It began with a fragrant nectarine a week ago, a curious longing for change.
Being summer in the northern hemisphere, the produce section of our local Whole Foods Market boasts impressive, pyramid displays of picture perfect peaches, cherries, grapes, nectarines and plums. Such lovely abundance, these seasonal delights, yet living in Hawai‛i I seldom buy any of it. My reasons for this are twofold: I tend to choose what is locally grown—pineapple, mango, papaya, and banana, being the common ones, but also other exotics like lychee, passionfruit, guava, star apple, rambutan, mangosteen, dragonfruit, soursop, and cherimoya—because it is the freshest and most flavorsome. Buying local also incurs the smallest carbon footprint (we’re more than two thousand miles from the US mainland) and supports our island economy.
Good cooking always depends on the quality of its ingredients. Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the taste of freshly plucked fruit that has ripened fully on the tree or vine. Alluring as it may be, the produce picked early and shipped from afar never tastes as good as it promises to be.
Still, I often gaze longingly at these summertime jewels as I pass them by, briefly considering using them in something baked—where their underwhelming flavor might not be quite as apparent or critical. I occasionally find myself contemplating a splurge on some glistening ruby cherries for a French clafoutis, or some darkly violet plums for a tart that I would lightly infuse with beguilingly fragrant cardamom. I hunger for something seasonal, something different, something divinely good. Then I remember the fact that I’d have to turn on the oven for an hour in a hot house and I quickly come back to my senses, picking up a local, organic, golden pineapple instead.
Yet the other day as I walked with my basket past the tidy bins of mainland summer fruits, only half seeing them, the tempting scent of nectarine wafted across my consciousness. In a millisecond, it stirred memories of summers past, my olfactory senses recalling the sweet delight of one of my favorite edibles. I could nearly taste the cool, juicy flesh and nectar in my mouth. I paused for a moment, considering the smoothly creased orbs of mottled gold and crimson, then reached out and tested a few for softness. Picked under-ripe, eating them on their own would surely prove disappointing but my mind flashed to the idea of placing them in a salad, paired with wafer-thin slices of raw fennel and jumbled with some gently spiced almonds. Perhaps a few long strips of best-quality Parmesan, as well. Finding a couple fruits that seemed somewhat close to shelf-ripened, I placed them gingerly in my basket alongside an organic papaya.
As the opening course of a Sunday evening meal, the salad proved delightful, far more compelling than I’d imagined it might taste. The nectarines were surprisingly sweet and perfumed, a perfect complement to the anise notes of the crisp fennel shavings (the almonds and Parmesan never appeared). Eating the fruit, however, triggered an unexpected train of thought and reflection.
I’ve been feeling impatient lately, unsettled. Restless. Part of this is that I remain unrooted and dissatisfied in my suburban O’ahu environment, but part of my agitation is something else. In a land of endless summer and bright blue skies, my seasonal-tuned soul longs for change.
Right food, right time, right place. That’s essentially my motto as a cook and it dovetails nicely with “local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable” (they’re the same, really). While my style of cooking reveals a global influence, the ingredients of the Pacific and Asia are regular guests in my Hawai‛i kitchen; a pan-Pacific fusion of flavors seems to best suit our climate and raw materials. Still, I’m growing weary of cuisine tailored to summer’s warmth. Very little changes here in the islands, including the food we eat. My palate’s preference is unabashedly Mediterranean but in the depths of (perpetual) summer a warming, unctuous risotto feels mostly wrong, equally a confit de canard, any slow-cooked, hearty stew, or a decadent chocolate dessert. (That said, I am known to cook and eat them anyway.) Certain types of food have their own season and locale.
Living in a tropical paradise where the bone-chilling touch of winter is far away, where the frigid grey days and the long, frozen nights are only ghosts of memory, certainly has its allure. Yet for some of us born in temperate climes—even Mediterranean-like ones, such as southern California—after the bodysoul thaws out (generally around the second year of sunbathing), the absence of familiar seasons and sense of tropical timelessness begins to feel slightly, well, odd.
