The frost descended on the pumpkin the other night and in the early morning light, as I drove around the curving roads of rural Virginia, a dozen cows stood silhouetted and blanketed in thick white fog. Eerily outlined against the fading green of the sparse grass they munched, for some reason those cows reminded me of Washington Irving’s story of the “Headless Horseman.” I could just see people of an earlier time jumping out of their skins as they stumbled across cows and other animals in the half-light of a cold morning.
And that brought me to considering the symbolism and meaning of autumn for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere.
In celebrating autumn and the harvest, we toast and salute the farmers of America and the world, the people who feed us. From huge midwestern U.S. farms to plots on terraced hillsides in China, the earth yields its bounty of colorful and tasty foods year after year.
In America, autumn and harvest time used to be almost synonymous.
Today this association no longer holds true as much in the popular imagination, due to the year-round availability of nearly all foods. Thanks to streamlined international marketing and shipping, Americans and others eat strawberries in the dead of winter or fresh pineapple far from the tropical fields where they grow. The eager anticipation of the first sweet corn, ripped from the stalks in the field, shucked quickly and rushed to the boiling pot of water, well, that moment disappeared when the first refrigerated truck rumbled out of the field on its way to a packing plant.
But change is afoot, for nowadays people seek out local farmers’ markets or natural foods stores. More and more farmers devote time to producing the foods our ancestors prized. And many communities set aside plots of communal land for urban farmers to grow food. Farmers’ markets are nothing new. Market days were grand social events in the past both in rural America and in have always been so in Europe and other parts of the world. No doubt, many people remember their grandparents recounting stories about trips to the nearest town to attend markets and catch up with neighbors and friends.
In Virginia, blessed with a relatively mild climate, farmers produce vast quantities of different produce, ranging from wine grapes to apples and all types of vegetables. Several books stress nature’s largess and paint a vibrant portrait of a Virginia that deserves more attention; one of the most interesting of the lot is The Best of Virginia Farms: Cookbook and Tour Book, Recipes, People, Places, by CiCi Williamson.
An early manuscript cookbook, with a dark brown-paper cover, the following old and lovely “book” hints at the work load facing women at harvest time; titled “Book for Receipts 1731,” it resides in Virginia Tech’s Culinary Collection and includes the following tantalizing words:
Pickles & Preserves
“To pickle walnuts, onions, cucumbers, muskmelons, french beans, spanish mangos, turnips, peaches, elder busa, green codlings, ashen keys, pigeons, oysters………”
Preserves include “apricocks, cherys, red or white currants, goosberrys, orange & green plumbs….”
Look for the following during the harvest months:
Former Virginia extension agent, Helen W. Smith says, “Nancy Cockerill, who worked as the Extension Home Economist in Loudoun County for many years, gave me this recipe for Sweet-Sour Pickled Pumpkin about 25 years ago. She said the recipe came from a homemaker in Loudoun County. Making the pumpkin pickles resembles the process similar to making Watermelon Rind Pickles. I have made them several times over the years and think the pickles are delicious and certainly different. They make a nice accompaniment for fall meals, especially with pork roast or ham. I have also served these pickles with turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The pickles are not difficult to make; the time-consuming part is peeling the pumpkin. Be sure you have a sharp knife because the pumpkin skin is tougher than peeling watermelon in making watermelon rind pickles.”
SWEET-SOUR PICKLED PUMPKIN
4-5 pounds diced pumpkin, skin removed
2 cups cider vinegar
4 cups water
1 cup wine vinegar
4-5 pounds sugar (equal to amount of pumpkin)
Juice and peel of one lemon
Small piece of ginger
Peel pumpkin, remove soft insides and seeds. Dice into 1″-1 1/2″ squares. Place in a crock or glass bowl and cover with vinegar and water. Next day remove pumpkin from liquid and drain in a sieve or colander. Heat wine vinegar, sugar, and spices to boiling. Add pumpkin all at once and cook until clear. Then remove with a slotted spoon and place in clean, hot pint jars. Continue to cook pickling liquid until thick and divide among jars covering the pumpkin pieces. Cover with canning lids and rings. Process in a boiling water bath as is done in preparing other pickles.
© 2008 C. Bertelsen