Notes from the Field

  • by Ken Ames
  • July 17, 2014


The strawberry season has come and gone. To be more precise, the season for locally-grown strawberries has come and gone. Strawberries are still very much in evidence at the big-box grocery stores but they come from somewhere else, very far away.  

One of the distinctive features of our current age is the shrinking of distances and the concomitant irrelevance of the seasons, at least as they pertain to foodways. Not so long ago, strawberries were pretty much a seasonal treat, available in the Northeast in May or June, depending on your location. Strawberry shortcake, at least when made with fresh berries, was a June event in Connecticut, where I grew up. Now strawberry shortcake is available anytime we want it. I think that industrially-produced berries from a continent away don’t taste the same as local berries freshly picked and that the strawberry shortcake made from them is a pale reflection of the real thing, but that is just one opinion. Let the record show, however, that as a youth I spent many a June morning between 8 a.m. and noon picking strawberries for the princely sum of six cents a basket, sampling the wares as I went. I know what fresh strawberries taste like.

It is true that at the present time berries locally grown are usually at least twice as expensive as berries shipped in from afar. The difference in price can be reduced by picking your own berries at a nearby farm, if that option is available. Even so, we are left with the uncomfortable realization, once again, that buying local is a modest luxury of sorts, available to those with the time to shop at farmers’ markets or roadside stands and willing and able to pay twice the supermarket price. Formerly commonplace locally-grown strawberries have become boutique specialty goods. 

What is curious about the current situation is that agribusiness berries have not put an end to local production for local consumption. There remains a considerable market for the latter. It should be noted, of course, that for many people strawberries are strawberries.  Strawberries in June, strawberries in January, it’s all the same thing. And there is no point in paying $6 for something you can buy for $3. Or two for $5 with your discount card. Yet there are others who are content to let at least some of their food choices be guided by the seasonal rhythms of the place they live. For some, there is great pleasure in anticipating the gustatory delights that come with each of the seasons and, then, taking full advantage of the bounty when it arrives. It might seem perverse, but there are people who are content to limit their eating of strawberries to June and their eating of sweet corn and fresh tomatoes to the months they are locally grown. Really good is worth waiting for.    

The notion of place has received a considerable academic attention in recent years as chain stores and restaurants have created a certain sense of sameness across the country, often erasing or obscuring regional distinctions and any sense of local history. The title of Kevin Lynch’s classic text of 1972, What Time Is This Place?, however, neatly captures the idea that place is inseparable from time. Lynch was primarily concerned with historical time, most clearly evident in the marks that humans have left on the landscape. But calendar time, or the sequence of the seasons, the changing aspect of the natural world as it passes through its annual cycle, is equally important. As the artifactual world increasingly displaces the natural world, the sequence of the seasons may come to mean little more than changes in the weather. No small matter that, what with more extreme climate conditions, but the more benign features of the seasons are lost as well. 

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times (7/9/2014), Roger Cohen suggested that the problem for the French these days is that they distrust modernity. Technological change has redefined space, deeply troubling for a people who give so much cultural weight to the concept of terroir. The French are not the only ones wary of certain aspects of modernity, of course, as Americans’ increasing interest in eating locally and seasonally makes clear. Both these eating strategies are responses to the seasonless everywhere/nowhere of America’s gustatory abundance. We indeed can have everything all the time if we don’t care where it came from. So which is it to be?  Here and in season or everywhere all the time.

We sort of answered the question for ourselves last night. Dinner was corn on the cob and caprese salad with wine. The corn was local. The tomatoes and basil for the caprese were of our own growing but the mozzarella and olive oil came from afar. Our cheap red wine was from Napa, California. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov has argued that this is the best of times for those who love wine. Never before have so many different wines from so many different places been available. And so too with food. Extraordinary abundance and diversity. And so we have choices. We can eat local or not, as we wish. Strawberries all year ‘round or just in June, as suits our wishes and our desire to honor or ignore the seasons. All of this agonizing about what to eat when, of course, probably strikes millions around the globe as a quaint first-world problem, an affliction of the privileged, so to speak. And so it is.

Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.



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