough for a celebration.

But in our rush to embrace spring and its lead vegetable, we tend to overlook the fact that it’s not really in season in most of the United States until April and even May, when Michigan and Washington emerge as U.S. producers.

True, the hotter southern parts of California will have asparagus starting in January. “It’s the only state that can possibly grow asparagus longer than the usual domestic season. It can go from January to October,” says Robert Schueller of Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles.

But it’s Peruvian grass that feeds us year around — watch those food miles climb! — especially in the months between July and December. Argentinean and Chilean asparagus fill any gaps in January, followed by Mexico in February. Wherever it’s raised, asparagus doesn’t stay put; it’s shipped all over the place.

Maybe because we can eat asparagus year-round, we’ve lost sense of when it really is in season where we live. In our rush to welcome spring, we’re made March the asparagus month, even if there’s still snow in our yards.

Starting in January, the U.S. asparagus season moves steadily northward. It also arrives later, as does spring itself, at higher elevations. Although I live in the southwest, our 7,000-foot elevation means that asparagus doesn’t appear in my farmers’ markets until, at the earliest, late May. One year, before global warming kicked in, it didn’t appear until mid-June.

I have seen gorgeous plump asparagus in a Canadian farmers’ market in July and have picked it myself in northern Washington at about the same time of year. By then, of course, the magazine covers are featuring tomatoes — which, where I live, aren’t due to arrive much before late August.

rhubarb
Rhubarb in July is tasty with blackberries.

I know how our appetites jump around like puppies from this to that — the first asparagus, the first artichokes, the first rhubarb, and so forth. But if you’re a local eater, you know that those first dates are only part of the story.

I’ve always thought it would be terribly courageous (and interesting!) if a food magazine dared to feature winter squash in February, asparagus in June, rhubarb in July, and artichokes in September. After all, they all have their own first-date and place-rooted moments.

And by the way, the seasonal cook will not be cooking June asparagus with tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers. When asparagus is ready, so in all likelihood are peas, lettuce, radishes, spinach, sorrel, chard, chervil, and chives. It doesn’t matter where you live, because all cool-season crops hang out together in time and place. And asparagus likes things on the cool side.

It’s hard to figure out what’s truly in season by looking at the store, since the supermarket represents all the seasons of the world. Outside of your own garden, the best way to find out what’s in season where you live is to go to your local farmers’ market.

Most farmers’ markets have miles-to-market limits, or are connected to specific regions or counties. And at the market, you can always ask where exactly something comes from. Try doing the same in a busy supermarket with a hard-to-find produce manager.

Many farmers’ markets and CSAs also have their own websites announcing the produce coming into season as well as the produce on its way out. You can easily find a market near you on the web by going to Local Harvest, which does a good job of connecting consumers to farmers, or the USDA’s locator for farmers’ markets.

I don’t want to sound like the food police and forbid eating out of season. I succumb, too. I’ve had asparagus already this spring. And I can’t resist rhubarb even though mine are just unfolding their leaves; I need a taste now.

But think of it this way: Save room for local. If you gorge on imported asparagus through the fall and winter, by the time the asparagus in your area pops up you won’t recognize it. And that’s a pity, because it’ll be the best asparagus you’ll ever taste.

Deborah Madison is an award-winning cookbook author and writer who lives in New Mexico.

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