Seasonal Food and Food Culture

I want to share some personal experience before starting to talk about Michael Pollan’s Th Omnivore’s Dilemma and seasonal food. I was born in a northern city in China, and I spent the first six years of my life in that city. Most memories about the city has faded, but some of those about food remained in my mind. I hated spring because green onions were used dominantly in all dishes in spring. Summer meant that it was time to eat watermelons. In late autumn, Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) strings would be hung for sale, and in winter, there would always be a box of tangerines waiting for me at home. Those are my memories of food in different seasons.

It is hard to say since when having watermelon in winter or apples in summer becomes common. A quote from Michael Pollan’s “Omnivores Dilemma” states:

“A global food market, which brings us New Zealand lamb in the spring, Chilean asparagus in December, and fresh tomatoes the year round, has smudged the bright colors of the seasonal food calendar we all once knew by heart. “

However, the existence and prosperity of a global food market rely on demand. In other words, people demand chicken and asparagus in December, and thus the market exists. It is arguable that the reason why the market is extraordinarily prosperous in America is that there is no dominant food culture in America.

America is in a way a melting pot. Different food cultures, especially the signatory dishes of the cultures, are melted together. The fundamental difference between American food culture (if there is one) and other more “systematic” food cultures is that American food culture does not store the information of local seasonal food in recipes.

What are you really thinking about when you consider about what to have for lunch? Do you think about the food you want, say chicken or lettuce, or do you think about the dish you want, say a chicken burger or salad with ranch dressing? At least for me, most of the time I am thinking about the latter. The wisdom of food culture is that it serves as a guide for people to decide what to eat at certain time of a day and certain month of the year, and the decision always happens to be the most suitable one. People have tried numerous combinations to create new dishes before you do, and all those experiences, good or bad, are stored in food culture to help you make a right decision, which often means the one that keeps you energetic, healthy, and nutritious.

The above image conveys some basic information about seasonal food. Next time when you think about what to have for lunch/dinner, try to think about what seasonal food you want in particular. Consuming seasonal food often guarantees quality, and you are less likely to be responsible for the energy consumed on transporting your food internationally to your table.

Expanding on the topics of seasonal food and food culture, next week, I will write up a post for Japanese cuisine – one of the food cultures that emphasizes heavily on seasonal dishes with local seasonal ingredients.

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3 thoughts on “Seasonal Food and Food Culture

  1. I don’t know how many people right now still stick to seasonal fruits or vegetables. But in my family, we avoid food that should be out of season. In terms of health, eating non-seasonal food violates our physiology. For example, watermelon, from a perspective of Chinese medicine, has a “cold” property which means it can help body get rid of excessive heat, and this is why it is best to eat watermelons in summer. However, in winter, our body needs more heat to keep warm. Eating watermelon in this season (even though watermelons are available in winter now) is definitely not the best idea.

    • Thank you for your input! When I visit my parents, they often lecture me on the “cold” and “hot” features of food (I think there are neutral ones right?) They would say that certain food is too “hot” for the weather/season, or the bitterness of food can balance the humidity – that sounds absolutely amazing, I am fully amazed by Chinese food culture because all the information about food and health is recorded and practised on a daily basis; consequently, food and their seasonal features can be used to the maximum.

  2. I love this post as it provides an entirely different perspective from those of us in the class who grew up in the United States. Today, we have to think about eating seasonal foods ~ but as you mentioned, in China it was just what you did. It is what most cultures have traditionally done out of necessity and availability. I am so grateful for the range of experiences because I think as a whole we are all able to connect food and thus culture in ways that you cannot understand through readings. I love the comment above that explains eating watermelon in the summer because of its Chinese medicinal properties – I have only ever thought of it as a yummy treat in July 🙂

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