Friday, September 30, 2005

Tastes of the season

I'm just old enough to remember the "good ol' days" when everyone ate seasonally. Nowadays, one can pick up anything one has a craving for any time of the year at your friendly neighborhood market. Strawberries in the fall? Peaches in the spring? I bet most folks don't even realize how unseasonal those two examples are! But growing up in the four seasons of northern Wisconsin, prices made eating seasonal an important budgeting skill. At least that's what I assume drove my mom to cook that way. Although, honestly, I don't really remember my childhood revolving much around my mother's cooking - she wasn't really fond of the kitchen a lot of the time. Fortunately, I have other cooking mentors in my life.

What I do remember, is the FINDING of seasonal food. I have fond memories of autumn day trips to see the "colors" (Wisconsin is nothing if not breathtaking in it's fall foliage) and stops at apple farms. I remember being handed slices of different apple varieties, much like wine connossieurs (wow, I can NOT believe I spelled that last word correctly on the first attempt!) now sample different wines. I know the difference between the tartness of a Jonathan and the sweet juiciness of a Gravenstein.

I remember tromping through dried grass tall as my waist, dragging a clanky ol' bucket and filling it slowly with raspberries from a local abandoned field. I remember our house steaming with maple syrup that my dad and us kids tapped one year just as winter melted into the promise of spring. I remember corn on the cob bought at farmer's markets and the task of husking them falling to us kids. I remember following a very patient farm woman neighbor around her garden and discovering the fuzzy scratchiness (like my daddy's chin) of cucumbers on the vine, and the elephant ear sized leaves of the squash and pumpkin plants. I remember my grandmother picking strawberries that somehow turned into jewel colored jars of jelly. I remember the gooey crunchy bliss of a caramel apple sold on cold autumn nights at my high school football games. And the scent of pinon pine in people's fireplaces again about the same time the pinon nut harvest was roasted and ready to be purchased from people on street corners selling bags of nuts, ristras of red chilis, braids of garlic.

Although my childhood planted the seed of food as COMING FROM SOMEWHERE OTHER THEN THE MARKET, it was as an adult that I added the most to my storehouse of food and season associations. I started gardening almost as soon as I left my mom's home, and I haven't stopped planting to one degree or another for over 30 years now. I've also been blessed to live in communities that were filled with their own unique cycles of harvest. There were the apple farm trips we continued with our own children, although because we lived in California, they linked with trips to the tree farm in December instead of the autumn trips of my childhood. I anticipate climbing our neighbor's trees late each spring for baskets of cherries that would otherwise be left for the birds. On the coast, I had winter citrus, limes and lemons and oranges that unbelievably (to my midwest eyes) grew FREE on the trees! I remember laying tarps on the ground each November and shaking our walnut trees - the walnuts falling and clattering like hail on the roof in a storm. The luxury of the green of the first leeks in the dreariness of late winter here in snow country. The way the entire "valley of the moon" smelled like wine during the vineyard harvest. Tangerines and nuts and chocolates in the toes of the Yule stockings. The absolutely indescribable TOMATO-NESS of the first red tomato in the late summer garden. Autumns that were on occasion a blur of apple peelers and peach juice and steaming pots of canning jars. Rhubarb and strawberry pies during the brief weeks when the late rhubarb and the early strawberries ripened together. Pots of chicken soup to nurse the colds and coughs of winter. Turkey, turkey, and more turkey leftovers come the end of November. Not to mention cranberry leftovers and mashed potato leftovers and stuffing leftovers and...

Between the gardening and the community level shopping, I've stuck pretty close to the idea of eating things "in season." With our long hot summer finally giving way to the threat of our first overnight frost, I've been craving autumn foods. I made a peach pie the other night. Although there's still a big jar of iced tea in the fridge, I made my first cup of hot tea before bed this week. The first cup of tea of the season, it's become a marker in time, a ritual. The other day I made up a plate of apple slices and sharp cheddar cheese for a snack. I offered to make the same for my family, but both Jeff and William pooh-poohed the idea of a fresh piece of fruit as palatable. Once I sat down with mine, however, greedy, rather, greedy BIG hands plunged in and I was lucky to get 3 slices of apple and one slice of cheese which I had to battle to keep. The idea of bubbling pots of stew or soup or ratatoulle now sound like perfect late evening meals. I am practically bouncing with anticipation for the opening of our local pumpkin patch tomorrow (although sadly, because we have a football game fall on Oct. 1 this year, our pumpkin patch trip will have to wait until Oct. 2 or 3.

Well, gotta run. I'm off in search of a glass front display case. I'm tired of having to keep some of my more fragile decorations boxed up to protect them from the cats. (and even that's not protection enough for some of them) So, while I'm out and about time, I'll treat myself to a NEW traditional food of the season, a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Yum.


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