Sunday, March 25, 2012

locavore in spring: a tale of sweet potato stew

None of these backyard pictures is of food.  But that's part of the point.

March 21st :  the first day of spring.  I sort of missed it, but I imagine it’s OK to write about it anyway.  Since the change of seasons always means a change in food around here, I have a little story: a story of sweet potato stew. 

About a month ago, I cooked a stew for dinner.  It included organic CSA sweet potatoes that I stored in a box for winter, onions and garlic from my winter CSA, farmer’s market ginger that I sliced and preserved in sherry months ago, farmer’s market corn that I blanched and froze in August, tomatoes that I canned in September, thyme that I grew and dried for winter, and finally, homemade chicken stock that I made and froze when local chickens were plentiful last fall. 

This collection of ingredients, compiled over time, from so many different, but local, sources, gives a new meaning to the term hunter-gatherer, don’t you think?  We hunt out the farmer instead of the beast, we gather the food from the markets and backyard gardens instead of the forest.  We can it, dry it, cherish it.  Eventually, we get around to eating it.   

Lest you think me too much of a purist, my stew included canned coconut milk from god knows where, and a lime, yes, a lime—a bold foreigner introduced to a surprised and suspicious pot of pale and sweet Virginia spuds.  No xenophobic potatoes, here, however.  The intrusions ultimately integrated nicely, adding a bit of exotic flair to the otherwise local fare. 

Despite all of these different components, I think it only took 15 minutes to put that stew together.  The larger elements of its preparation simply came out of the fabric of our lives.  In the end, I made it because I had the ingredients, rather than the other way around. 

My satisfaction in this kind of meal is deep, even visceral.  We enjoyed our dinner, and slept soundly, filled to brimming with winter’s bounty.  So you will appreciate my dismay when "tragedy" struck.  Steve woke me the next morning and said, “I have some bad news.”  Of course, my thoughts went straight to the kids, but Steve’s tone was apologetic, not panicked.  You don’t wake your spouse and calmly announce, “I have some bad news," then follow with,  "your daughter is missing from her bed.”  So I prepared for something more along the lines of a leaky roof, or the dog threw up on the computer. 

What I got was: “We left the soup out all night.”  He said it like there’d been a death. 

Oh no.  Not the soup.  The roof is fine?

We had to decide, can you eat chicken broth after it sits out all night? 

When making these decisions, I have to weigh in somewhere between my food-safety-friend Kenny who will advise on the disposal of any food left unrefrigerated for more than an hour, and my husband, who will eat lunch meat of unknown origin out of the fridge as long as it “looks alright.”    

We knew what we had to do,  but I couldn't face it, so I left to take Olivia to school.  The pot sat reproachfully on the counter, a forlorn ladle still resting against its side.  Like the day I got rid of our dear old dog’s bed while the kids were at school, Steve kindly removed all evidence of the ruined stew while I was away. 

This stew, with its collection of labors, its compilation of anticipations, it’s flavor, its goodness, even its loss and my, should I say, grief? illustrates our relationship to food: as both sustenance and spirit.  A way of being that somehow also enhances the meaning of our being in the first place.    

If anything, the feast and famine of eating seasonally lays bare that winter food is precious. Growing, collecting, storing, preserving and stewing, makes you intimate with what you're eating.  It makes you love your food.  At this time of year, we feel that love most keenly. 

I used to regard March 21st as a blazing green light for everything spring in the produce aisle.  Eventually, as I began to buy more and more of my vegetables locally, I discovered that the start of spring isn’t necessarily the day spring vegetables become available.  It’s more like the day they begin to grow. 

Consequently, this week didn’t find anything new on our plates.  I admit that the asparagus, lined up like crisply ironed soldiers at Trader Joe’s, sorely tempted me.  I considered bringing some home for Steve’s birthday dinner on Friday.  But the stems felt weak.  The label said Mexico.  Is that any way to celebrate a birthday?  Not really. 

Whatever the sacrifices of winter, I am grateful for our way of eating.  If I was feeling any doubt, the news in recent weeks of something called pink slime in big food’s ground beef provided yet another justification for my convictions.  I posted about it at Opinionista! if you’re interested in reading more. 

So, it is without regret that we'll eat stewed black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and all manner of tomato-based pasta sauces a while longer, but I can tell you, with the flowers blooming in the yard, and the cans of tomatoes, salsa and peaches running low, we have begun to daydream, if not a bit desperately, about what might be unfurling in the fields down the road.


  1. Love the eating local, organic, seasonal! Would love to learn about canning/freezing for winter.

  2. We eat local & seasonally as well....can't wait for asparagus, artichokes and strawberries! We appreciate their taste so much more when we only eat it during it's true season. Down to our last couple of sweet potatoes, canned tomatoes & applesauce, my family is eagerly awaiting the first harvest of spring greens and fruit. It makes it all that much better!

  3. Oh, now I see what you will take from me next - my food. I envision me, with crazed hair, dirty hands, and one local beet on my dinner plate. Of course it's the beets that can be saved and eaten all year round, pretty much. Of course the yummies of our local land will not last like beets: no fresh raspberries or strawberries in winter, of course. I also do not buy produce from other countries and I buy only organic, for the most part. Sometimes a unorganic pineapple finds its ways to my home. Also, I am pretty much committed to only buying fair trade and organic bananas - oops - have to have that produce from distant lands. I should probably investigate about fair trade pineapples, also. I read an article about how mean Dole is, and now I have to pay so much more to avoid Dole produce.

    I am so very impressed with your stew of almost all local CSA and garden foods. I also feel the angst of the decision of whether or not to throw away the stew. I think you did the right thing. It is so very nice of your husband to let you know about the "death" so gently. That made me laugh. I think my husband would have begged to have eaten the old stew. I don't think I would have let him.

    I have my homemade no-poo and conditioner ready to go. I used an old tea bag and some frozen basil leaves to make the conditioner a bit more fun. You used basil too, right? I actually tasted the stewed basil-tea concoction before adding the apple cider vinegar. It tasted kinda good. Conditioner you can sip as you use! We will see what the family and I think of the smell of my new hair. My husband is disappointed and worried as he likes to smell me when he feels a bit tired or bored of the daily tasks. (He only smells my hair and neck parts.) To be continued...

    1. omg - franny i laughed out loud like 4 times while reading this--which is bad because olivia and i just had a big argument, now she hears me laughing maniacally to myself in the next room! so...i have to write a post that GIVES instead of always taking away!! btw, strawberries and rasberries and blueberries freeze beautifully for winter. i put them in shakes and sauces and bakery. so take heart! also, we eat bananas year round. i have my go-to non local fare - trust me. bananas, lemons, limes etc. An occasional pineapple as well. I hope the no-pooing goes well. never fear, you won't have crazed hair when you face that lone local beet - it will be beautiful silky no-poo'd hair! :) just know it took a little time. i really did look like a monster at first. good luck! and thanks for making me laugh so hard!