An Overview of Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables

“The seasons don’t ever divide themselves neatly,” writes Joshua McFadden in the opening of the Early Summer chapter of Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables. “Spring flows into early summer in fits and starts. A week of T-shirt weather may be followed by a string of cool gray days challenging our optimism about summer’s arrival.”

Almost as soon as I began working with saijiki in my haiku practice, I struggled with the definition of seasons. The lunar-based haiku seasons didn’t correspond neatly with the Gregorian calendar under which I lived. I was living in Texas, where the seasonal expression is quite different from where I live now. And it’s true that the Earth doesn’t give us neat divisions. In the Gregorian calendar, summer has just started. In the haiku calendar, we’re in the middle of it. Two weeks ago, the last time I went to the farmer’s market, I saw an abundance of early summer (beets, potatoes) vegetables and midsummer vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower). But the early summer fennel and celery were out of season, and the summer squashes hadn’t arrived yet. I have started learning to live in the liminal space of seasons, and this book is an excellent guide for that.

Six Seasons includes the standard spring, autumn, and winter. Summer, however, is divided into three sections: early, mid, and late. Each chapter contains a few key vegetables as the centerpiece, and McFadden details how their flavors and textures change throughout the season. Not only do seasons not divide themselves evenly, but vegetables are not the same through their entire growing range. What is sweet enough to eat raw one week might be moving toward bitterness a week later, and would benefit from cooking. It might be an insult to the carrot to cook it early in the season, but doing so toward the end of its peak enhances the flavors that are starting to fade. There is no one right way to eat or cook a vegetable; that depends as much on time of year as anything else.

Over on the podcast, I’ve raved about the salad recipes I’ve tried from this book. Ultimately, though, there are two components of Six Seasons that make it more than a standard-issue cookbook:

1. It focuses on techniques and practices. To be clear, it’s not a textbook; you won’t learn fancy knife skills (and that’s probably not really something best taught in a book anyway). But McFadden sprinkles in small things that make a big difference. For example, I’ve learned that if you’re making pasta with broccoli, the best way to cook the broccoli is to throw it in for the last few minutes of the pasta cook time. That way, it gets infused with the salted, starchy water, amping up the flavor. (I also swear it makes the broccoli come out brighter, but maybe that’s a placebo effect.)

2. It reminds me that eating seasonally means surrendering control and will. For example, I’m writing this at the end of June. No matter how much I might hypothetically be craving butternut squash (really, I could just go for a good breakfast taco), there’s no way I’m going to find the requisite ingredients at the peak of freshness. Sure, I could go to a supermarket and there would probably be a butternut squash there, given the world we live in. But that doesn’t mean the squash is in great condition. If I wanted a savory squash dish, zucchini boats stuffed with sausage, cheese, and Italian seasoning would be a better menu option.

That doesn’t mean you have to somehow align your cravings with the seasons, though I think most of us do to some degree (I want more salads in the middle of summer than I do in the middle of winter). That doesn’t mean that if you indulge the hankering for the comfort of an out-of-season dish, you’re a morally inferior person. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a smoothie out of frozen berries in January, if that’s what you’re into.

What it does mean, though, is that if you really want to get in tune with the seasons, you have to relinquish expectation. Maybe you can’t wait to make roasted beets. But maybe the week you’re expecting to find them at the farmer’s market, they’re not there. Maybe three weeks goes by before they’re finally ready. Frustrating? Sure. But the fact is that we’ve been trying to bend the world to human whim for a long time now, and it’s clearly not going well.

To eat seasonally means that you can’t plan too hard. As someone who likes to rigidly plan out all her meals for the week and go shopping in one fell swoop, this was a tough lesson to learn. The farms aren’t going to yield to what my mind has decided is the most efficient or delicious. I can either change my plan on the fly, or I can make that dreaded second stop to another store to buy what I want, even if it’s not quite ripe.

To eat seasonally is to recognize that the world is so much bigger than your individual wants, and so beyond your individual control. That, I think, is the greatest lesson of Six Seasons, even if it’s not made explicit. Rather, if you make the book a guide to how you approach vegetables generally, that lesson will reveal itself over and over. Which is good, because if you’re anything like me, you’re going to need a reminder.

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