Expert tips for growing food in all four seasons

In "We Are What We Eat," chef Alice Waters aims to help readers examine their approach to food production, consumption, and culture.
A pantry full of many canned and preserved fruits and vegetables.
Learning to preserve food is a key aspect of understanding seasonality. Ray Shrewsberry / Unsplash

From We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto by Alice Waters, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Alice Waters. 

In the very early days of Chez Panisse, I knew the importance of the flavor and freshness of our ingredients, but seasonality wasn’t uppermost in my mind. The truth was, seasonality was an invisible force that we were grappling with every day, but we weren’t fully committed to understanding what it meant.

The shift to seasonal cooking at Chez Panisse came with our connection to the farmer Bob Cannard, and the aliveness of the food that came into the restaurant from his farm. Part of this was because of Bob’s semi-coastal Sonoma microclimate; part was because he knew precisely which vegetables and fruits he could grow successfully at different times of the year. He would send us vegetables we didn’t even know were in season. Finding something in the winter like Bob’s carrots or chicories—which were so beautiful and flavorful—was an edible education. His ingredients made us realize that there were new and different flavors to be found, whatever season we were in.

Dump mediocrity; embrace ripeness

Ripeness is the key to seasonality. There’s a subtlety to ripeness, and it takes discernment to know when something is ripe: the right amount of give to an avocado, the color of the shoulders of the Blenheim apricot, the scent of a passion fruit. You must look carefully, evaluate the flavors, and figure out the essence. Discernment is not the same thing as judgment; it’s not merely “this is good”; “this is bad.” To understand ripeness, you have to learn through trial and error—you have to taste and taste again.

You really come to understand ripeness when you grow food yourself. People who farm or have fruit trees and vegetable gardens in their yards—or tomatoes or herbs on their fire escape—learn through experimentation, and after a few seasons they begin to figure it out. At the Edible Schoolyard, for example, the kids now know exactly when the raspberries and mulberries are ripe, because they’ve learned from exploration. Before they started school, they had no idea what a mulberry was! But when they come back to school in mid-August and go out for their first science class of the year in the garden, they go straight for the mulberries. Ripeness pulls them in every time.

[Related: The complete guide to building a rooftop garden]

People might think eating only what’s in season is unfeasible, or means denying ourselves foods we have grown accustomed to eating all year. We have been conditioned to expect the endless bounty of summer foods through every season, even though that’s simply not the way nature works. I say this all the time, but in truth, when all year long you eat those same second-rate fruits and vegetables that have been flown in from the other side of the world or grown in industrial greenhouses, you can’t actually see them for what they are when they come into season, when they’re ripe and delicious. By that time, you’re already bored. You’re eating in a thoughtless way. Letting go of this constant availability doesn’t have to be restrictive. On the contrary. It’s about letting go of mediocrity. It is liberating.

Plan ahead and learn to preserve

Another argument I hear against seasonality is that we can’t possibly feed everyone on this planet if we have to survive on what’s locally grown. I don’t believe that. I’m convinced that using networks of small, local farms is the only way we actually can feed everyone sustainably. Yet I’m always told, “It’s all very well for you to talk about seasonality in Berkeley, but I live in Maine. We have a long winter. What am I supposed to eat?” I recognize the challenge. And it is true: in California, some fruits and vegetables do grow outside all winter long. Bob Cannard’s extraordinary farm is proof of that. We are lucky. But it is possible to eat seasonally in seemingly inhospitable climates. We are so unaccustomed to eating in season that we’ve forgotten the traditional ways people have preserved and cooked food. I am amazed by all the ways it is possible to capture seasonality: salting cod, curing ham, pickling cabbage or carrots or turnips, canning tomatoes or peaches—or cooking with all the heritage varieties of dried beans, lentils, pasta, rice, spices, nuts, and dried berries.

As recently as 60 years ago, preserving was a skill that most families had. When you know how to cook and preserve foods, you can employ these ingredients in myriad ways. Freezing can also be used to capture a moment, as with stocks or fruit that can be made into smoothies and ice creams later in the year. Preserving food helps us all be less food insecure. And while I am completely devoted to seasonality and the primacy of localness, I do recognize the benefits of Carlo Petrini’s idea of “virtuous globalization”: buying coffee, tea, spices, chocolate, and other nonperishable goods from people in other countries who are using best farming and labor practices.

Living in the season is empowering—and there can be enough local food, even in the months when there are fewer fresh ingredients available. It’s possible to prepare yourself. You need to have cool places to store sweet potatoes and apples and nuts. You need to have the forethought to capture and preserve the bounty of the harvest when it’s at its peak.

Eating in season also challenges you to be inventive. I find I take much more care with ingredients when I’m eating seasonally. I’m more economical, too: I might candy the orange rinds instead of throwing them away, and I might make a broth using the green tops of vegetables and onion skins. I’m not as inclined to let things go to waste, because I know this is the one moment of the year to have that beautiful spring pea, or that September fig. I cherish it.

[Related: Don’t waste banana peels: Turn them into tasty vegan ‘pulled pork’]

The good news is there are also many ways to naturally extend the growing season. This is not the same thing as shipping food halfway around the world or building industrial greenhouses that rely on the use of pesticides. It’s a way of working creatively with our shifting seasons. One of the most extraordinary organic greenhouses I’ve ever encountered is at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, in Ireland; the sheer diversity of plants in it is staggering. It is an organic laboratory. They have taken the local agriculture around them and extended it through the winter. There are still limitations, of course—you cannot have a ripe cherry from a greenhouse in January—but your options can be expanded through skillful organic, regenerative growing practices. And it can happen all over the world.

Be patient

Chef and author Alice Waters cooks food outdoors in her garden in her backyard.
Waters working in her backyard. Courtesy of Alice Waters

Patience is obviously part of seasonality, too. Every year, we can’t wait for the arrival of our California king salmon. But we do wait. And when it’s finally in season, we have it on the menu all the time, and it is sublime. Most important, cooking like this helps us to remember that we can’t expect the salmon season to be what it has always been. The local salmon’s availability is different every year, because of global warming, overfishing, and natural environmental shifts. Two years ago, the local salmon was available for only six short weeks. We have to go with nature’s ups and downs. And when we do, we become more attuned to the bigger picture of what’s happening to our ecosystem, and we want to take care of it.

Because it is terribly important that we accept change. Everything is different all the time—when we want the world around us to always be the same, we are swimming upstream. Seasonality helps guide us and propels us to embrace change rather than dread it. When you accept the seasons, you feel the ephemeral nature of each moment and understand how fleeting and precious life is.

Alice Waters is a chef and the founder/owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California (est. 1971). She has won numerous awards, including the National Humanities Medal, the French Legion of Honor Medal, the Cavaliere of the Italian Republic, and three James Beard Awards. As vice president of Slow Food International and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project, she has helped bring organic seasonal food awareness to people of all ages all over the world.

Buy We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto here, now available in paperback.