Rachel Bennett

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

Death and the Harvest

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2011 at 14:49

The face caught me off guard, casting a baleful, crooked glare in my direction. I had paused, breathless, at the top of Queen Anne hill, turning to survey the city below and the trees swaying their dying mosaic of leaves. I was relishing this walk in the soft evening air when the lurid visage lurched into the corner of my eye. Turning, I stared the pumpkin. It was the first jack-o-lantern I’d seen this season, and, unaccustomed to their garish presence, it got me thinking. . .

How strange we humans are, how strange that we lop off the top of a large vegetable, scoop out the innards, and carve a face into its flesh. When you start thinking about it the whole business seems bizarre. Is it just an extreme case of our proclivity to play with our food? A relic of some ancient harvest ritual? Perhaps an extravagant marketing tactic dreamed up by the Pumpkin Growers Association of America, or some such organization, to spark demand? What could have brought us such a zany tradition?

As it turns out, jack-o-lanterns are a mongrel offspring. They are entwined with the history of Halloween, the Irish, and that usual suspect lurking around so much of western history, Catholicism.

Autumn harvest festivals are venerable, perhaps the most ancient of rituals. After all, for most of the last 10,000 years most of us have been farmers. Living at the mercy of the seasons, it seems only natural that every successful harvest induced bacchanalian celebrations, hence the age-old tradition of  autumn festivities wherever crops were grown.

Into this landscape enter the Catholics. In their tireless quest to convert pagans and garner all the attention, the church established not one but two of its own holidays over this time. All Saints Day on November 1st followed by All Souls Day on the 2nd were set aside to honor, respectively, all of the prodigious number of Catholic saints and all deceased yet faithful Catholics.

No one knows precisely how pagan and Catholic rituals tussled and entwined, but an early version of Halloween was the result. And yet, what about this dalliance with death? What about the ghost stories and witches, the plastic skeletons hanging from porches and copious consumption of zombie movies?  It would be wrong to assume that Catholicism, in honoring the dead, was first to bring death and the harvest together.

In Mexico, for instance, rituals surrounding All Souls Days reach a fever pitch in the elaborate foods, traditions, and celebrations of Día de los Muertos. But this does not imply that they simply and wholeheartedly embraced the Catholic calendar. In fact, historians have traced a holiday honoring the dead back to the Aztecs. And to this day, Mexican Catholic celebrations of All Souls have radically reinterpreted the European version of the holiday.

In remote reaches of the British isles, where Celtic traditions held out for longer against Catholic hegemony and interpreted religious doctrine in unexpected ways, we find the most obvious origins of Halloween. Samhain was the Celtic harvest festival, a time of transition from the light to dark, summer to winter. It was also a time during which the veil separating this world and the next was thought to be thin and people might stumble upon spirits and ancestors in the lengthening darkness. It was a time of relief, with a good stock of grain and fruit, but also a frightening time. The ease of summer was over and months of bare, dark winter had to be faced. Today, with ‘seasonality’ as a favorite buzzword of food marketers and restauranteurs, it is hard to imagine what true seasonal dependence meant—the flip side of that abundance of apples, hazelnuts, and fragrant mushrooms was a cold, hard period of paucity and a real fear of making it to the next harvest.

Fear and death manifested in many of the rituals practiced on ‘All Hallows Even’ (the evening before All Hallows Day). A favorite of the Irish was to carve out a turnip and place a candle inside, warding off any evil spirits that might come drifting across from the other world and make trouble for humans. For immigrant Irish in America, turnips where hard to find but they quickly stumbled upon a perfect ghost repelling vegetable. The pumpkin, native to North America, was larger and brightly colored, providing a far more spine-tingling spectacle when carved and lit.

I often wonder why it is that some traditions continue while others fade. There is power, of course. Those in control are often able to manipulate traditions to suit their own ends, and the subtle processes, permutations, and exceptions to this phenomenon are a subject of much academic scrutiny and debate. However, I also wonder if the physicality of some rituals or objects, their raw power to spark the imagination, can lend endurance to certain traditions. Perhaps jack-o-lanterns continue to flicker on doorsteps because the eerie glow they exude is so wonderfully malicious, so ripe for sinister fictions.

