Firsts and Lasts

by Sarah West


For a few short weeks each year, we perch on a bountiful cusp, the air palpable with autumn’s chill, the garden sputtering sluggishly to a halt. In anticipation of rain, we hoard partially ripened tomatoes and peppers, lining the kitchen counter with their less brilliant, still beloved hues. As the hearty squash, cooking greens, and root crops roll in, we panic slightly at the loss of the tender, succulent wealth that was, for a few brief months, commonplace.

This is the fifth season, the season of firsts and lasts. Spring and summer swarm with arrivals—freshness and youth, deep green that develops into sugary crescendo. Fall and winter whittle the palette down to rich starch and cleansing bitter, heft balanced by water. In the dark days ahead, we will appreciate their comforting manifesto. Now is the time to challenge it.

To those who prefer eating vegetables in their moment, grown and harvested when conditions were appropriate, brought to market vibrant and brimming with their own potential, the season of firsts and lasts offers a unique opportunity. Though summer vegetables and fruits are fast approaching the end of their culinary usefulness, some stand their ground even as the first true emblems of fall start to nudge them off the table. Seasonal eating often requires that we compartmentalize our repertoire—like with like, shaping the flavors of our table into harmonic, familiar communities.

Right now, however, is the year’s best occasion to break the rules. Right now it is possible to top delicata squash with stewed garden tomatoes, to toss celeriac with zucchini, drizzle freshly whirred basil oil over lightly sautéed turnips, make a curry of eggplant and kabocha squash, a salad of chicories and blanched green beans. And now that the solar heat is off, we can handle an afternoon in front of the stove, exploring the deeper flavors of our fresh-eating favorites.

As much as I relish the first few summer tomatoes, naked but for salt, I don’t fall in love until the time comes to comfortably simmer them on the back burner, roast slices for hours in a low oven, or bake them cradled in puff pastry tarts. Tomato magic is, for me, their transformation from carefree fruit to mesmerizing aromas, flavors developing from sweet to savory to soulful. Autumn’s cool overcast offers the perfect conditions to uncover the secret lives of summer’s fruits.

In the season of firsts and lasts, we let go of perfection. In this moment so very near the end, we cannot be so picky. Once, we desired delicate, brightly aromatic produce. Now we accept the bruised, battered, and failing. Cooking the holdouts is both to our benefit and pleasure, enhancing ailing flavors with seasoning, masking shortcomings by devising contrasting or complementary combinations. Mingling old and new, we illuminate our sense of possibility.

We have been here before, and yet each time we arrive it is as if we enter this season unversed. The firsts and lasts land on the table like dice: from our hand, but with a sprinkling of chance.

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

 T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”