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The other day I was having lunch with a friend of mine. A fellow epicurean, he frequents upscale eateries and possesses an above average knowledge of the gourmet world. Lamenting the end of summer, he eased his melancholy by stating he was at least looking forward to the foods and dishes characteristic of the fall and winter, i.e., braised dishes, hearty stews, and other cold weather fare. This ignited the rebellious Vulcan in me, (meaning my proclivity for challenging the logic in conventional thinking), so I asked: “Why can’t you eat those things in summer?” He immediately cringed, broke eye contact, and murmured something about not eating that kind of food in summer. I still say why not?
Many would agree that heavier foods and warm temperatures clash. A lighter meal on a hot summer day eases the thermal burden, while heartier dishes would aggravate it. This is true, if you’re a nomadic scavenger living in the wilderness. Ancient man did not reside in temperature-controlled environments. More exposed to the elements, his diet reflected the extremes of nature. “Lighter” foods, namely plant matter, were more abundant in the spring and summer. Fall and winter, not only brought a drop in temperatures, but the end of the growing season. Man was forced to rely on richer sustenance, namely meat and fat, to survive. Because most root vegetables peak in the fall and winter, even the plant based nourishment took a turn for the heavier. Pardon the pun, but here lies the “root” of our traditional winter fare.
But in your kitchen or your favorite restaurant’s dining room, the environment is 70 degrees be it the result of air conditioning or heating. Granted, many meals are consumed outdoors in the summer. I probably wouldn’t relish a bowl of beef stew in 90-degree heat during a July barbeque either. But with the exception of outdoor dining, your Saturday night dinners in July and December are probably not differentiated by any notable temperature fluctuation.
Many individuals scale down their meals during the warmer months to lose weight and look better in that new bathing suit. Fine. I’ll give you that one. And any gourmet worth his salt looks forward to the fresh vegetables and fruits that only spring and summer can provide. OK, I’ll give you that one too.
But my point is, that beneath the sweltering heat of outdoor cookouts, the new bathing suit, and the seasonality of fresh produce, lurks an arbitrary association between the time of year and food.
Born out of necessity ages ago, this cultural culinary edict is unnecessary in the modern world, and only serves to impose one more constraint on our dietary pleasures. I mean, is there any REAL reason why a person can’t have a bowl of beef stew in their air-conditioned August living room as they watch the Yankees?
Conversely, what about grilling in the winter? Sound crazy? Friends of mine kept their gas grill on their patio just outside the sliding doors that led to their kitchen. Even in winter they’d slap their chow on the grill, go back inside, and return when it was time to flip. And why not? The only connection between grilling and summer is that grills are typically kept outdoors where many summer parties occur. But there’s no inherent reason for reserving this cooking method for when the earth’s axis is tilted toward the sun.
Human behavior is replete with capricious rules and customs based on ritual traditions. Our dietary realm is certainly no exception. You may recall the movie “Starman,” where Jeff Bridges plays an intellectually superior alien, completely new to Earth, and on the run from the government with Karen Allen. At a roadside diner having his first earthly meal, the waitress brings the entrée and the dessert together. Bridges goes for the desert but is rebuked by Allen who informs him that dessert is eaten last. When he asks why, she can offer nothing more than “that’s the way we do it.” Unconvinced by her flimsy reasoning, he proceeds to consume his dessert first with delight.
Sociologists would probably argue that human customs, whether they are rational or not, serve to weave the fabric of society. That even senseless conventions facilitate group cohesiveness, social interaction, and provide a framework for societal order. I suppose that’s true but I would argue that arbitrary dictates also inhibit our pleasures and our freedom. We already impose enough guilt, restrictions, and limitations on our diets in this nation. I say our palates should not be chained by ancient necessities, whimsical traditions, or social pressures. We don’t have to worry about whether the rotting elk corpse we found will sustain our family till the snow melts. We can eat what we want, whenever we want it. Eat, drink and be merry. Break the rules.