*     *     *

Yesterday The Texan and I drove east to pick a pumpkin. The sky issued a pitiful drizzle and an ominous mist clung to the firs as we descended into the Snoqualmie river valley. We found Jubilee Farm, looking a bit forlorn under its coating of mud, squished and squelched our way to the pumpkin patch, and spent a while comparing the merits of various specimens. Eventually we chose a plump and brightly hued 20 pounder. The Texan heaved it onto his shoulder and stumped back to the car, mumbling about mud and how much fun this all was. I walked beside him, listing all the dishes we could make with this magnificent vegetable and breathing in the rain and the damp, dying leaves. Death and the harvest are inseparable, the one always following the other. Once home we carved a large malevolent grin into one side of our pumpkin. Then I used the mouth and eyes to make pumpkin curry and roasted the seeds to make crunchy pepitas—death and the harvest in one meal.

Happy Halloween.

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Mountain Spirits

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2011 at 21:52

‘We can bring a picnic,’ I exclaimed, as if it were an original, breathtaking idea to bring food on a hike. The prospect of eating a meal in the glories of a mountain wilderness, you see, tends to fill me with inordinate glee. ‘Oh, oh, yes,’ I continued, squirming with excitement, ‘we must bring a flask of whiskey.’ My boyfriend (a.k.a. The Texan) looked mildly alarmed. ‘Lets go buy some now,’ I suggested. The Texan’s expression deepened and tinged with doubt as I grabbed his arm and began maneuvering towards the liquor store across the street. It was the look of a man quietly reassessing the sagacity of his love.

I should point out that I am not an alcoholic. There is a big difference, as I explained to The Texan, between slurping whiskey and gingers in front of the TV and enjoying a warming nip from your flask on the summit of a mountain.  The latter might take place at midday, but it does not count as daytime drinking in the pejorative sense. Also, unlike a brawny glass of Old Crow and Schweppes, a hip flask is elegant, rather romantic, and decidedly appropriate for a chilly autumn hike. Furthermore, a little liquor might be useful on a mountain; might even be thought of as a precautionary measure.  What if we got lost or injured? I demanded, making my case as we left the store with a bottle of bourbon. It would get dark and freezing; then you’d really appreciate a tipple.

Hip flasks (again, unlike Old Crow and Schweppes) have a long and notable history. They first appeared in the 18th century and were common among the rich, who could afford the expensive silver and ornate engravings. It was said that silver did not spoil the flavor of the spirits it held, unlike other cheaper metals. Even so, flasks grew in popularity and were soon fashioned from more affordable pewter. In the United States, these sleek, hip-hugging containers became popular during prohibition, when all aids to covert boozing were in high demand. And they stayed in fashion during WWII when they proved convenient for soldiers in the field.

I find much to admire in hip flasks. Delicate or tough, ornate or functional, they are interesting and often beautiful. My brother has one that belonged to our grandfather. It is small and sturdy, a burnished silvery-gold metal displays his initials and a band of leather encircles its width. It is a weighty flask. I also like the air of determined independence—rebellion almost—that a flask exudes. Not only the shape itself, which was designed to be carried easily and fit sleigh against the body, but the dark interior too is a mystery. No one but the flask’s wearer knows what’s inside. It is made to conceal.

*     *     *

The day looked promising as we left the Mount Pilchuck trailhead and began climbing through heavy woods, a soft sun filtering through the branches. But as we clambered above the tree line a dense mist descended and obscured the surrounding expanse of mountains, a breath-taking view on a clear day. It was a short sharp hike, three miles and about 2,500 feet, and we were tired and hungry by the time we summited the peak. Settling on a cold patch of rock we ate sandwiches, teeth chattering and enveloped in a thick, damp fog. Any meal after a climb is satisfying, but this was not the most idyllic picnic. And although I am not sure The Texan was convinced—taking the proffered flask with a slight shake of the head but drinking anyway—I for one was glad of a warming swig of Bulleit Bourbon. A little fire and then honey; a little kindling for my feet on the trail home.

A Fruitcake in Squelchy Boots

In Food on October 2, 2011 at 08:24

It is autumn. Bright summer has softened to a diffused gold and the air turned brisk and invigorating.  At this time of year Seattleites abandon their brief flirtation with optimism and return to resolute melancholy. Each dazzling fall day framed with golden leaves must be savored, for it will surely be the last and give way to endless grey and drizzle. Such is life, they sigh, doubling the daily prescription of americanos, haunting ballads, and microbrews.

For the culinary minded, this pessimism is compounded by the gradual closing of farmers markets and the end of tomato season. No more bulbous heirlooms, jewel-like cherries, or pinky plums will graces market tables and those craving the swelling fruit must content themselves with Mexican impostors, pale and insipid. Only the most resolute will continue picnicking into October and barbecues will soon be cleaned and packed away for another nine months. The general mood is one of resignation; it was good while it lasted.