I recently wrote to a friend,
While the Solstice has officially stamped our calendars as ‘summer’, the shift in seasons is somewhat minimal in Hawai’i — rarely does it vary more than ten degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year (except at high altitudes on Maui and the Big Island of Hawai’i). In the subtropics, it is far more accurate to speak of ‘wet season’ and ‘dry season’ rather than the four, temperate zone cycles shared by so much of the world. And yet, even a month into our dry time, a good rain might come at any time, any day, to bless the earth with a brief, sudden downpour… even here on the leeward, arid side of the island. The wet, windward side of each island will receive a considerable downpour, no matter the month of year.“
Each time that I have dwelt in these fair islands, much as I love many aspects of Hawai‛i, I end up longing for the classic, familiar seasons. I especially miss autumn, my favorite time of year, with its gentle, gilded melancholy that suits me so very well. I always savor the opportunity to bundle up in a favorite sweater and tromp through fallen, painted leaves in the cool, blustery wind, or stay tucked indoors with a cup of fragrant tea and good book. It’s a time to celebrate the bounty of the harvest; a turning point when my cooking once again undergoes a shift in ingredients, flavors and technique.
Eating the nectarine last week reminded me not only that I miss autumn, winter, and spring, but that each season models and instructs us in some essential wisdom. Winter teaches that nothing bears fruit constantly, and reminds us of the importance of turning inwards and laying fallow for awhile. Rest. Be still. Listen. Dream. Spring—particularly early spring after the long, barren, cold winter—educates us in patience and sacred waiting. Each thing emerges in its own time. The Universe moves and supports all aspects of our daily existence, and we must learn to wait on the Mystery.
As I walk through the Hawaii Kai neighborhood in the mornings of late, looking around what I observe in summer is thirst, almost a sense of urgency. The dry, arid soil longs for water while the leaves and burgeoning fruit drink the bright sunlight yet never get their fill.
Perhaps that’s part of what I’m feeling these days, too.
What I know is that because we are human, we forget. We become impatient, urging each thing to hurry along (ourselves, included). We want to speed forward rather than take our time… or give our time, in a leisurely way. Unhurried. Through the seasons, Nature reminds us of the innate, cyclical rhythms that we have forgotten in the rush and crush of our hurrybusy lives. In the gentle, inescapable grace of its presence in every moment, via the seasonal offerings that bless our existence (and tables), Nature teaches us. We may tire of each season in its course but when the change finally comes, it is generally welcome… and we are ready for the next lesson. Again.
All the wisdom of the natural world embodied in the quiet, tasteful beauty of a nectarine.
As summer blazes on, I know that my task is to channel this enduring solar energy into my work: to finish the final chapter of the manuscript and then move towards sending it forth into the world to become a real book. In the not-too-distant future, autumn will begin to descend (somewhere, if mostly absent here), and it would be lovely to reach the place in my efforts where I too might celebrate a harvest. A time of sharing the fruits of my labor with others in a tangible, real way. Looking beyond, I dream about turning inwards for a much deserved rest in an imagined winter, there to quietly germinate in fecund darkness before sprouting the next project and beginning this all again.
Come back to the moment, River. Change will come when it is due.
Soul Artists know that as with everything in nature, our souls are living things seeking to expand. To grow. Not only do we require the right sort of nourishment for this to occur but because we are a part of nature, we must also honor the seasons through their gifts and teachings. We are not separate—nothing is separate—we are intimately shaped by and reflect our environment.
As everything around us (in the northern aspect of the globe) reaches towards the sun and thirsts for life, as you absorb and embody the brash and bountiful energy of summer, may you find the nourishment you need for body, mind, spirit and soul. Only then can each of us bear our creative fruit, allow it to ripen fully on the vine, and eventually offer it forth to others in a celebration of life.
Let the feast begin.