Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Home for the Holidays” was written by David Kline for the Fall 2009 edition of Rootstock.
Photo by Chris Fleming via Flickr
One of the saddest days of the year for me is the summer solstice; the point where the sun ends its six month journey northward, pauses, and then begins its long trek south. I love the spring and its verdure—the strawberries and sweet cherries and cultivating corn and birdsong in the lengthening days of mid-June.
In July already the first waxy red leaf of the black gum tree in the woodland whispers autumn and by August the goldenrod confirms it—summer’s maturing and fall is approaching and sooner than I care to admit, winter.
Somewhere in the last few decades the cold season of winter has lost some of its appeal for me. I still enjoy cutting firewood and then reading and resting embraced by the comfort of wood heat, the barn chores, feeding and watching winter birds, and especially the holidays where food and talk is shared with family and friends and sometimes strangers.
For many generations in our community a day of fasting and prayer was set aside after the corn harvest in gratitude for the bountiful harvest. As rural people, we realized the fields were made fruitful by more than callused hands and sweat. The bounties of summer and autumn were stored in hay mows, silos, corn cribs, and granaries. The overflow of the gardens and orchards went into root cellars and barrels and onto long shelves of mason jars filled with apple sauce, peaches and pears, pickles, red beets, green and dried beans, corn and squash, tomato and grape juice and sweet cider. All in preparation for the winter months and this called for a day of thanksgiving.
Over time this traditional harvest holy day merged with the national day of Thanksgiving when the gathered family sits down to a meal that represents the culmination of the goodness of the year.
Almost every hand at our extended table had a part in the gathering of the bounty set before them. Everyone helped with the planting, hilling, weeding, bug picking, and digging of the Yukon Gold potatoes, now mashed and steaming from heaping bowls at each end of the table with lava-like flows of melted butter down its amber sides. Likewise for the corn—from the plowing, harrowing, and planting to the few shotgun blasts persuading grackles, cowbirds, redwings to move on south. Much help. Starlings we tolerate because they eat the Japanese beetles feeding on the silks of the corn.
Many times we forego the more traditional turkey in preference to our own free-range Cornish-cross fryers. While my wife and I carried the feed and water to the broilers and penned them up for the night to save them from predators, many hands helped on the birds’ last day on Earth.
Next to the heaping platter of golden fried chicken is the dressing (toasted bread, celery, carrots, bits of potato, chicken broth, milk, eggs, all fried in butter) to accompany the potatoes, gravy to liberally cover both, sourdough bread and new honey, cole slaw, sliced tomatoes and sweet peppers, mixed fruit from the farm, and cottage cheese pudding (a family favorite—whip 2 cups of Organic Valley whipping cream, add ½ cup sugar, and 2 tsp. vanilla. Stir in 2 cartons of Organic Valley cottage cheese, then sprinkle ½ cup dry jello [more or less, any desired flavor; we prefer orange] over the cottage cheese mixture. Stir in well. Add three cups fruit. We like drained crushed pineapple and mandarin oranges.)
My wife tends to alternate cottage cheese pudding with graham cracker pudding, which is another top-notch dessert. She will prepare the one for Thanksgiving and the other on Christmas. This dessert is simply a cooked and cooled cornstarch pudding put in layers with crushed graham crackers, whipped cream, and sliced bananas. Adding some whipped cream directly to the cooled pudding adds extra flavor, and possibly a few calories.
After words of thanks from everyone from the youngest to the eldest around the table, the fruits of our summer and autumn’s labor are savored. Last but far from least, come the pies—apple from the Northern Spy and pumpkin topped with, what else? whipped cream. (I descend from a long line of Swiss dessert lovers; my grandfather supposedly never turned down a piece of pie in his life. It may have shortened his life. He died at 92.) And of course, carafes of steaming robust shade-grown organic coffee finish off the dinner. The caffeine keeps us talking until the evening milking.
Then in late December, we commemorate another rural event. In a stable in a modest village in Judea a child was born. The first to know were the shepherds in the night hills, who hurried to the stable and saw the baby lying in a manger. The faces of these humble sheep herders, men of no prominence in their religion or government, must have shone with wonderment as they hurried back to their flocks before the break of dawn.
As families celebrate this obscure birth; a union of the holy and the secular, we do so with food and gifts in reverence to the innocence of children and a hope for humanity. Around our table the dinner is similar to Thanksgiving Day four weeks earlier. Instead of chicken there will be baked ham and candied sweet potatoes and cranberry salad and assorted fruit pies or sometimes a variety of cheesecakes. The long table will have beeswax candles in recognition of the thousands of little pollinators and makers of honey for our bread.
Christmas, as with Thanksgiving, is a day of gratitude for food, shelter, good land, and friends, and following just a few days after the winter solstice, it means a definite end to autumn and the growing season. Henceforth it is indoor time for the farm animals and for us.
Here where the fires are burning good oak I am having second thoughts over not particularly liking the winter season. After all, the sun is on its way north again and spring follows in due time. Winter? It is not bad at all.
David Kline is a naturalist, writer and Organic Valley farmer. Kline and his family farm 120 acres and 40-cow organic dairy near Mt. Hope, Ohio. David is the author of two books, Great Possessions (1990) and Scratching the Woodchuck (1997) and is an editor for Farming Magazine, a quarterly publication supporting small-scale and profitable family farming.