Although we harvest food the year round in most areas occupied by humans, here in the temperate latitudes of the Western Hemisphere we consider fall the harvest season. This is because autumn is our last opportunity to gather as much food as possible in preparation for the coming cold. Tomatoes are still soaking up late summer sun, winter squashes such as butternut and acorn are ripening, beans are drying on the vine, apples and pears are ready for picking, and in days gone by hogs were fattening up.
Once upon a time, fall was the only period of the year north of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn when there was usually more food available than was needed for immediate survival. That’s hard for most of us to imagine. We can buy semi-fresh lettuce and even semi-red strawberries in Nashua, New Hampshire, when there’s two feet of snow on the ground. I was appalled twice today when I looked at apples to discover that at one store they’d been imported from New Zealand and in another from Chile. And this when the local crop is at its peak. But I didn’t have time to make a trip to the farmers’ market so I settled on the Chilean apples the second store had.
Nevertheless, before Chilean apples, most families did at least some preserving every year.
My parents were never big on canning, but they were big on freezing. When I was a kid they’d freeze the tomatoes, green beans, and corn we grew. We’d pick blackberries in the huge devil-spawned thicket behind our house and many of those paint buckets full of tart berries were frozen. And although we had a couple of peach trees, the trees never produced much, so my folks did what those who didn’t live on a farm did and bought a bushel at the farmers’ market to freeze.
Their home freezing was partially a matter of frugality, but it was also a matter of quality, and, I’m convinced, a desire to maintain our connections between earth and hearth throughout the winter. There is something far more satisfying about a bowl of chili made with homegrown tomatoes than one made with tomatoes from a store. Add homegrown beef to the chili and eat it gathered round the table with your family and a fire popping in the background and you have the perfect nourishment for body and soul.
Several years ago I decided I wanted to learn sausage-making and bought a Kitchen Aid mixer (along with the grinding and stuffing attachments) in order to do so — as well as take some of the effort out of baking bread. I was far more successful at making bread than making sausage until Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn wrote Charcuterie: The craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. The book is outstanding if you’re interested in learning to salt, cure, and smoke meats, but more than that, I hadn’t thought of making sausage as a preservation technique until I read the book. It was a small, but important, epiphany. Which brings me to another harvest.
Traditionally butchering was done in the fall, after the first frosts. Prior to refrigeration, this was when it was cool enough that insects weren’t a problem and bacteria were sluggish enough that curing the meat could get ahead of the bugs trying to spoil the meat. Here in the South hogs ruled and so my interest in sausage, which I tend to think of first as pork-based, becomes linked with preserving the fall’s harvest.
At this moment I have half a pork belly in my refrigerator that later this evening I’ll begin curing for pancetta. In my freezer I have six pounds of lamb that sheep farmer and cheese-maker Tim Clark has “loaned” me to develop a lamb sausage. Clark and I have been investigating recipes, but I haven’t found anything close to what I have in mind — or on my tongue. Doesn’t matter. We’ll sort it out. We’ll persevere as we preserve.
Neither the lamb nor the pork came from my patch of earth, but they came from earth near me. And I’m preserving them for use this winter in hearty dishes that keep body tied to soul and earth tied to hearth.
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