In late summer, I find myself looking over my shoulder for the first frost that signals the end of the summer. Growing up on a family farm in upstate New York, my feelings about that harvest frost were complex—there was a somewhat shameful joy in the relief from work that it promised. But for my dad, the final harvest not only meant the sudden end of income. It also sent him indoors, exiling him from the fields, where he was most comfortable.
As the days shortened, he kept a constant watch for that first frost. He sensed the chill in the air behind the sun's late-summer heat. He worried over still days and cloudless skies that might allow frost to settle in. If these conditions converged on the day of a full moon, we harvested like demons.
Still, sometimes a sudden cold snap surprised him. Then we had nights of urgency, when all hands worked through the darkness to glean that last, late harvest of tomatoes and peppers. I could sense the excitement in my dad's voice as he woke my brother and me from a sound sleep to help out. We dressed quickly on those nights, and rode in the back of the truck to the field of peppers, or tomatoes, or melons, to try to rescue as much as we could. The men would already be there—uncles, cousins, sometimes neighbors—their steamy breath shining in the light from tractors' headlights. It was all business. There was little of the banter or baseball talk of a daytime harvest. Sometimes the only sound was my dad whistling, a sign that he was happy. We'd pick through those early morning hours until Dad somehow sensed that the frost had struck, and that any more harvesting would be literally fruitless.
As the sun rose, and my brothers and I were put back to bed, Dad hauled the harvest off to market, there to trade tales of heroism and compare temperature readings with other farmers. That early-morning market gathering, where men stood around their trucks, stomping their feet and sipping coffee or hot cider, was an impromptu, heartfelt harvest festival, animated by camaraderie and competition. It celebrated the very real fact that these farmers had wrestled enough from the land to ensure survival through the winter.
Plenty of that last fall harvest from our small farm was kept to stock our home larder. We would savor those vegetables, trying to make the tastes of summer last a little longer. Their flavor seemed enlivened, too, by the realization that we'd earned all we could that year from our annual, uneasy arrangement with nature.
The food most of us eat today no longer carries that subtle taste of triumph. There's no question that much of it doesn't have the rich, and sometimes unpredictable, taste and texture it once did. Bad breeding is just a part of it. Our food production system, built on the demand for consistent, seasonless variety, has taken the spontaneity and spice out of our food.
Now, standing in the fluorescent light and chilled air of the produce aisle of my local supermarket, I sometimes realize that, from the produce alone, I couldn't name the month, or even the season. The peaches say June, but the acorn squash argues October. Week after week, identical iceberg lettuces are stacked to the same height, next to the carrots, beside the broccoli. There's an incredible array of food, but no sense of bounty, no earthiness. Every speck of soil that cradled and flavored these fruits and vegetables is gone. All traces of the human energy—like my dad's lifework—that went into the planting and harvest has long since been washed and waxed and trimmed away. Seduced by the promise of out-of-season tomatoes or apples, we're jaded by constant disappointment in their flavor. Soon, we begin to take what we eat for granted.We owe it to ourselves to take back our food, and to recall its power to connect us with nature.
Those of us who garden are still part of the ancient cycle of sowing and reaping. We can feel the satisfaction from harvesting a perfect squash or of eagerly anticipating the rain that will save a crop. But many of us live for months without sinking our hands in the soil—or even touching a leaf. Simple as it may seem, eating seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables can serve as our last, best contact with the earth.
By shopping locally at farmers' markets and seeking out roadside stands, we can celebrate with the growers the first picking of silver queen corn in Pennsylvania, or lament the last of the homegrown creole tomatoes in Louisiana. The fruits and vegetables found in these markets are richer for having been grown in nearby soil and picked ripe at just the right time.
When I take one of the summer's last watermelons from the hands of the farmer who watered and weeded and worried over it, I discover a renewed respect for my food. Grown in the same season and community that we share, that dusty melon is heavy with a sense of time and place. It resonates with the harmony of home.