Belly and Soul

Discovering the Joys of Local and Seasonal Foods

Like someone scouting for a future spouse in a bar, there was good reason I spent much of my life under the fluorescents, trolling inner aisles of groceries for things in crinkly packages. I was looking for flavor, and I wanted it pronto, on my terms.

Jean Johnson in her kitchen, chopping locally sourced produce for the world"s freshest tasting pasta primavera.©Beverly Rupp

These days, though, I’ve found love in the bounty of Oregon’s seasons. Fresh corn snapped from the stalk
dark baby kale, nipped by winter frosts
raspberries in the morning sun, plucked right from the vine…new potatoes, freshly unearthed, coddled with a bit of butter
snow peas so pale in the early spring light they break your heart.

I never followed the "foodie" scene or spent much time in the kitchen—except to make cookies—so sexy things like having all the right cookbooks and brining turkeys passed me by. Thus, my transition from packaged fare and tomatoes-on-demand was bumpy. I mean, how could broccoli ever compete with American pizza?

"It’s tough," says Catherine Pantsios, a Chefs Collaborative board member and former co-owner of the critically acclaimed San Franciscan restaurant Zolas. "People have become so anesthetized."

Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways—the food issues think tank that started the Chefs Collaborative to foster connections between local producers and restaurants—echoes the dilemma. "Since a lot of Americans see eating as a "fueling up the tank" operation, many see eating well as a hair shirt," says Harriman. "No one’s going to eat right unless we can convince them this stuff is delicious."

Garden of Earthly Delights

A balmy spring breeze ruffles my hair as I stoop to pull leeks that have wintered over in my garden. Next stop is the carrot patch. Then the kitchen, where the leeks get sautéed with tarragon while the carrots simmer with a pair of potatoes. The works takes a whirl through the blender before joining forces in the soup pot for a healthy slug of white wine, crack of fresh pepper, and bit of salt. I take some to my mother along with a baked pear. "You could serve this to a queen," she says. It was that delicious.

However, what really brings me to my knees in the spring and early summer is pasta primavera—or most any kind of primavera for that matter. But you have to go the distance to make it work. Run the gamut on combinations of fruit and nuts and cheese to accent your winter greens and root crops and spaghetti squashes. That’s when you can hear snow peas dangling off the vines in their sensuous way.

Harriman felt the same magic when she was in the Czech Republic in 1990 just after the Iron Curtain fell. "Watermelon season started, and that was the only fruit you could get anywhere," she recalls. "But rather than complain about the lack of variety, the Czechs were excited. There they were with all this pent-up emotion; they really appreciated the melons having their moment in the sun. We’ve lost that joy of the seasons."

It’s the same with me and pasta primavera. In I come with my clutch of snow peas and whatever else I could find in the garden—some tender chives, parsley, carrots, scallions—perhaps even asparagus if any heads have poked through the loam. Maybe even an early strawberry for dessert.

I get the heat going under the pasta water and my cast iron wok. In the latter goes a tad of olive oil and the aromatics. While they’re sizzling I grate the carrot and chop the pea pods and asparagus. If I have some morels from Oregon’s spring forests—which I often do since local stores stock them—those earthy treats get included too, right at the very end. Rice wine vinegar is added for the spike of acid that can balance out this kind of delicate fare. Beyond that, it’s a grate of asiago and whatever salad greens look good.

For Julia Child, it was much the same, according to K. Dun Gifford, founder of Oldways. "I had many, many lunches with Julia over the years. She always made omelettes and we’d have a glass of wine—sometimes two," says Gifford with an arch of his brow. "She’d go to the refrigerator and say, "Dun, dear, what shall it be? Shrimp? Scallions?" I’d always answer, "Oh, whatever’s in there that needs using, Julia.""

Half the secret to cooking well is going with the flow—using what’s on hand—eating local, seasonal fare. Indeed, now that I’ve paired my food to the seasons, the sun and Earth’s majestic pas de deux speaks to my belly and soul. Before, I might have marked spring by nestlings chirping away for their mammas and papas. Now it’s about my own stomach as well—about ruffled scarlet leaf lettuces and fiddle head ferns and buds on the kiwi vines about to burst.

Taking it Easy

Portland’s new small, local chain of grocery stores, New Seasons Market, embraces this ethos as well and was singled out by the New York Times as being on the nation’s local-seasonal cutting edge. "Our home-grown program is really about creating a regional food economy," explains Lisa Sedlar, president of New Seasons, where "homegrown" stickers alert consumers to things that come from around here. "The joy for us is having relationships with 125 farmers who we pay fair prices. If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work for us."

Amen, says Carlos Petrini, the Italian political activist who founded Slow Food International. Petrini believes that changing our food system is the most vital and revolutionary action we can take in today’s world.

Catherine Pantsios gives that bold thought a nod. "I think people feel powerless in the face of the whole global situation," she muses. "Where your food comes from is an area in which your decisions can help preserve farmland and strengthen the local economy."

Dun Gifford couldn’t agree more. "In 1993 when we introduced the concept of sustainability, the whole business of techno-food was going to take over the world. At Oldways we’re all about everything that’s natural and traditional—fresh as opposed to frozen and a wide variety of lettuces as opposed to iceberg, for example."

Portland gardener, farmers" market patron, and New Seasons shopper Laura Berg echoes that sentiment. "I grew a variety of squash that I’d not heard of last year—Long Island Cheese. A friend roasted one rubbed with olive oil recently. The skin was so tender we could eat it."

"I buy locally because I want Portland to be a nice place to live," Berg adds. "And as far as my garden goes, going outside and picking something for dinner is glorious even if I’m doing it with a flashlight and in my raincoat."

As for me, I’ve got a pot of lima beans simmering with rosemary on the stove and some quinoa all steamed up. Now I"ll make my rounds outside, where red chard and white radishes wait. I"ll do the chard stems in a dab of oil with minced garlic and then ladle in some bean juice. The result will be a gorgeous, jammy bit of crunch alongside the warm salad of wilted chard lea

ves. Tender but still deeply green, the chard will grace the sturdy peasant fare decorated with a scattering of artisan cheese and hazelnuts.

I"ll pour a glass of wine in Julia Child’s memory, too. After all, she made life such fun.

JEAN JOHNSON is a social historian and writer based in Portland, Oregon.