Due to the COVID pandemic, we are making many changes this year to our Thanksgiving traditions, but there is one change I will not make. As I plan my menu, I will persist in cooking the foods I associate with the fall season. I grew up in a family that gardened, and the food that landed on our table was a celebration of the passage of time and seasons. To my mind, roasted winter squash, baby artichokes harvested at the end of the season because they would not have time to mature before winter, a late crop of green beans, and Brussels sprouts sweetened by the kiss of a few light frosts are meant to grace the Thanksgiving table. It was not just the day but the whole season that we celebrated, and consequently some of these items are among my favorite foods. Even thought garden-grown tomatoes likely rank as the most coveted crops from the vegetable patch, I love these fall items that carry us forward into the winter. I also believe that a caprese salad has no place on the fall harvest table, at least as far north as the Berkshires.
One of the most unsettling things I ever saw usurping center stage on a Thanksgiving table was a platter of asparagus, roasted and dressed with lemon and olive oil. I love asparagus and eat as much of it as I can in the spring when its edible shoots push forth in the garden, but its position on the Thanksgiving table was an affront to my notion of time and season. The oil-slicked produce sitting in front of us that day was flown in from the Southern Hemisphere, just one more traveler on a plane heading to someone’s house for the holidays, but for me, this guest had no place at a festival celebrating the fall harvest. To my mind, it represented a world gone mad, and the fact that is was brought to the meal by a friend who loved to garden confused me all the more. I would like to think that, in this year of the pandemic, such a far-traveling guest would be unwelcome. But as of late, given what our bizarre weather is doing to my garden and those of my friends in the area, perhaps asparagus will be on the menu after all, and might not need to travel from South America to find a place on our table.
After a cold spell in late October and a number of warm days at the beginning of this month, my garden seemed to be experiencing spring. Just last week, my witch hazel broke into bloom and the minor bulbs I had planted under a new beech hedge starting pushing forth their foliage. If nature believes it is spring, who am I to say that my asparagus-eating friend had it wrong? The pandemic has certainly played with our sense of time, but something else is afoot when Mother Nature herself seems to be confusing her seasons. Will tales from friends about the swelling buds of beeches, the unseasonal flowering of filberts that normally welcome us each spring, and lilacs breaking into bloom dominate the conversation at this year’s Thanksgiving table? Perhaps it will bring about conversation about climate change, the Green New Deal, and GM’s acceptance of pre-Trump emission standards. Maybe, if we can be thankful for the Earth as we have known it, we will pledge to maintain what we cherish and recognize that conservation is a word that can work for people politically on both the left and the right. Surely It is not a bad word simply because it shares its base with the word conservative? Maybe we have some shared values after all.
Perhaps my asparagus-bearing friend brought something important to the Thanksgiving table after all: a conversation about how we steward the world around us and care for it, and for each other. In the meantime, I will help myself to a second helping of the Brussels sprouts hoping that, for years to come, we will have the cooling temperatures in the fall seasons that give them their sweetness.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.