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How seasonal is 'seasonal'?

(post, Laura Parisi)

primary-image, l

Just about every restaurant in Portland serves seasonal cuisine. In the winter, this meant that menus were loaded up with butternut squash (never any other kind), kale, root vegetables (that's a euphemism for "carrots"), blood oranges, beets, potatoes, yams, pear-themed desserts. Because, you know, it was winter.

And now that it's officially spring, more tender vegetables are making their way into restaurant kitchens. In fact, last week I saw an asparagus soup (a little early for that, no?) and this weekend, a pasta dish with morels. Spring has sprung.

But I worry that some restaurants use "seasonal" as nothing more than a marketing ploy. Yes, it's spring, and yes, in the spring we get asparagus, but that doesn't mean that our restaurants are getting asparagus from Oregon yet—or ever. And the whole point of eating with the seasons is to eat food that is available here. And now. Sure, I guess it is possible that the asparagus on that menu was local, but I doubt it, and there is no way of knowing one way or the other (especially in pureed soup form). And that, to me, is troubling.

All of this doubt began last week when I pulled out a forgotten butternut squash from my cupboard that I'd picked it up a while ago at the grocery store—a reputable grocer with an emphasis on local and organic food. I rotated its smooth body in my hand until I found the sticker. And it said:


Mexico? Really?? I go to a lot of trouble to avoid out-of-season veggies that come from afar: in the winter in Portland, this means peppers, cucumbers, asparagus, tomatoes, etc. I never thought it would also mean butternut squash.  I mean, heck! A squash plant grew itself out of my compost last fall—this is the climate for these fellas. Butternuts keep for a long time, so even if the harvest was over when I bought mine, you'd think the grocer would be able to stock squash from somewhere at least semi-close.

Anyway—the point is this: if butternut squash is not available locally in the depth of the winter, then why was it available at nearly every Portland restaurant? Probably because we're all trained to believe it should be. 

And some restaurants probably did feature Northwestern winter squashes. But, inevitably, others sourced theirs from Mexico. And we'd be none the wiser.