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Archive for Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Cooler air ushers in fall, winter fare

September 12, 2007

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On Saturday, the afternoon temperature was in the 80s, and we cooked steaks on the grill. It was a perfect late-summer main course, with sliced tomatoes on the side. Even though it was a light meal, it hit the spot. Not too much food, but just enough.

Then on Sunday morning, the outdoor thermometer registered in the 50s, and something changed. It was almost as if the chill in the air had caused a switch inside my brain - and my stomach - to flip. As I pondered what I'd fix for dinner, I realized I was thinking in terms of heavier food and that my taste buds were gravitating toward ingredients and flavors that belong to fall and winter.

I ended up making a vegetable-beef soup, with plenty of carrots, onions and potatoes and a broth flavored with bay leaf and dried basil. With that one meal, we ushered in a new season. Dinner doesn't get more autumnal than a pot of beef and root vegetables.

This is not the first time I have noticed that my food preferences change with the weather. It's no accident that my inclination toward heavier food increases in proportion to the drop in temperature, as it happens to me every year. I sense that I am not alone.

To some extent, this is probably the result of conditioning, particularly if we have eaten a lot of fresh and in-season vegetables during our lives. We have no expectation that hot-weather veggies will be available when the weather is cool, so when we think food in January, we don't make an association with corn on the cob or beefsteak tomatoes.

In the fall, when fresh apples are in the supermarket, we are certainly more likely to cook with them. And we don't generally prepare a pumpkin pie at other times of the year. Many of our sensibilities about a seasonal menu are based on the availability of certain foods, and our fall and winter food traditions have a lot to do with what previous generations could store in a root cellar.

The salad bar can be a lonely place when it's cold outside.

But I am convinced that the seasonal change in food preferences is more than habit or custom. There's a physical component that I suspect is a holdover from a time when we, like other mammals, had to pack on a little more insulation to make it through the winter.

And even now, when we live in homes heated by furnaces, our stomachs don't forget that it's cold outside. When the temperature drops, we want food that is denser and feels like it is sticking to the ribs. Our bodies may not really need additional fuel to stay warm, but they still think they do.

What that means for people like me who enjoy eating and are physically disposed toward weight gain is that fall and winter are perilous times. When my cold-weather metabolism thinks mashed potatoes and gravy are a good idea, I have to know better. While it might seem counterintuitive, I need to make the salad bar my year-round home, even if everything there is out of season.

And even though it's cold outside, exercise needs to remain part of the routine. If we stop exercising during fall and winter, our metabolism slows and we feel colder, which makes us hungrier.

On some level, though, there's something reassuring about being in sync with the seasons. We live so much of our lives contradicting nature that a physical reaction to the change in seasons is probably a healthy thing. I just wish nature didn't want to make me fat.

When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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