July 10, 2006

My family went to the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market on Saturday. This open-air market has been a fixture in downtown Saint Paul for over 150 years, allowing city dwellers (and now suburbanites) the ability to buy farm-fresh produce at great prices.

We went down there looking for a few particular items: peppers, cantaloupe, and watermelon; the last two items were a request from my mother-in-law. Once we were down there, we saw a lot of potatoes, onions, herbs, beans, and flowers, but no melons, and only a few early Hungarian hot-wax peppers. The reason? They’re not in season yet. Had we been born 100 (or maybe even 50 ) years earlier, we likely would have known this, but nowadays, it’s something most of us don’t waste any brain cells on. Later that day, we went to the grocery store and paid a king’s ransom for some red & yellow peppers that were flown or trucked in from somewhere else ( probably California, but I honestly didn’t check).

One of the more subtle benefits of our modern, industrial culture is that we have nullified the seasons. Not only can we make our dwellings a perfect 72F all year round if we wish, but we also don’t have to base our diets around what’s locally available at any given point in the year. The availability of cheap energy has made it cost effective to get produce from California, or even South America in your local grocery’s produce department year-round. When my parents were young, fresh fruit in the wintertime was an expensive luxury. Stories about getting one fresh orange as a Christmas gift seem to be fairly common. These days, you can drive to the local market and get pretty much anything your heart desires at will. I don’t believe that it will stay that way for the rest of my lifetime.

Odds are good that in the coming decades that we will revert to more traditional, local patterns of food production & preservation again, and with that will come a return to a more seaonal diet. Here in Minnesota, that means more hot-dishes (aka casseroles for you outlanders), soups, stews, etc during winter months when fresh produce is either too expensive to buy regularly or non-existant. Perhaps we will anticipate the return of spring for more reasons than the fishing opener, or golf season, or the warmer weather. We can start savoring the first rewards of the farm or garden in late spring, and continue to relish the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables on our plates throughout the summer, culminating in the fall harvest, which may once again become a celebration of tasting the best fruits of our labors, along with a chance to stock up for the return of winter.

Relocalization is one of the central themes of many post-carbon authors and groups, with food production being a major focal point. As James Kunstler has long grumbled about, the days of the “3,000 mile caesar salad” are numbered. To get a taste of what our gastronomic future may look like, you may want to try the 100-mile diet, where all of your food must come from a 100-mile radius around your home. Here in the land of 10,000 lakes, that means a decided lack of citrus fruits, especially in the winter, and lots of grains and the like. I choose to look on the bright side of things and see this as a chance to increase my intake of fermented barley, water and hops, but that’s just me.

Another point that should be made is that peak oil will probably cripple many processed food makers, and that means that learning how to cook will no longer be optional. Many of us (me included) have been able to “nourish” ourselves with only two essential kitchen tools: the can-opener and the microwave. Learning how to cook properly is not only a survival skill for everyone, but it will also allow you to truly appreciate just what you put in your mouth. The slow food movement is an outgrowth of this trend of taking more pleasure out of both the making and eating of food. It’s much larger in Europe, but it seems to be making inroads here in the States as well.

If you’re not skilled in the art of cooking, do yourself a favor and learn. It’s not that hard, and it will both prepare you for the future as well as increase your enjoyment of the present. Food may not have to taste good to sustain life, but everything in life sure seems better when it does.