On the Side: Ripening too early for ancient rhythms

We find ourselves on the cusp of an ambivalent May, the first, fragile blush of spring already fading - a special breed of Jersey broccoli rabe, so tender it can be eaten raw, finished; good-bye, too, to the feathery, early dandelion greens (saluted with their own annual banquet in Vineland), gone.


Now you see bundles of tight-fisted fiddlehead ferns. Now you don't.


It is reassuring, in one sense, to watch the parade step off, to feel the ancient rhythms kick in: In the woods near Fort Washington State Park, garlicky wild ramps were making their customary debut last week, their lily-like leaves waving, flags of surrender to foragers bent on adding them to a springtime supper.


The morels are more sneaky. But seasoned hunters are onto their tricks; they know which side of rotting trunks to scope out, how to follow the pathways of the wind, and that you need to heed the starting gun of rain.


But there is a disquieting undertone this season, not born simply of the upsetting news that the cost of sustaining rice has climbed out of reach in poor countries (as Vietnam, India, Egypt, and other rice-producers curb exports to combat rising food prices at home) but because it can seem that the times these days may be ripening a little too



The upside, of course, was sweet, dark-green Lancaster County asparagus available last week, so much fuller of flavor than winter's Peruvian placeholders.


And if summer keeps rushing the season, field-grown tomatoes are likely to come on sooner. The local strawberries penciled in for late May might shave a week or two off that if the warming continues.


So at a Malvern BYO, you contemplate the rabbit lasagna speckled with pale-green fava beans and morels, full of thanks for April's showers.


And you consider that any early bounty will likely kick-start the second season Sunday of one of the city's newest jewels - the Headhouse Square Farmers Market, at Second and Lombard.


But something tugs. Perhaps the strawberries are coming too soon. Is there a bait-and-switch quality to the first, fragile blush of global warming - earlier local asparagus, then oysters frying in the bay?


Last week yielded two responses - a grandstanding $1 million prize offered by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to anyone able to commercially grow chicken cultures into fake meat in the lab; and notice from Heritage Foods, the heirloom foods purveyor, of an American answer to the prosciutto-style hams typically imported from Italy and, increasingly, Spain.


The PETA stunt, some argue, is aimed not so much at creating alternative meat, as at spotlighting the environmental burden that feeding, transporting and slaughtering livestock puts on the planet. (Thus illuminating, in the process, the lighter touch of plant-based diets.)


The Heritage announcement involves peanut-fed Berkshire pig pork, cured hams and bacon, that offer the benefit "of launching new American terroirs while relieving those in Europe that are overtaxed because of high demand."


It does not particularly emphasize the fact that the U.S.-bred meat's carbon footprint would be smaller. Heritage is conflicted about locavorism: It relies on mail orders for its old-breed turkeys, hams and heirloom pawpaws from around the country.


So it goes this season, last year's ethical eater now this May's ambivalent eater, eager for early strawberries, dreading too much of a good thing.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.