I must not be a true Seattleite, because I am cheered by the waning tilt of earth. After the closeness of summer, after the scrutinizing sun and the season’s admonition to be out-of-doors, the chill air is a refreshing tonic. After months of languishing under the bodily pulse of growth and greenness, my mind wakes up again. I can think again. I read books and feel an urge to learn things. And unlike many cooks I welcome the end of summer. I have overdosed on salads and even the most scarlet tomato has lost its allure. Instead I dive into butternut squash, mushrooms, and my beloved apple. Bring on the soups and stews, the roasted vegetables and heavy red wine.

In honor of fall, I have made a fruitcake. Not an airy fairy fruit-flecked sponge; not an exotic huckleberry inspired torte. No, this is a traditional fruitcake, the kind that calls for several pounds of dried fruit, a good measure of brandy, and a thick coating of marzipan. It is a cake that delivers calories, the ideal provision for a long hike or a day on the slopes. It is a cake with purpose and character; one might conquer Everest with this cake.

Today my efforts were finally rewarded. Breaking the cake’s ivory surface, I carved out a slice and bit into it. Beneath its pale blanket of marzipan the fruit was dense and earthy, almost black. It repelled light. It was moist and fragrant, chock-full of dark and golden raisins, cranberries, almonds, and little chunks of crystalized ginger. And the whole was infused with a rich brandied warmth. It is a cake to bolster body and soul during even the most foul Seattle weather.

Proper fruitcake is easy to make but it does not provide instant gratification. In addition to the usual mixing and baking, it must then be fed with brandy (spooning some liquor over the cake) daily for a week. Then you make some marzipan, roll it out, and cover the cake. You can also finish it with royal icing, although I prefer simply marzipan. Thanks to the high proportion of fruit and alcohol, this cake will keep for several months so long as you wrap it in foil and keep it in a tightly sealed container. In England, fruitcake was traditional wedding fare and the top-tier was set aside to be eaten at the first child’s christening.

The cake will darken and the flavor will improve with age.

Fruitcake
This is adapted from the BBC Food Christmas cake recipe.

Ingredients
225 grams/8 ounces all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
200 grams/7 ounces butter
200 grams/7 ounces dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
1 tablespoons marmalade
1/2 teaspoons vanilla essence
4 eggs, lightly beaten
800 grams/1 3/4 pounds mixed dark and golden raisins
100 grams/3 1/2 ounces chopped crystalized ginger
150 grams/5 ounces dried cranberries or cherries
100 grams/3 1/2 ounces blanched almonds, chopped
Cheap cooking brandy

Method
1. Heat the oven to 150C/300F. Grease a deep, 20cm/8-inch round cake tin and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper.
2. Sieve the flour, salt, mixed spice and cinnamon into a bowl.
3. Cream the butter and the sugar in a large mixing bowl and then mix in the sugar, treacle, marmalade and vanilla essence until light and fluffy.
4. Mix the eggs a little at a time into the mixture adding a tablespoon of flour mixture with the last amount.
5. Fold in the remaining flour mixture until well mixed and then mix in the dried fruit, crystalized ginger, and almonds.
6. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and make a slight hollow in the centre.
7. Bake in the oven for 2.5 – 3 hours and then test with a skewer. If not ready bake for up to another hour testing every 20 minutes until the skewer comes out clean.
8. Remove from the oven, leave to cool for  15 minutes, and then turn out on to a wire rack and cool completely.
9. Once cool, make a few holes in the cake with a skewer and brush or spoon 1/4 cup of brandy over the cake.
10. Store the cake wrapped in foil and in an airtight tin or plastic container. Brush a little brandy over the cake each day for one week.

Marzipan

Ingredients
250 grams/9 ounces confectioners’ sugar
225 grams/8 ounces blanched almonds
1 egg white, lightly beaten
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Method
1. Grind the almonds to a fine texture in a food processor. Add the confectioner’s sugar and salt and process until combined. Then, add the egg and almond extract and pulse until the mixture just comes together into a dough, adding a little more egg white if necessary – but take care not to add too much egg or your marzipan will be too wet!
2. Divide the marzipan into two balls, roll out one into a round the size of your cake, and carefully place it over the cake. Roll the second ball into a sausage shape and press it out into a long, skinny rectangle the width of your cake’s side. Carefully wrap it around the cake like a belt, trimming where necessary, and press the upper edge together with the top round of marzipan.
3. Smooth the marzipan with the side of a warm damp knife or spatula.

This is it for me, although most people then finish the cake with royal icing.

Proper fruitcake is at its best eaten outside, in rough autumn weather, washed down with a dram of whiskey. No matter how squelchy your boots, this repast will immeasurably improve your existence.