Food For Thought: The Balance in Darkness
Are seasonal foods key to thriving in winter?
5:55 AM comes awfully early this time of year.
Well, it comes at precisely the same time as it does the rest of the year, but your brain probably doesn’t believe you. In the northern hemisphere it’s getting darker earlier in the day and it’s staying dark longer in the morning. Depending on your latitude the sun may rise and set a few minutes earlier each day, or you might rise and set without ever seeing daylight.
Humans like to muck with things and we invented Daylight Savings Time during the First World War to squeeze a little more productive time into the daylight hours. Whether it’s a concept that’s outlived its utility or never even worked at all is popular in some circles, but most people I know groan, adjust the clocks, and forget about it in a day or two. Dark is still dark, even if you buy yourself a few minutes of light.
The wildlife has the whole dark and cold thing figured out. The large mammals (of which are among) often take the time to hibernate, and many of the small ones do too. After a flurry of self-fattening and food storage they retreat to a den or nest, hang out the “See You In The Spring” sign, and snooze the winter away.
Humans on the other hand? We fight it.
We fight it with bright lights, alarm clocks, and caffeine. We drag our kids to swimming lessons at an indoor pool and bring them home with damp hair well after the sun has set. We stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up imported lettuce for a salad. The summer months are when most take their holidays, so the real work of the year gets done in the months when our bodies are most disposed to sleep and soup. We do everything we can to maintain a sense of “normalcy” and go about our business, while fussing about our energy levels and the balance of our hormones.
But what if we stopped treating our natural instincts as a pathology, as something to fight, but rather let ourselves be lead by them?
Now, the school bus still comes at 7:35, and the boss won’t be too thrilled if you change your work hours to sync with the sunrise. We can’t expect the rest of the world to adjust to our desires.
But food may be one area where we can acknowledge what our minds and bodies demand during the season of darkness.
Most of the talk about “eating seasonally” revolves around concern for local economies, sustainable agriculture, and the environment. Unless you live in central California or one of the other climate zones with relatively stable temperatures throughout the year there is a pretty good chance that the locally-grown produce you can buy changes dramatically with the passing months. In some cases (like mine) there’s virtually nothing local and fresh from November until April. What we do have is food that stores well like turnips, beets, carrots, and a wide assortment of the hard winter squash varieties. Cabbage. So much cabbage.
And what if these are just what we need?
These foods are the building blocks of so much comfort food: the warming soups, the hearty casseroles, the sweet and savoury roasted vegetable medleys. They are at home in stews and braises and pair well with the grains, pulses, and legumes that sit comfortably on our shelves with no expiration. They meld with the gentle cooking of the slow cooking cuts of meat, warming not only our stomachs but the temperatures in our kitchens. Vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore, winter produce is a warm sweater that fits everyone.
These comfort foods nourish both mind and body. They glow with jewel tones and are snug and homely with tans, browns, and beiges. They demand time to coax out their charms, but much of it is passive, the kind of time that pairs well with time on the couch under a comfy blanket. Perhaps they are a little starchier than the light and leafy foods of summer, but maybe that’s not a bad thing?
Of course, there are diets out there that purport to work with our bodies’ natural circadian rhythms, but most seem aimed at at losing weight (because aren’t they all!) or in some way “hacking” our metabolism to fight fatigue and other “imbalances”. I have no comment on whether such things would work, or whether anyone even needs them. I’m a cook, not a doctor.
But perhaps the balance we are seeking is in the changing seasons and light - the energy and excesses of summer balanced by the rest and simplicity of winter. What is loud becomes silent, what goes up must come down, what ran must sometimes rest. The balance we so desperately crave may not be found in each individual day, but in the whole of the year.
So consider letting your instinct be your guide. Don’t beat yourself up about needing a bit of extra sleep, being a little less productive, and being a little happier in your comfy pants during the darkest days of the year. Enjoy the foods that suit the season where you live - if they thrive in your climate they might just help you to thrive in your climate too.
Make the most of the daylight hours and enjoy how the shorter days make it easier to catch both the sunrises and the sunsets. Spring will come soon enough and you’ll be nourished and rested.