The ancients worshiped the return of the sun—that time when in the darkest hour the days began to lengthen. The winter solstice held the promise that the light would again return, seeds would yield to sprout and harvests would once again be reaped. This promise was embedded in the celebration—the birth of the sun.
To this day our holidays surround it; we feast and give gifts, we light candles and sing. The solstice and seasons have influenced many of our culinary traditions and still drive our food production.
Just a mere century ago we were still preparing food like our ancestors had for centuries. Local customs and culinary practices flourished so our food would last through the cold, dark winters. Crops once harvested went through wonderful transformations.
In the West, we made cheese, ground sausage, crocked sauerkraut and brewed beer. In the East, we pickled daikon radish, fermented Miso and turned soybeans into cakes. In North America, the tribes dried bison and crushed thick white kernels of corn.
An entire litany of foods was produced and preserved by drying, salting, fermenting and cooking. These have become our ethnic culinary treasures, the things our grandmothers served.
Today, we do not rely on such measures to feed us. We enjoy a plethora of year-round fresh food offered to us by the wizardry of refrigeration, ships, airplanes and tractor-trailers. Fresh asparagus on our plates in December—not a problem! Our farming infrastructure stretches from the north to the south, producing the freshest most fragile of foods year-round.
Yet these fresh foods still follow the trajectory of the sun as it traverses from North to South and back again.
Consider the asparagus.
Growing up in Iowa 50 years ago asparagus was a once-a-year treat. After the snow had melted and April blossomed, we gorged on tender asparagus snapped wetly from the gardens. May heated up, and they all went to flower. That was the last of the tender grass until next spring. I dreamt wistfully of its taste in December.
Today we pluck asparagus from the produce section almost every week of the year. We take for granted that it’s really a spring crop. We roast, blanch, grill and sauté it to our hearts’ delight. It is particularly prodigious on our holiday menus in December.
Yet this unlikely vegetable follows the same trajectory as our sun as it makes its solstice trek back to the northern climes.
This year the Winter solstice is December 21st and occurs precisely at 8:28 AM Pacific time. This is the shortest day of the year. The sun appears to be at its most southerly point as it hovers directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
So too the asparagus gracing our holiday platters was grown somewhere in Peru or Mexico, quite close to this Tropic nestled at 23.5 degrees north latitude. As the days now grow longer by each measure, our asparagus trudges its way slowly north.
From Peru to Northern Mexico then on to the deserts of California and Arizona, it traverses the latitudes following the sun’s path. As our sun rises further north, our sturdy green vegetable marches into the Central Valley.
By June and July, he is now poking his tips through soil in Washington State.
Despite our ever-growing technologies, we should not forget the influence the sun has on our food supply. It’s not only our friend the asparagus who follows this celestial excursion to give us a year-round bounty. Most fresh foods in the produce aisle are making the same trip.
As you sit down for your holiday meal this year, consider your place in this celestial dance and take a moment to remember that the sun will return, and with it, asparagus and all things fresh shall follow.
Have a delicious holiday!