What’s the deal with pumpkin spice flavored everything? Why do we go so nuts for manufactured foods like candy corn, Shamrock Shakes, Cadbury Creme Eggs and so on? I’ve seen this insight attributed to Michael Pollan - that ultimately we crave seasonal eating at a deep ancestral level so we flock to these commercial substitutes (let me know if you have a source on this - it’s not original to me).
Once strawberries, oysters, pheasant, asparagus, peaches and fresh churned butter were transient seasonal delicacies, enjoyed for their fresh, once a year flavor, as well as the health benefits that our ancestors reaped from eating seasonal foods. Modern agribusiness has cut us off from the rhythms of the earth and sold our ancestral heritages back to us as pumpkin spice m&ms.
My family in Canada sometimes mocks my commitment to seasonal local eating, given that I live in California, with a 12 month growing season, surrounded by farms producing some of the world’s tasty produce all year long. I ate seasonally and locally when I lived in Toronto as well, and there were a lot of apples and beets during the winter, I’m not going to lie. On balance eating seasonally is generally tastier (and more frugal) as we eat the foods when they are at their best, and can enjoy heirloom varieties that won’t withstand the rigors of transport and supermarkets. We also gift ourselves with the intense pleasure of eating a food for the first time in the year (in Judaism, we have a special blessing to acknowledge the wonder of that moment - the taste of the first strawberry of spring, the first peach of summer, the first pomegranate of fall)
Your perfect diet
A central tenet of Traditional Chinese Medicine and many traditional and holistic approaches is that there is no one size fits all approach. In modern Western culture, we quest constantly for the ‘perfect human diet’ (in fact there’s a best selling book by that name) but let me break it to you. There is no such thing.
Western science is only starting to understand the barest glimmer of how food and nutrition actually interacts with our body processes, and is continually exasperated by contradictory findings when it tries to study whether a particular food or macronutrient or diet is ‘healthy’ or not. The dualism of dominant western thought endlessly strives to judge whether a food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ but this profoundly misunderstands the nature of reality. Your genes, your age, your lifestyle, the climate where you live, your history, what you ask of your body - all of these deeply affect what is ‘’healthy’ for you. Fortunately, we don’t need to wait a couple of thousand years for Western dietitians to figure this out - we have the wisdom of all our ancestors and traditional knowledge available to us.
One thing I have come to understand in recent years is that the toll of modern ‘foods’ including food processing, additives, intensive hybridization, genetic modification, as well as environmental degradation and toxic exposures has resulted in an even more challenging situation for many people, where what appear to be natural whole foods cannot be tolerated. There are folks whose health restricts them from certain foods - like wheat - that are cornerstones of traditional diets. But is it really wheat as our ancestors or even other countries know it? Witness the common phenomenon of North Americans with wheat or grain intolerances who are able to eat bread and grains in Europe or Asia without symptoms. Undoubtedly being on vacation can reduce our stress load and improve our digestion, but in fact there are measurable differences between American and European wheat and bread.
Understanding the properties of food
In Traditional Chinese Medicine we learn that all foods have different properties. These are based on the Five Flavors, each of which has different effects in the body. This enables us to understand foods as active, interactive substances that we can combine and use for pleasure, nourishment and healing.
The Five flavours are: Pungent, Sour, Bitter, Salty and Sweet. Different seasons have affinities for different flavors, and we benefit from emphasizing that flavor in the right season. This approach to food can be a study in its own right, but I really believe it is accessible to any home cook who is interested in this approach. Soon it becomes second nature to choose and modify recipes in harmony with the season or with particular needs or conditions of those who will be eating. It’s really just part of cooking to think about complementary flavors and properties - you are already doing it when you choose what to make for dinner!
There are a variety of cultural approaches to this, and I recommend exploring Ayurvedic sources like Acharya Shunya’s Ayurvedic Lifestyle Wisdom or the works produced by the Weston A. Price Foundation which promotes traditional eating from a European perspective. The Tao of Nutrition by my teachers Dr. Maoshing Ni and Cathy McNease is a friendly introduction to the specifics of the TCM energetics of foods, and I love the recipes in Daverick Legget’s Recipes for Self-Healing. California based Jessica Prentice’s book Full Moon Feast is probably my number one recommendation for the North American resident looking to eat seasonally.
So, where to begin? Where you are of course! If you’re in the US, visit www.seasonalfoodguide.org for a fun interactive listing of what’s currently in season in your area (you can even get the app!)
Foods and flavors of Late Summer:
The Earth element rules late summer, and conveys a sense of both transitions and neutrality - neither here nor there. The direction associated with the Earth element is none - the center. Foods that support the Earth element often carry its associated color of golden orange or yellow, as well as being relatively neutral or sweet in taste, grounding, comforting and calming. As we move from the expansive activity of summer to the challenges of Fall, and the often frantic pace of modern life including returning kids to school, projects on overdrive to finish out the calendar year, accelerating towards the frenzy of the holiday season, these weeks are ones where emphasizing simple, comforting and easy to digest foods is a blessing.
Gorgeous golden seasonal foods in California right now include persimmons, cantaloupe, winter squash, carrots and sweet potatoes
Meals to try could include squash soup (or squash curry with meat or legumes for a one pot meal), carrot salad with raisins, or lentil dal over baked sweet potatoes. All of these are easy to make ahead, pack for lunch, or heat up quickly at the end of busy day for a peaceful, centered meal that will nourish you body and soul.
Foods and Flavors of Autumn
The Metal element rules autumn, and conveys an energetic sense of contraction, withdrawal, the harvest and the in-breath. We are gathering-in and preparing for winter, darkness and the quiet and restful time of the year (in theory!). Metal and autumn are associated with the lungs, skin and respiratory system - and we certainly know this as the onset of cold and flu season. The pungent or spicy flavor, which warms the body and opens the lungs is the associated flavor - our friend pumpkin spice, with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger and allspice does both these things, and is a wonderful example of a medicinal, seasonal food (when not in m&m form!) Metal is associated with the color white and many white foods help alleviate dryness, considered the most common cause of illness and dis-ease during autumn. We can cook longer, slower dishes, infusing them with warmth and helping us to slow down.