Our Sacred Seasons

by Catherine Schmitt

The Salarius blog has been running for nearly three years. In that time, I’ve covered the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico; the Boston Seafood Show; restaurants and festivals that serve Maine seafood; Sea Grant-funded research on seafood; lobster, oysters, shrimp, scallops, alewives, smelt, sardines, crab, eel, salmon, and sea vegetables; and the ever-elusive notion of “sustainable seafood.”

In reviewing the dozens of posts from the last three years, one thing is evident: seasons are important. From smelt and alewives in the spring to lobster and fish in summer, oysters in fall, and scallops and shrimp in winter, Maine’s seafood supply is fairly seasonal.

Of course, the four seasons are a defining feature of New England. It’s why many of us love living here, and why so many others want to visit. The temperate climate and ever-changing landscape fuel our endless conversations about the weather. (Just wait a minute…)

Perhaps this is why it seems especially offensive that commercial enterprise seems to be corrupting and manipulating our seasonal sensibility.

We are all familiar, I’m sure, with the creep of the winter holiday season earlier into the fall. Back-to-school ads started the week after the Fourth of July. But lately the creep has been happening with other holidays and their related seasonal foodstuffs. Last week, the seasonal shell game reached the point of idiocracy. I was at a certain beachfront establishment at a certain popular sand beach in southern Maine enjoying a day off with friends. A hot, sunny, summer day. We placed our order from the menu on the table, asking for summer ale, the presumed “seasonal” brew on the menu. The server informed us that summer ale was no longer available, and offered us pumpkin ale instead. And it happened again the next day at another establishment in another part of Maine. No summer brew, but we have Octoberfest.

Now, this acceleration of our internal seasonal rhythms is not the fault of the individual restaurant owners or franchisees. In most cases it is the whim of the distributors. So what I want to know is, who decided that pumpkin beer should start being offered in the middle of August? And why?

First, these beverages are intended to be imbibed during certain climate conditions (that’s why they’re called seasonal brews) that reflect their ingredients or foods they are meant to be paired with. As one friend pointed out, pumpkins are not yet ready for harvest around here.

Second, by shifting the beginning of a “season” earlier, the corporate interests are not really gaining anything since the seasons also end earlier because they’re in such a rush to bring in the next thing. So by November—when an Octoberfest or pumpkin beer would be welcome—we’ll be offered winter ale instead.

Pumpkin in August? How confusing. How wrong. The seasons are sacred. They are part of our culture and our history. They make us who we are as residents of the Northeastern United States. Our lives are cyclical. It’s bad enough that climate change is messing with these cycles, we don’t need to meddle, too. We should be cleaving more strongly to our seasonal roots, observing the phenological shifts, doing everything we can to keep the seasons—and ourselves—on track.

With this phenomenon in mind, I leave Salarius readers hoping we will all try to savor each of Maine’s sea foods in its season, as well as in (or near) its true place of origin.

The time has come to transition this blog away from its seafood focus so that we can feature the greater diversity of Sea Grant activities. Watch this space in the months to come for updates from the Marine Extension Team.