When I was 8 years old, our next-door neighbor put in an asparagus bed and I made the life-changing discovery that the brine-soaked, gray-green mush from the Green Giant can bore no relation to the crisp, pencil-thin stalks with the delicate flavor I began to look forward to every spring. This was the 1960s; at the time I'm not sure I realized that food had seasons. Everything from young peas to "cling" peaches was available 365 days a year and required only the touch of the electric can opener that occupied an exalted spot on our kitchen counter.
Decades later, pretty much the only canned fruits or vegetables serious cooks will admit to having on their pantry shelves are Italian plum tomatoes, but it is no longer enough for produce to be simply "fresh." Increasingly, relentlessly even, chefs and diners alike are demanding that the offerings on the plate be seasonal. At this very moment such winter citrus as kumquats and Meyer lemons happen to be hanging off the trees just outside my back door in Louisiana, but I'm not the only one with a garden. Chefs across the country are becoming small farmers. Outside New Orleans, at La Provence, "Iron Chef" runner-up John Besh not only raises his own chickens and pigs but also has an orchard of citrus and fig trees. Summer Winter, which opened this past fall outside Boston, has a greenhouse on the premises with a full-time farmer, whose offerings even turn up in the drinks: summer cocktails include a mint-infused "whiskey smash" and a vodka-based fruit punch with basil.
The apotheosis of the seasonal trend—or maybe the biggest gimmick—is currently known as Park Avenue Winter, the former Park Avenue Grill, which now changes its menu, its décor and its name along with the season. At a recent lunch, in the all-white winter dining room (as opposed to the green tones that will arrive with Park Avenue Spring), I had roast chicken with hen of the woods mushrooms instead of the pumpkin that accompanied the same dish at Park Avenue Fall. People seem to love it, and the food is quite good, but despite the hoopla surrounding the changing décor (and even servers' outfits) it is not an entirely original concept. In pre-canning days, everyone ate seasonally; Thomas Jefferson grew 14 different lettuces. The still thoroughly modern Four Seasons opened in 1959, and Joe Baum, who created its menu, was an early proponent of organic vegetables and scoured the country for seasonal ingredients. The composer John Cage, an amateur mycologist, occasionally supplied the kitchen with mushrooms.
When Alice Waters's "Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook" was published in 1982, an entire section was devoted to menus based on lobster, spring lamb and artichokes. The combination occurred, she wrote, because they "appear at the same time of year." And with that, she hits on the best reason other than their heightened flavor to serve seasonal foods: they naturally complement each other. The plethora of leafy winter greens, from tangy mustards to earthy cavolo nero (black kale), currently available, are brilliant counterparts to the richer, sweeter tastes of winter squash, sweet potatoes and parsnips that are also in season, and which in turn pair beautifully with salty cured meats like bacon and country ham traditionally served in winter.
For the past month, I've been shaving off bits of the Smithfield ham in my refrigerator and adding them to collards and kale and a marvelous white-bean soup from my buddy Louis Osteen. He just opened a branch of his eponymous Pawleys Island, S.C., restaurant in Las Vegas. His soup, which also contains a big bunch of mustard greens, is the perfect seasonal—and Super Bowl—fare.