There are foods which we eat because we like them, there are foods which we eat for ritual. With the abandonment of seasonality ritualistic foods have less and less importance. What is the significance of a turkey or goose when you can eat it in July, why would the first green asparagus have any impact when they are available in December. But, of course, the foods we eat in season are the foods which are designed to match the weather we are going through – heavy roots, dark green brassicas to fill us with vitamin d and carbohydrates during the long cold dark, pale green plants to cleanse us in spring, and light water filled vegetables to hydrate and nourish when we need fewer calories in the heat. Our animal husbandry used to mirror the seasons – the pig slaughtered in autumn to provide protein and fat during the winter, the baby lamb in the spring as a pagan offering to give thanks for the warming of the earth. If you follow a cheese over the spring and summer, you will note that the flavour changes entirely from the light creaminess of May and June, to the dryer stronger cheese of autumn. The discovery of the year for me was a yogurt made from raw sheep milk which was akin to eating clouds. It ran out in late August, an abrupt reminder of how accustomed urban westerners are to having whatever they want whenever they want it.
In North America in October pumpkins are everywhere. Orange, yellow, white, black, a rather off-putting grey, they seem to adorn every front yard, every roadside, every market. I cannot understand the economics of this, there seems to be about half a ton per Canadian here. Even with all the soup, muffins and pies, and halloween, there must be a huge surplus – are they being channelled into providing power, fuelling the snowploughs that even now are limbering up for the white horror to come. We now see butternut squash in Europe, and these huge orange spheres have come with the replacement of All Souls with Hollywood Halloween, but really we are complete amateurs on this front.
Once upon a time a farmer planted a little seed in his garden, and after a while it sprouted and became a vine and bore many squashes. One day in October, when they were ripe, he picked one and took it to market. A grocerman bought and put it in his shop. That same morning, a little girl in a brown hat and blue dress, with a round face and snub nose, went and bought it for her mother. She lugged it home, cut it up, and boiled it in the big pot, mashed some of it with salt and butter, for dinner. And to the rest she added a pint of milk, two eggs, four spoons of sugar, nutmeg, and some crackers, put it in a deep dish, and baked it till it was brown and nice, and next day it was eaten by a family named March.
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott 1832-1888)
This book was such a part of my childhood, so much more exotic to me than the brutal class divisions and repressed homosexuality of Enid Blyton. But what on earth did it mean? Squash was a bright orange sugary liquid served on celebratory occasions, birthdays, Christmas, surviving another year. It was also a verb applying to being in a tent on girl guide camp. And that was it. (This was before the 1980s when Masters of the Universe cascaded with manly sweat whacking balls at each other on the court.) I looked it up and discovered it was a vegetable, akin to a marrow. This was not getting any better, marrow was that huge ungainly thing, the size of a six-month old baby, which won prizes at the church fete and then had to be eaten, tasteless and watery, stuffed with apologetic grey mince. There was no lightbulb moment. Because I was in Europe.
Squash was one of the three sisters of Native American agriculture, the others being maize and beans. Each tribe had its own legends about the squash, including one in which a wise man is magicked away, leaving only his large bald head, which is why it is so good for you and makes you clever. Squash flowers (which I guess are large fiori di zucchini) featured prominently in the diet of the tribes of what are now the southern states of the US.
I am often wrong-footed in the US. The cliche of two cultures separated by a common language is daily thrust at you. If the continent spoke cantonese we would not expect familiarity, but English and the constant exposure of images in film have lulled us into an illusion of understanding. Here I am driving down Mulholland, I know exactly where I am, look at the stars and stripes flying outside almost every house, this must be a right-wing republican town, someone asks me how I am, so I start to tell them, and so on. The negative images we have digested with glee, sometimes equating it with a lack of sophistication, the horrendous gun laws, the terrifying disregard for the environment, the massive size of some of the citizens, but these are just aspects of a huge whole. You would expect little commonality in the lives of a Balkan farmer and a banker in Edinburgh, why should a monoculture exist on this continent? But look for unity as opposed to homogeneity. A tiny thing, but an important ritual which seems to hold people together, not a reality show, not a war, just a meal. The Thanksgiving dinner is the most extraordinary thing to a non-American, it is the transatlantic Marmite or gratton. How can they? Turkey, fine. Green beans, fine. Sweet potato puree (which I have had with marshmallow on top), pumpkin pie (very very sweet), cornbread and biscuits (both very sweet). But this meal , much more than the Victorian Christmas which we now celebrate as the norm in England, is about memory and ritual, it uses the foods which the settlers were given by the natives, blending them into extant European dishes. The Three Sisters, in modern dress, uniting the country they inhabited first. The spirit of Patung Kachina, the Squash God, lives on, his sad weeping drowned out by the cacophonous clamour of the city.
O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
I have poked around and found the most wonderful book, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, the oral history of the Hidatsa tribe, who lived on the Great Plains, recounted by Maxi’diwiac (BBW). BBW was born around 1840 and died in the 1930s, and the book is a record of the agricultural practices of the tribe, in particular their planting of the Three Sisters. How miraculous that such a piece of knowledge, preserved only orally, should still be available today.