For millennia, humankind dwelling in the parts of the globe with four distinct seasons—during which at least one of them nothing grows—never hankered for salad in February, or asparagus in January. Or strawberries, or broccoli, except in season. They actually enjoyed good health, except when struck with contagious disease, like the pandemic we are enduring now.
So a question floated to me about how islanders might acquire what’s needed for a healthy diet in a place with scant supplies of fresh fare turned on my food historian switch.
Out of season fare in early times was a kind of parlor trick performed by elites in most of the globe. In the later 1800s in this country, though, railroads and steam vessels moved produce quickly from the South to the North, and Americans who could afford it ate fresh fare out of season. Then in the 1900s, California lettuce flooded Northeast markets. Florida oranges, no longer a great Christmas treat, were consumed daily country-wide.
In the later 1800s … Americans who could afford it ate fresh fare out of season.
Today, to enjoy what we term a “healthy” diet, we think we ought to eat all manner of fresh vegetables and fruit at all times of the year even if you live on a remote Maine island.
Islesboro, where I live, has two grocery stores with frequent enough deliveries that the vegetables don’t look like road kill. Frequent enough ferry service means most of our residents have easy access to green stuff on the mainland. I thought I’d ask Barb Fernald, Courtney Naliboff, and Eva Murray what they do on their islands.
Barb in the Cranberry Isles reports that islanders can order produce to be picked up in Ellsworth every other week, and from an even closer source, if needed, delivered by an 11 a.m. daily mailboat, though the island stores there do their best to keep produce on hand. Barb goes off island about every three weeks and picks up produce then, strategically. With lettuce, for example: “I might get three kinds. A leaf lettuce to use right away, a romaine type lettuce for the second week, and iceberg will keep until the third week. By the time we get to the head of iceberg lettuce, I try to have a nice batch alfalfa seeds sprouted to freshen up the salads.”
On North Haven, Courtney reports that “The grocery store carries some greens, bell peppers, celery, carrots, etc., often of dubious quality. Turner Farm has offered a winter CSA off and on for the last seven years, which is phenomenal when it is at full strength.” Various attempts at cooperative ordering for delivery to the island, when it has worked, helped them get produce.
Goodness knows, a deep hunger for greens sets in even at mid-winter and Eva on Matinicus described hauling greenstuff swaddled in layers of spare clothing during bitterly cold weather out to a friend on Monhegan. She had asked the fatal question: do you want anything from the mainland?
You might be as fascinated as I was to find out that the human body evolved to store away essential nutrients to nourish us through seasons of scarcity until we once again eat the food that resupplied it. The catch? If the goal is nutrition, then the fresh food must actually contain nutrients.
Plain fact is, in the U.S. canned and frozen vegetables picked at their peak quality near the processing plants are usually and quickly put up and often contain more intact vitamins than fresh vegetables hauled half-way around the globe or from one hemisphere to another. Same thing goes for home canned fare.
I know, you have a hard time believing that soft, canned peas are better for you than fresh-picked out of state two weeks before. So don’t buy them. Eat your peas in season bought locally from a farm stand or farmer’s market. Or grow your own. Months later when you have them again, they will taste unbelievably delicious. That goes triple for strawberries.
So what can you eat then when peas or strawberries aren’t in season?
Cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips, winter squashes, onions, shallots, potatoes, and apples stored away in cold cellars. Until they are cooked they are fresh. Fermented vegetables like cabbage as sauerkraut or cucumbers as pickles, and all their fermented brethren, are full of those famous probiotics we hear about, not a new invention but rather a strategy thousands of years old. Meanwhile, stuff yourself full of the good green stuff fresh from plants still in the ground and juicy, fat berries and fruits, ripe and warmed in the sun. Your body will use some, store some, and send you a thank you note in the form of well-being.
Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro.