In Baltimore it seems every summer day is the same: 98 degrees and humid, with our produce arriving in tractor trailers. The nuances of the seasons evaporate in the concrete canyons here, and our ability to buy any vegetable at any time further erodes a sense of the seasons.
Yet with produce, the season is everything. I've just received word from my dad that his strawberries are in. Tonight I'll eat strawberries as I pick them, experiencing the freshest possible fruit, and loving every delicious, sweet-tart bite. There is no question that local produce tastes better, and everyone wants more of it, but to eat more local produce, either at home or in area restaurants, you have to know what's in season. That's no easy task in the city. We've been conditioned by grocery stores to expect everything all the time, and we certainly can't correct our course with our eyes by looking at the vines themselves.
Luckily, there are lots of seasonal charts online. Also called harvest calendars, seasonal availability charts give you an idea of what to expect and when. Here are my thoughts on some charts I've found. First, make sure to use a chart designed for Maryland. It doesn't help to know when apples are available in San Francisco if you live in Baltimore.
The State Archive has a list that goes down to the very day (you can get raspberries on July 10th but not July 11th!), and it seems very accurate. It's not my favorite list, though, because it's not alphabetized.
Sustainable Table uses a web application that lets you enter your location and time of year. For early June they say to expect asparagus, cabbage, cherries, and strawberries. I'm not sure good local asparagus will still be available though, and I doubt I'll find any cabbage. Cabbage doesn't do well in Baltimore's swelter, and crops planted locally in early spring are probably already gone.
Of course eating seasonally is also a question of how far you're willing to go. A season isn't fixed to a calendar as much as it is a location, so if you miss your favorite veggie's prime season, you can always go a little south or north to find it. Frustrating this is the opacity of grocery store supply chains. Very nice tomatoes might be coming off the vine a few miles away, but you may still be buying bland 'maters grown in a Midwest greenhouse.
One way to avoid this problem is to shop the farmers' market. I'm partial to the one under 83, but have recently seen some items I thought out of season. I went in search of the market's guidelines and found them here.
I've read stories of other markets in other cities turning into shams, where the "farmer" is in fact a salesman fronting for a large grocery distributor. The Baltimore rules prohibit this. Everything sold must be grown or produced by the person/group selling it, at the location listed on their application.
I was really pleased to see this rule. I hate to go to a farmers' market and feel as if I'm buying the same trucked-in products available at the grocery store.
So where did the unseasonal items come from? First, I wasn't taking into account the fact that some Virginia farms bring their produce up to Baltimore for the market. Certain produce has a much longer shelf life than others, like the sweet potatoes I recently bought, but were probably harvested last fall. A lot of large farms have greenhouses too, allowing them to stretch seasons or start them early.
Mostly, though, I needed a better idea of what's in season. My favorite seasonal chart I found, at Pickyourown.org, has a nicely laid out graphical format. It also seems very accurate. This is the chart I'll be using this summer.
A lot of factors will affect availability. Rains have been good so far this year, and temperatures have been generally within the averages, so most of the well maintained charts should be accurate. A summer drought or spring cold snap, though, can easily change dates for certain crops.
I've missed my chance on those fresh picked strawberries in previous years by not paying attention. This year, I'm not making the same mistake. Download a seasonal chart and don't let the heat waves dancing off the concrete stop you from seeing the fresh produce ripening all around us.
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