I went to a Barnes and Noble for the first time in a long while and was shocked by the rack of newly released cookbooks -- nearly two prominently displayed shelves of glossy hardcovers emphasized local food, seasonal produce and kitchen gardening. Snark all you want about trends and recession-era fashions, but it warms my heart to see this ethic become mainstream. There was even a thick stack of one of my favorite recent books, The Seasons on Henry's Farm. A decade ago, this book would have been sold only in health food stores and garden catalogs. Three cheers for it holding it's own next to the table of teen vampire novels.
I flipped through the books and, as with most genres, they were of varying quality. They were uniformly beautiful, with close up shots of garlic scapes and oil-slicked greens. The recipes are what separated out the wheat from the chaff. Clearly, some authors knew what they were talking about and others, well, had jumped a little too quickly on the locavore bandwagon. One book that proclaimed an ethic of "growing your local community" featured pineapple salsa. Unless your local community is Hawaii, that ain't local, baby. I have nothing against recipes featuring fresh fruit, and love a good pineapple now and then. But pretending that you can march over to the farmer's market and pick-up a pineapple to go with your grass-fed pork chop is a little silly.
More subtle, but entirely more irritating to me as someone who truly sweats out the season in her vegetable patch, were some of the garden-based cookbooks. The authors nailed the basics: tomatoes in summer, kale in the late fall. Their lack of gardening chops -- or even their lack of a keen eye for farmer's markets week in and week out -- was shown in the many of the dishes featuring combinations of produce. Apricot and rhubarb marmalade? My rhubarb is long past harvest when the apricots ripen. Corn and melon salad? My corn was picked this week, and my melons are just the size of baby's fists. Most annoying to me are the "summer" recipes featuring greens and tender lettuces. By the time tomatoes are ripe on the vine, any lettuce left in the garden will be bolted and bitter. I just planted my fall lettuce seed in the shadow of tomato plants, heavy with ripe fruit. That's as far as these two garden products will come to each other in my house, unfortunately.
Even my current favorite food writer, Francis Lam of Salon.com, is not immune to "seasonal" gaffes. He wrote a column last week waxing poetic on the powerful flavor of local eating but then gave a recipe for a tomato and arugula pasta. My arugula peters out in early May, and I get another crop in late September. Even the farmer's markets are low on greens this time of year. My list of examples goes on and on, but I am starting to feel a little too grumpy. After all, if these books get someone to plant their own flat of lettuce or raise a tomato or two, that is a good thing. And, as my husband observed after I concluded my bogus-garden-recipe rant, most of the real hard-core gardeners are too busy weeding to sit back and write a cookbook.