I have a peculiar and unrecognized form of seasonal affective disorder. It’s only indirectly related to the shorter days, the diminished light and the advent of cooler temperatures. I can tell it’s coming not by the turn of the calendar page but by the menu updates at my favorite cafe.
No longer available: that everything bagel smeared with chevre from happy goats, just-salty-enough pesto and two slabs of blazingly colorful heirloom tomatoes. In its place: a biscuit with pumpkin spread. The fashionable farm egg atop it is a sad substitute for a sublimely sun-ripened tomato.
My seasonal grumps come from the disappearance of summer’s cornucopia from groceries, restaurants and my table. Socially conscious eater that I strive to be, I know we’re supposed to follow the eat-local mantra and rejoice in the time-sensitive diversity of all that our soil produces. I should be reveling in gourds. Instead, I’m sneaking blackberries — with their notoriously short season — at the grocery store.
Let’s face it: Living la vida locavore ain’t easy, which is something advocates of responsible consumerism and diets tend to gloss over. It’s nearly impossible to feed myself solely on foodstuffs grown within an arbitrary radius set by food thinkers and theorists who don’t live where I do and whose confident advocacy often fails to acknowledge that “local and seasonal” doesn’t mean affordable or accessible.
And as for locally grown winter produce — are you going to eat kale without the benefit of heat, massage or dressing? I think not.
Of course I recognize the value of eating locally and seasonally. Fresher is better. I want to support my neighbor-producers. And I appreciate that we leave smaller environmental footprints when our grapes don’t have to have a passport or take a cross-country ride to a local market.
“Woke” eating brings me a sense of virtue, but then the community sustainable agriculture boxes arrive, with their dully predictable collections of cruciferous vegetables. A person cannot live on root vegetables and leafy greens alone, no matter the late crazes for broccoli rabe, kale and rainbow chard. And indeed there is such a thing as too much roughage.
Unpopular opinion though this might be among virtuous foodies, I cannot summon the same excitement over kohlrabi and curly kale that I feel for squash blossoms and a perfectly ripe plum. The transition to autumn bruises me. Summer is a lover who dotes on you, and, once spoiled with lushness and plenitude, nothing else will do. My taste buds grieve for the verdant wildfire that was my backyard basil. I crave the peach that cannot double for a softball. There should be a word for this seasonal sense of loss. Ideally, that word would be in German, a language that embraces the capitalized, long compound noun for phenomena that cannot be contained in a few syllables.
So I cheat. I asked my sister to overnight, with dry ice, North Carolina-made sage sausage to my home when I lived in central Pennsylvania. I reserve my right to spend an admittedly absurd $7.99 on a carton of strawberries for my November breakfasts.
And I have my hacks. In my North Carolina home, where mild winters reign, I can grow my own tomatoes in containers through November if I am careful and pick the right cultivar. My pantry is stuffed with canned delectables that hold the memory of summer-veggie excitement. My fridge is packed with enough jams to enliven oatmeal and survive nuclear meltdown; my freezer runneth over with icy produce. I break out my stovetop or outdoor grill to render rock-hard peaches softer, or to cook corn in the cob in husk.
To be sure, fall has its gustatory pleasures: pumpkin seeds and pumpkin flesh; crisp nights and crackling bonfires; Thanksgiving stuffing; apple butter and cider. And there are those seasonal-straddling treats that blend the summer’s waning fruits and the ascendance of fall, such as the cherry-pumpkin jam I sampled last week.
The brightest spot in my annual ennui is watching another creature’s delight in October’s harvest. My American persimmons turn from dull orange orbs to smoky, purplish fruits. They draw an army of possums to the tree for nightly raids, undeterred by my dogs’ frenetic 2 a.m. barking. I try to beat these fruit thieves to the punch and gather the persimmons for my own pudding, but they somehow always sense the ripening first.
I do not begrudge them. These furry gluttons squint in the glare of my house’s motion lights and squish the sticky fruit between their paws. They remind me that humans are not alone in our earthly gratifications. In my autumn of discontent, they can savor fall’s bounty.
Meanwhile, I will be eating organic strawberries from California or Mexico, and dreaming of when I can enjoy local ones guilt-free next July.