Early autumn food rituals
It’s the season of Thanksgiving, crab fairs, mushroom hunting and the Harvest Moon festival
For many, the food that most signifies the shift in seasons the most deliciously is mushrooms, particularly the wild Irish variety that pop up in our forests
To a city slicker, the sight of rolled hay bales in fields, spotted on train journeys passing through the countryside or at a nearby field to your Electric Picnic campsite, let’s say, taps into a Turner-esque pastoral nostalgia, certainly in a softie like myself.
It’s a sign, as sure as the subtle drop in temperature or the receding leaf-line of the trees outside your window, that the season is changing and autumn approaches. To a farmer, I doubt the hay bales have quite the same romantic impact, but I wonder if they represent a farewell to summer.
Other than taking a moment to recognise the change in the season, modern life has eradicated the significance of these subtle shifts, and the food we eat plays a part in that.
Our supermarkets are decidedly unseasonal in their stock, and instead they are focused on year-round availability and choice, giving us strawberries in January and squash in the summer. This plays a part in our disconnect with the seasons, as it gives us little reason to celebrate the bounty of change.
In Ireland, we have but lughnasadh in the summer and samhain in the late autumn/ early winter, what about the tangible shift in September and early October, traditionally the time of the autumn equinox and harvest feasts?
The US holiday of Thanksgiving was originally celebrated on October 3rd 1789, after George Washington proclaimed it so, which would have given it a link to the agricultural changes of that time of year. The tradition didn’t quite stick, and it wasn’t until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the “Thanksgiving Proclamation” which changed the date to the last Thursday in November, that it became an annual thing.
In 1939, Franklin D Roosevelt also moved the feast, this time to the fourth Thursday in the month, hoping to give the shops a little more lead-in time for Christmas to help combat the effects of The Great Depression. It caused a bit of confusion and some controversy (Republicans didn’t like the implications of ignoring Lincoln’s decree) and finally the US Congress passed a bill in 1941 asserting that Thanksgiving would be forevermore on the last Thursday of November.
Thanksgiving’s history as a moveable feast aside, this time of year has other food-based rituals rooted in place and time, and this beginning of a new season is not overlooked everywhere. Ever fancied going to a Cows’ Ball? On the third Sunday in September in Bohinj, Slovenia, there is a homecoming ball for cows who’ve spent a summer grazing on green pastures. The bovine beauties are walked back to their home valley for the winter, their necks decked with intricate wreaths and sassy head pieces, followed on their cow-walk by cheese-makers and milkmaids, their route lined by stalls selling cow’s milk cheese.
One of the world’s longest running festivals associated with this time of year is the Egremont Crab Fair, which has been taking place on the West Cumbrian coastal town of Egremont since 1267. Rather than a crustacean theme, this fair celebrates the decidedly seasonal crab apples, and is celebrated on the third Saturday of September. These small, bitter apples make an amazing jelly, but have become less popular in modern times because of their tart taste. Back in the 1200s, the Lord of Egremont started the tradition by giving away crab apples to his serfs, and that tradition continues to today’s fair in its Parade of the Apple Cart, where apples are thrown out into the crowds that line the main street of Egremont.
However, the World Gurning Championships, a facial contortion competition (yes, you read that correctly) held at the festival, has overshadowed the crab apples somewhat in recent years.
China and Vietnam’s mid-autumn festival runs parallel to the autumn equinox too, falling in late September to early October. It’s sometimes referred to as the Harvest Moon festival, and it’s thought to have been celebrated since the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago. Some historians believe it began as a way to worship Mountain Gods after a successful harvest.
Today’s festival revolves around family reunions where people eat mooncakes and appreciate the full moon. The making and eating of the round mooncakes are a part of the festival, and the round shape of these little cakes is said to represent completeness and reunion in Chinese culture. A traditional mooncake will be made with a sweet, dense filling of red bean or lotus seed paste encased in a thin pastry, often imprinted with the Chinese characters for longevity or harmony.
Sometimes, a whole salted duck egg yolk is preserved in the centre of the cake, to represent the full moon. These cakes even have revolutionary ties, and were said to be used to smuggle secret messages among Ming rebels to overthrow the Mongolian rulers at the end of the Yuan dynasty in the 1300s.
To me, the food that most signifies the shift in seasons the most deliciously is mushrooms, particularly the wild Irish variety that pop up in our forests. Bill O’Dea is an experienced mushroom hunter who leads excursions throughout the mushroom season. If you’re looking for a way to herald and welcome the autumn, you can join Bill O’Dea on his mushroom hunts on October 2nd and 9th in Kilruddery House on the outskirts of Bray in Co Wicklow.