Though the earth began its polar shift last month, it’s in January when I look for transformation. With the holiday clamor packed away and the buttery sweets either eaten or frozen, I yearn for fresh, for light, for a sprig of something entirely new. I crave, among other things, vegetables: crisp, leafy greens.
Despite my yearning and the earth’s infinitesimal tilt, we remain in the dark cold of winter. The market and grocery store offer little local produce: turnips, stocky carrots, last season’s apples. Outside, gardens lay dormant under mulch and snow, trees stand bare, even seaweed-shores have frozen gray. I see no sign of green, not a single sprout—except in one small corner of our backyard.
Late last summer, shortly after we settled into our new house, my husband built a coldframe—a miniature greenhouse—on a weedy patch at the end of the driveway. Our three boys helped to fill the frame with soil and plant rows of leaf lettuce, kale, arugula, and other greens. Over the months, they’ve watched seedlings turn to plants, and plants to salad. We brush snow from the frame’s slanted window to let in the afternoon sun and at dinnertime, after the sun has set, tramp outside with headlamps and winter boots, crack open the lid and snip a few fresh leaves.
Winters can feel long in Nova Scotia (I know from years spent here as a young adult). Though the ocean moderates and spares us biting cold, spring just waffles, nibbling on snow and rain-turned-ice and then abandoning its mission. A frozen winter is new for our boys, they remember only South Africa, so I try not to wish this long season away. Yes, I crave fresh and green but I want to skate too, and build snowmen, and fly downhill with the kids on their toboggans. The coldframe allows me both, winter and greens. My season-bending salad, a small but vitalizing triumph.
My kids do not agree. On a dreary, cranky, school night—outside still freezing, inside near boiling—I harvested a colander of lettuce, bok choy, and baby romaine. I added avocado, grapefruit, herbs, and honey, and plunked it on the table as part of the family meal.
“Winter Blues Salad,” I announced. “Made with lettuce from our coldframe.”
All eyes on the salad bowl, but no takers.
“It will chase away the winter blues. You know, that yucky feeling when you want it to be warm and bright but it’s not? The greens chase away the blues.... Get it?”
All eyes now on me.
“And it has grapefruit... and a sweet dressing you’ll really like.”
On I rattled, selling this sweet, crisp, homegrown salad to my kids. Alex accepted the grapefruit, Jon gnawed one lettuce leaf. I ate the remaining Winter Blues and then asked myself why. Parenting magazines tell me, page after page, tip upon tip, how to get kids eating greens. I’ve done how. I want to know why. Why do kids consistently reject leafy vegetables?
I spent a fascinating (though non-literary) morning with journals called Pediatrics, Chemical Senses, and Obesity Research, and discovered TAS2R38, a gene that affects taste. In fact, TAS is one of many taste genes we all carry but express in different ways. Roughly two thirds of the human population carry variations of TAS that allow them to taste bitter flavors. These “tasters,” as they are dubbed in the scientific world, enjoy an advantage over non-tasters: the ability to detect bitter poisons—very handy in an evolutionary sense. Unfortunately, tasters risk tossing out their veggies with their bitter poisons. Broccoli, cabbage, turnip and, yes, those leafy greens in my coldframe, harbor bitter chemicals so tasters have to learn to like them. And most of us do. By adulthood, most adults, like me, override their bitter-aversion and love coffee, olives, and leafy vegetables.
But children remain more sensitive to bitter flavors, perhaps because their small size renders them more vulnerable to poisons. That winter salad, in other words, tasted sweeter to me than it did to Jon. As one scientific journal summed up, children “live in different worlds than adults in many sensory realms: sounds, smells, tastes and irritants, but these differences are especially striking for bitter taste.”
There you go. Kids are genetically predisposed to hate greens. What a relief! I’ll just lock down that coldframe until the boys turn 18 and stop cheerleading leafy vegetables through dinnertime.
Except... I still crave winter greens. Almond and red onion salad, arugula and blue cheese pizza, sesame and bok choy stir fry. My kids will still complain, pick, quarantine their greens on the side of the plate, but I’ll continue to eat them—grow, cook, serve, and eat them. That, in essence, is what those hundreds of magazine tips suggest: make healthy food available; set an example; involve kids in preparation. It’s all we can do. Scientists have little idea how TAS and other genes behave in the tumult of culture or environment, much less the family dinner table. Through some mysterious means, through exposure, testing, trying, we learn to love the veggie.
How that change occurs remains, for better or worse, a riddle. But one thing is certain: change will come. The shift I seek during long, cold January will eventually arrive. The kids will grow. The earth will tilt. Green will sprout from garden beds and flourish into bitter-sweet salads in our coldframe and on our table. And someday, my kids will eat them.
Winter Blues Salad
From Evergreen Organics, Vancouver
4 tsp. fresh lemon juice
3 tbsp. fresh grapefruit juice
1 tbsp. honey
1/4 tsp. salt and pepper
1/3 cup light olive oil
3 grapefruit, peeled and cut into segments
1 bunch greens
1 bunch fresh basil or mint chopped
Drizzle salad with dressing and chase the blues away!