Kate Flora here. As you are reading this, I am in Paris, walking on the left bank and eating croissants and sipping small coffees in sidewalk cafes. But it did not feel like Paris, or anything pleasant, on Monday in Harpswell, when it was 40 degrees in the early morning with a howling wind and a cloudy sky. On Saturday, I was swimming in the sea, thinking it might be my last dip of the season. Monday I was wearing two sweaters and had turned the heat on. I’m enough of a New England puritan to believe that it is unthinkable to turn the heat on in September. But my feet were so cold and I was chained to my desk and desperate remedies were called for.
Fall has always been my favorite time of year. The farmhouse kitchen was always full of produce waiting to be processed. Squash and pumpkins were spread out on newspapers on the floor of the shed. Wire egg baskets of onions and potatoes were being stored in the back cellar. There were bushels of pears waiting to be canned. Dried shell beans waiting to be shelled. And since my mother believed that no decent apple pie could be made from less than five different kinds of apples, one weekend day each fall we would pile into the truck and go apple stealing.
It wasn’t stealing, really. There were plenty of old abandoned farms or cellar holes with neglected apple trees, and we would just stop here and there and gather a grocery bag full.
I was afraid of pressure cookers long before the Boston Marathon bombings. In the fall, we all shivered a little in fear as my mother processed things in her pressure cooker. Only once, I think, did it really blow its gasket, but it seemed like a fearsome object and while it was “underway,” we were banned from the kitchen. Mostly, we preferred to do our preserves in a water bath, those glass Mason jars clinking slightly as they rocked gently in the simmering water. Depending on the day, the air was sweet with sugar as applesauce or jam was made or pungent with vinegar and pepper and dill as many jars of pickles were put up “for the long, cold winter.” It was not considered a proper dinner if there weren’t pickles on the table.
I carried on the tradition when I worked in the Attorney General’s office. Sarah Redfield, another lawyer, and I, and sometimes others who’d shown an interest, would gather in her kitchen to preserve things from her garden and local farm stands. Plum chutney, dilled beans, raspberry jam, tomato chutney, pickles, corn relish. We picked and chopped and stirred and jarred and boiled all through the fall. Once my brother John dropped off a huge bag of dead ripe Concord grapes and the resulting grape jelly was ambrosia–a far cry from grocery store Welch’s.
It has been years since I’ve done any canning or preserving, but I still love to go to a farm stand or farmer’s market at this time of year. Staring at the rows of tomatoes, twenty or more varieties. Peppers in seven colors. Red, white, orange, and yellow carrots. Rainbow chard, a multitude of beets, skinny eggplants, fat eggplants, pale eggplants and striped ones. It all takes me back to the farm, and riding up from the garden in the back of the truck, my small self tucked among a mountain of produce.
One year my father raised dozens of little round watermelons. Sometimes the winter squash were as big as I was. One year there was an explosion of cantaloupe.
As I get older, I have to fight to enjoy the fall. The shorter days and the ever earlier sunsets make my thoughts skip to winter, to the way that the years are flying by too fast. I find myself thinking that June was just yesterday. That January is right around the corner. That too soon I will be old enough for medicare and social security. That maybe my vertigo will never leave and I’ll have to stop my long writing days all alone because they won’t be safe.
Then I need to kick myself out the door into world and experience the golden slant of fall light, the suddenly deeper blue of the restless waves, and the way things change color overnight. I need to stop moaning about the dying of the light and get out into the world. Staring at how gorgeous the tomatoes are, exulting in the inky purple eggplants, smelling the musty leaf smells, the ripeness of drying plants, hearing the crisp rustle of the leaves on my birch tree. I need to stop fretting about what will come, and remember to be here in the now.