In Defense of Eating Seasonally (Most of the Time)

February 12, 2016

Amanda Cohen belongs to an exclusive group. As a chef and owner of the hugely popular and highly acclaimed Manhattan restaurant, Dirt Candy, she has the power to change the way people eat. Earlier this week, she flexed this power in a New York Times op-ed piece. “There are two words that make me die inside: seasonal and local,” she began.

Her argument is that we live in a post-seasonal world—so much of what we cook with (olive oil, winter garlic) already comes from afar—so if you want a tomato in February, gosh darnit, help yourself. Environmental concerns aside (“Worried about how your groceries affect your carbon footprint? Me too, but I don’t have the money to move.”), she encourages shoppers to buy vegetables—any vegetable!—to combat how few Americans eat. By liberating produce of “complicated and exclusive” labels like seasonal and local, she hopes consumers will buy more. The alternative, she implies, is that they throw up their hands in the face of winter tomatoes and head to the cereal aisle, vegetable-less.

I am not Michael Pollan—I don’t head to the greenmarket every morning, and the tomatoes I cooked with last week were definitely not New York-grown—so I appreciate when someone tells me that I don’t have to feel guilty about the occasional out-of-season bag of grapes, but ignoring seasons completely isn’t the answer.

By purchasing fruits and vegetables without considering their origin and peak harvest, environmental concerns aside, not only are you denying yourself the opportunity to cook outside of your comfort zone, but you’re also missing out on the anticipation of something truly wonderful.

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Amanda writes, “These two words [seasonal and local] slam the door on people who don’t have access to local produce or who want to enjoy a lime in their gin and tonic in February.” Not to invoke the obvious metaphor, but when one citrus door closes, another citrus window—of Grapefruit Gin Hounds, blood orange Serpenti, and pomelo spritzers—opens. But the person who sticks with the lime would never see that.

How boring is it to be the person who roasts tomatoes for the entire winter? Yes, roasted tomatoes—even winter tomatoes—are undeniably delicious. But so is broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and chicory. When the last summer heirlooms leave, don’t reach for a box of cereal—reach for a squash.

And if you happen to look up from the squash long enough to remember those tomatoes of summers’ past, imagine the gratification you’ll experience when you’re finally reunited. As David Tanis wrote in a 2012 Times piece, “There’s no denying the thrill when, after months of apples, potatoes and sturdy greens, suddenly asparagus appears in full force at the market. Finally, spring has arrived.”

But how could you ever know that feeling if you’d been eating tomatoes all along?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dagny Holt
    Dagny Holt
  • Ben Friedlander
    Ben Friedlander
  • MattArmendariz
  • 702551
  • Jennifer
I eat everything.


Dagny H. February 15, 2016
The NYT article bugged me. Incorporating seasonal & local considerations to one's shopping needn't be a zero-sum, all-or-nothing proposition. So she bought some tomatoes in February to scratch an itch? Fine, okay. No need to feel ashamed about it, but there's also no need to make out like doing so is somehow taking the high road or striking some grand blow to elitism. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Ben F. February 13, 2016
Her recipe for roasted tomatoes (basically, a swimming pool of oil in the oven) didn't inspire much confidence in her opinions.
MattArmendariz February 12, 2016
As a resident of California, I came down here to leave a comment but CV did such an impeccable job. EXACTLY :)
702551 February 12, 2016
It depends on where you live.

Here in California, eating seasonally and locally is very feasible and there's still lots of variety in the dead of winter. My town's farmers market runs all-year long, every Sunday rain or shine.

If you don't eat seasonally/locally around here, it's because of laziness or disinterest, not lack of opportunity.
Jennifer February 12, 2016
Ummmm--did Amanda Cohen's piece say we should ignore seasons completely? I read it. And re-read it. It said no such thing. I'm not sure there's any disagreement between Stephens and Cohen other than tone. Amanda Cohen's argument is about sanity and encouraging people (of all kinds) to eat more vegetables. Leslie Stephens, on the other hand, encourages me to 'reach for a squash.' I encourage her to come visit me in Syracuse and we can go to our Regional Farmers' Market together. I go all year. Guess what? It's about the end of local squash season; the last few weeks, they've rotted as soon as I got them in the house. Sure, I love a roasted turnip, but even on a subzero Syracuse day, there's more to life than my root cellar.
allyeats February 12, 2016
Oh I'm so glad you wrote this. A gentle, but needed, riposte.