Long has the harvest been an important part of my life and long has it been associated with fall, bountiful cornucopias of food, and Thanksgiving. Growing up in the Okanagan Valley, the fall harvest meant picking the last of the fruit and stripping our garden of its remaining plenty before tilling the vegetation back into the earth for the following year.
We filled our cold room with preserves and root veggies while at the same time we’d harvest deadwood from the surrounding forests to fuel our hearth and home for the winter. It was a time of year that I especially would bond with my father, watching the Fall Classic on TV; it was also the time of year that my father would take me hunting with him and while I detested the inevitable killing of animals, I cherished our walks into the back-country, a time to just “be” in the embrace of nature as much as a time to be within the embrace of my father’s presence.
It’s not surprising, then, that many of my associations with food and cooking come from this season when the earth and our own labour give so much to our tables.
One of the strongest of these associations occurred on Thanksgiving 20 years ago. I was living in China at the time and was roughly three months into what was the beginning of a life changing journey. For three months, I was high on adventure, where everything was new and exciting. That trip single-handedly changed my life; it marked the moment when I stopped reading about life and found myself with the courage to go out and just live it. In retrospect, I’m not sure I’d quite counsel anyone to jump off a bridge that high or into water that deep, but nevertheless that is where I found myself when Thanksgiving approached that year. I felt like I had just climbed Mount Logan, Canada’s tallest peak. I felt like I had done so with the single-minded focus of just getting to the top as quickly as possible. I felt like I stood atop this pinnacle only to now look back and realize how far away I was from the earth and the safety of everything I knew. It was the first and most startling moment when I felt homesick in what turned out to be four years abroad.
I remember I cooked something that came as close as I could to a Canadian meal as I struggled with all my might to reach back home and feel the love I had left behind. I honestly don’t remember the meal I made that day though I suspect it is in a box of unsorted photos for me to rediscover some day – which is odd, because I remember the emotions vividly. However, I also remember the dessert very clearly, one of the most satisfying and hardest desserts I’ve ever prepared.
I made lemon meringue pie. I know, you were expecting a pumpkin pie like this one I made this past Thanksgiving. But no, I had no pumpkin with which to pull off that feat. What I did have, however, was an eclectic bounty of care packages that friends and family had started sending. Within that foreign pantry was a pre-packaged graham-wafer pie crust … and a package of Shirriff’s lemon pie filling. How could this have been hard to make, you ask? Ah – I had no meringue-in-a-box (did they even make such a thing?). Not hard to make, you say, and I would agree … if you had any kind of electric mixer. Indeed, even a hand beater would have been an improvement over the fork I actually used. I swear my right forearm still gets twitchy at the thought of what that entailed. An hour later, though, I had enough of a peak to my meringue to bake a pie that will forever crown that afternoon of giving thanks for all that I was experiencing and for the family that I had at home that loved me so much to send me the makings for this pie.
That experience welded Thanksgiving into my being as the most important holiday of the year.
And it was the Thanksgiving the year after I returned from abroad that my transformation into a wannabe cook occurred. My then wife and I traveled back to BC to spend the holidays with my father and his wife. My Dad was sick that year so we went back for a few extra days to also help him pile up the wood with which he solely heated his home. I have never split that much wood in two days before or since. But it was also the first year that I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. If this wasn’t a coming-of-age moment, it was certainly my coming of age in the kitchen.
A few years later, when I was then living in Edmonton, I put in my very first garden of my adult life … the very first garden that I could call my own. Never for a minute did I think I’d have a garden after my childhood years of indentured servitude, also known as tending the family garden. Up to that point, no harvest of my life had ever been more satisfying than that year when the beets from my garden became the first preserves I had made, again, since I was a child.
Skipping ahead to living in Ottawa now, you’ll know that the colourful fall canopy of this landscape has become as much a part of my tradition, my identity, my culinary self as my experiences living elsewhere. But it is a bountiful landscape as well, rich in a diversity of produce, plants and animals. It has a wonderful growing season and climate that begs me to put my hands in the earth and seek to be self-sufficient. Every spring I adorn my flower beds and window boxes with herbs of all descriptions … herbs that are harvested and end up in my cooking all year round. In love with cooking and the natural world, growing my own herbs was an obvious next step in my quest to prepare the best culinary experiences that I could.
This is part of reason I ended up joining a fall “community supported agriculture” (CSA) program last year and then renewed for a full-season again this year. It provides me exposure to amazing foods I wouldn’t otherwise experience, all grown locally and all grown organically, like the products in my own yard. When overrun with shishito peppers this year, I turned to preserving them as pickled peppers … which was sticking a toe in the waters of home preserving again.
When I planted 8 tomato plants this year (yellow pear, cherry tomato, Roma, black tomatoes, early tomatoes, and heirloom late harvest tomatoes), I wasn’t sure where this was going to lead. I knew that three full-sized plants plus a cherry tomato bush would more than provide for all my eating needs – I knew eight would overwhelm; but I also knew that I wanted to branch out, explore different vines, and experience diversity. So when by the first week in August they were ripening faster than I could eat them, I started storing them in my freezer like some tomato crazed squirrel preparing for an Italian cook-off. By the end of summer, not only had I reached my personal fill of tomatoes and cooked with them steadily for a few months, but I had harvested more than 50 pounds in my freezer, had another 30 pounds of green tomatoes ripening on shelves in the basement, and had 6 pounds of green cherry tomatoes on my counter.
What I did with those tomatoes came from much inspiration, including this still unwritten post that had already been percolating in my head for more than a month. I was buoyed on by the success of my pickling; I was confident after my maple-apple jelly experience the month before for this project; and I felt emotionally connected to the harvest with all my tomato labour this summer. With all that inspiration, I committed to turning this tomato harvest into something that would nurture long.
Life and work was far too busy to sneak this into Thanksgiving this year, but it was the week after Thanksgiving that I started my harvest and preparing for the big push. Thus it was that I took last week off work as much to restore my energy and my mental health as it was to (re)connect me to my world … which means, among other things, food.
I consciously found time to be and just do nothing; but I also worked into these days of relaxation afternoons and evenings when I went to town on my preserves. I pulled out all my jars and supplies and I even ordered a pressure cooker: after reading Valerie’s submission to this project in October, I knew that preserving was going to become an ongoing commitment and part of my life.
So in a week, I produced two more batches of my maple-apple jelly (it really is that good), pressure-canned spiced applesauce (in a bid to find something to do with the byproduct of the jelly), made green cherry-tomato ketchup (thank you Valerie!), made cherry tomato and pear tomato sauces, produced a dozen jars of strained tomato sauce, and, for my pièce de résistance, I canned a delicious marinara sauce from my Roma tomatoes.
Everyplace I’ve been since that Thanksgiving in China has been shaped and made permanent by the harvest and food which the harvest has allowed me to create. And this year, in particular, I’m actually aware that a transformation has happened in me. It started by planting my garden and took firm hold when I joined the CSA program. It became a commitment when I undertook as part of this blog “My CSA Challenge” this year. It became intellectual when I joined The Canadian Food Experience Project. And when I gathered those tomatoes this year and spent days canning their essence, I had harvested an identity.
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On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Project share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there.