Eating Seasonally: Chicken Wings and Football Don't Go Together

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Because of football playoffs, the price of chicken wings is climbing. Or, why we should learn to eat foods when they're easiest to produce.

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The Super Bowl is fast approaching, which means one thing: The nation's critical supply of chicken wings is in danger! (Chilean avocadoes are in trouble too.)

With the arrival of every New Year, most of us make promises to ourselves. For a week, anyway, resolutions define the civic mood following New Year's Eve's sobering reality. Lose 10 pounds, be more generous, organize thyself.

On the train just after New Year's, I overheard fellow commuters vowing to eat more seasonally. What did they mean, exactly? I glanced back at the food service monthly that I had been ignoring. It advised chefs to menu something other than chicken wings this time of year "because supplies are tight" -- a euphemism meaning that wings will cost an arm and a leg. Why? Well, analysis isn't exactly a hallmark of trade magazines, but the implication was clear: Wings are essential fare at football playoff and Super Bowl parties.

Many people think they eat seasonally by following specials advertised in newspaper fliers. That's what's in season, right? In March, we drink beer. Green beer. Irish beer. March 17 could rightly be called National Beer Day, as important as many other national holidays.

Large growers mass produce items like corn and tomatoes and turkeys to stock supermarket shelves and meet the demand for "seasonal" foods.

I bet you didn't know that April is National Fish Month. Well, it is in the food service industry. Chefs change their menus and retailers stock mountains more fish than usual to meet the demands of Lent. Even people who don't celebrate Easter get caught up in the tide of widely advertised inexpensive fillets. And what's May without the obligatory Memorial Day cookout with hot dogs and chicken breasts on the grill? Try finding hot dogs in the markets on June 1.

Is this eating seasonally?

July is all about red, white, and blue food (i.e. blueberry pie, cherries, whipped cream). Watermelon and corn-on-the-cob in August. Pity pumpkin haters: Orange flesh is everywhere in the Fall -- soups, desserts, breads left by colleagues in break rooms. It's even offered as a "fall favorite" in coffee drinks, as if nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon flavorings had a season. Have you ever had a pumpkin spice latte in February? Why not?

Number one on any Top Ten list of Cultural Carryover Eating is the Thanksgiving bird. Historians have found no menu to know exactly what graced the first harvest tables four hundred years ago in New England, but oysters, cod, and small game like pheasants and geese were likely candidates. How this mutated over centuries to become an 18-pound, mostly white-meat turkey is nothing less than a history of U.S. food system consolidation.

I could have fun giving examples for every month. That these fruits, vegetables, and meats are abundant on a seasonal basis isn't really evidence of seasonal eating. It's more a whisper of past traditions emanating from East Coast climate cycles that mass food producers and food establishments have co-opted to make us think we're eating seasonally. It isn't authentic. "Spring lamb" once had a real meaning.

Today, large growers mass produce items like corn and tomatoes and turkeys to stock supermarket shelves and meet the demand for "seasonal" foods. They are abundant and, in some sense, in season. Somewhere. But the supplies reflect what we think should be in season, and the rest of it -- like avocadoes and tomatoes in February -- simply what we want to have. The result is much less variation than we could enjoy if we ate according to what's in season where we live.

I stopped at a burrito joint recently. Not able to help myself, I asked what were the "seasonal vegetables" in the veggie offering. "Zucchini and corn." Gee, same as they were in August. And with "fresh" tomato salsa no less.

There's an awful lot of great seasonal flavors out there to find and share with my guests this playoff season. I haven't gone to the market yet, but one thing I'm sure of: I'll pass on the wings.

Image: cappi thompson/Shutterstock.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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