Tag Archives: harvest festival

Celebrating Harvest and Culture

In most of the world, food is cultivated rather than foraged. This means that seeds are planted in the spring, the young plants and trees are nurtured through the summer, and then the fruits of those plants and trees are harvested in the fall. Without exception, this harvest is a cause for celebration.

Ancient farming cultures had fascinating and intricate superstitions, myths, and traditions in hopes of ensuring future harvests. I’ve been thinking about how the harvest is celebrated in different parts of the world. Nowadays, we focus less on pleasing harvest gods and goddesses, and more on having a party before the long winter.

My husband Mike and I are European Americans, mostly Eastern Europe in Mike’s case and Western Europe in mine.  We grew up in Minnesota, a state with a good number of Germans (though not as many as Wisconsin!), and went to elementary school in the 1970s. There was an effort in our suburb to re-popularize German culture, as it had taken a bit of a public-relations hit during the two World Wars. So, I had German-language instruction in my fourth-grade class, elected to take it from seventh grade on, and even studied it in college.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike and I decided to make it a heritage weekend. On Friday, we went to The Rhinelander in Portland. We eschewed the Oktoberfest party tent outside and settled into a booth in the pub, which ended up being much warmer and just as fun. A guy named Tony wandered through playing an accordion, and the waitstaff would occasionally stop everything to lead a round of “In München steht ein Hofbräu Haus” or “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit.” Everyone joined in.

Eins, zwei, g’suffah!

We had a great time! I wondered why people don’t sing at the top of their lungs during every meal. Our waitress, Maria, told us she moved to Portland from Germany in 1982, and has worked at the restaurant ever since. She helped me decipher a few words in the old sayings painted in a mural across the walls.

“You should come back any time you want to speak German with me,” Maria said.

Since Northern Hemisphere cultures harvest at around the same time, autumn weekends can get busy in the United States. That same weekend there were also huge Greek and Polish festivals. Mike grew up with Bohemian and Polish food on his dad’s side, so he was very excited to go to Polishfest.

Clockwise from top: golumpke, pierogi, kielbasa, sauerkraut, bread. He already ate the pickles.

There was a loooong line at the food tent—lots of people share Mike’s passion for cabbage rolls. Thankfully, we got cups of Żywiec beer before we went for food, and then settled under the big tent to watch some traditional courting dances.

I mused about the variations of the same folk dances in so many cultures, even square dancing in the United States, all meant to give the kids a respectable way of feeling each other out for mating purposes.

German and Polish cultures are, all in all, pretty similar. There’s beer and sausages; modest folk dances in circles with elaborately embroidered costumes; pink-cheeked Caucasians; polka music. That same weekend, while cruising around Facebook, I noticed my friend Lara posted a photo of a leafy lean-to and wrote, “The sukkah’s up!”

“What on Earth is a sukkah?” I wondered.

Well. Yet another element of Jewish culture I knew nothing about. Despite all this talk of growing up around Germans, the western suburbs of Minneapolis were also home to many Jewish families (some were both, of course). I remember the Talmud Torah bus parked outside my elementary school in the afternoon, and those same Jewish kids, who had been learning German with me a few hours before, climbing aboard the bus after the bell rang to go learn Hebrew.

I felt like I knew a lot about Judaism, having grown up with dozens of Friedmans, Goldmans, Goldsteins and Bernsteins, and attending their bar and bat mitzvahs. But, the more I learn about Jewish culture the more I realize how deep it really goes. I could write an entire blog post about the sukkah, an element of the Jewish harvest fest (and pronounced soo-ka), but I will leave it to you to research. In short, it is a temporary outdoor hut that you decorate and eat meals in; it’s not unusual to go “sukkah-hopping” and check out your friends’ sukkahs. What a great tradition! I feel like I want to start building my own sukkah at harvest time.

The innovation of agriculture has had an enormous affect on human culture. Some of the first harvest celebrations honored Isis in Egypt, Demeter in Greece, and Ceres in Rome; their successors span the globe. How do you celebrate the harvest?

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On Autumn, Pears, and Reclamation

Maybe it’s the equinox. Maybe it’s because Mike was away for a few days. Maybe I’m getting my groove back. But the day before yesterday, I baked a crisp.

A few weeks ago, I met up with my friend and former neighbor (who makes numerous appearances in Get Your Pitchfork On!), Sue, for coffee-dessert-catch up. Sue had a very successful garden this year, and she sent me home with three grocery bags full of food!

Beautiful Bartletts

The last of this bounty was a bowl of pears. I’ve been watching them get riper and riper, and worried that one morning I would find a pile of green fuzz instead of beautiful yellow fruit. The problem was, I have been unable to bake anything, or garden, since we moved.

When the Recession forced Mike and me to sell our beloved country property in 2009, we retreated to the city to regroup. The owner of the house we rented invited us to have a garden. But, I didn’t want one.

I was heartbroken. We had worked so hard to create our garden in the country: planting fruit trees, double-digging beds, putting up a fence with four gates, building a gazebo from trees cut from our land. The tiny strips of ground available around the edge of this urban backyard seemed insulting. To reference various cinema dramas featuring emotionally devastated children, I don’t want this crummy new garden; I want my old garden!

So, for the last three seasons, I’ve boycotted the soil. I cancelled my seed catalogue subscriptions, ignored the overgrown irises, and turned my back on the compost.

Ditto the kitchen. While I’ve never been the daily cook in the family (thank you, Mike) I had certainly put in my time behind the scenes: canning jams and fruits; painstakingly plucking and chopping every leaf off a half-dozen basil plants, crushing a pound of pine nuts, and pulverizing Parmesan for pesto; and cooking big batches of soup to freeze. I was getting fairly good at baking pies, especially pumpkin pies.

But no more. A year after we moved out, I half-heartedly made a pumpkin pie only to realize too late (at Thanksgiving dinner with my family) that I’d used evaporated milk instead of sweetened condensed milk, so there was essentially no sugar in it. I went back into retirement, still heartbroken.

Last week, Mike was out of town for work. Each morning, I looked at the bowl of pears and thought, I need to do something with those. On Tuesday, I moved them from the bowl onto a plate. I moved the plate closer to the coffee press. I moved the plate closer to the sink.

There has to be a statute of limitations on heartbreak, I told myself. Are you going to pout forever?

Finally, on Friday, I faced the pears.

Facing the pears

These were not grocery store blockbusters but modest Bartletts that fit in the palm of my hand. The skins were so tender they peeled off without a knife. I added a couple of apples for tartness, and cardamom, ginger and a bit of cinnamon. (And sugar, of course.) After 45 minutes, I could tell it was done because of the wonderful aroma swirling around the house. I’d forgotten how good that smells.

Mike returned from his trip shortly after the crisp came out of the oven. He raised his nose and sniffed.

“Have you been … baking?”

Yesterday morning, the crisp was part of a hearty Autumnal Equinox brunch. The pear flavor was intense, the perfect thing to welcome fall.

It feels good to reclaim my connection to harvest. Come spring, I might even plant some tomatoes.

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