Story and Photography By Carol Ann Sayle
Occasionally, a person will stroll through our farm stand in the winter, their eyes appraising tables full of broccoli, beets, carrots, greens and sweet potatoes. Then, apparently uninterested, they’ll turn and head out.
Before they retreat completely, though, I’ll sometimes intercept them and ask out of curiosity, “What are you looking for?”
“Tomatoes,” they’ll say.
Oh, I think, hopelessly. Of course. They want tomatoes—in the middle of winter.
“They’re at the grocery store,” I helpfully tell them with a smile. Oh, not those! They want “homegrown.” They know the difference in taste between “real” tomatoes and substitutes. “We’ll have the real ones in late May,” I reply, but it doesn’t help. Perhaps they’re not fans of eating in season.
“Seasonality” can be confusing in Central Texas, though, unless you’re a year-round gardener. We have abundance most of the year, with the exception of September. But to understand what can be harvested when, we must know which crops are “hot-tolerant” and which are “cold-tolerant.” To complicate things further, crops are often planted in one season and harvested during the next. The good thing about our winters, though, is that the crop list is a lengthy one that involves many families of vegetables—even more than in the summer.
Up north, there is one intense summer season with just about everything in it. You can have the “traditionally famous” tomato and lettuce salad there, for sure. But the downside is that there is next to nothing (fresh) when the land is hit with snow and single-digit temperatures. Surely they have no tomatoes in winter.
I keep trying to perk up the tomato hunters. “By the end of January,” I tell them, “we will have started all of the tomato transplants in our greenhouse, so that they’ll mature in their preferred season: summer.” No good—all the hunters really want is a warm, sun-kissed, juicy heirloom tomato, and they want it now and year-round.
I point to our winter broccoli with a stalk so tender and delicious, there’s no way you’d throw it away. Then there’s the romaine lettuce, crisp and vibrant with life. Nothing. They duck out, and I think, well, they’re not alone. Many folks have never experienced a wide variety of really fresh food—food from nourished soil, picked and sold minutes from the field. I never had until we started to grow food for ourselves and then for others. Through the years, I’ve learned that winter’s crops are just as spectacular in taste and nutrition as summer’s tomatoes and sweet corn.
The hunters aren’t buying that claim, though. Maybe, like me, their winter memories include vegetables like canned mustard greens. Believe me—don’t try that one on your kids unless you need further convincing that they hate vegetables. I’ve never forgotten that bitter green slop. After an hour of pouting, I surreptitiously spooned them into my increasingly soggy napkin. Oddly, mustard greens didn’t make a repeat appearance on our kitchen table after that. And mustard greens are still not preferred by me.
And neither is a tomato in January. No matter where or how it’s grown, an out-of-season tomato cannot compare to a Texas tomato in June. So, living in the moment, I’ll celebrate the wonderful vegetables of the cold season: a few of which are daikon radishes, escarole, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, kale, peas, carrots, parsnips and broccoli. And, as an avowed tomato lover, I won’t settle for a facsimile, but will wait until it’s tomato time.