The squirrels in my neighborhood are plump, happy creatures with luxurious coats and extravagant tails that curl up behind them, just like in the storybooks of my childhood. Their eyes are large and black and they clutch their food in their cute little paws and nibble away at breakneck speed. The tree outside my kitchen window is their superhighway and all day long I watch them coming and going with the bustle and urgency particular to squirrels in autumn. I watch them, hoping that I can glean some inspiration, steal a bit of their squirrel mojo. For the days are growing shorter and there's so much, so so much, left to do.
My eye goes from the squirrels to a teetering stack of empty canning jars in a corner of my kitchen, purchased earlier in the summer in a fever-state of optimism and wild ambition. Ketchup, whole tomatoes, applesauce, jams of many flavors! Relish! Chutney! I thought I was showing some restraint by not putting pickles on that list, but now I realize that a few more things will have to go as well. Maybe the relish. And probably a few of the many flavors of jam.
I live in what I can only think of as the opposite of a food desert. There's a really good, if not phenomenal, farmers' market every day in the Bay Area and often I have my choice between two. There are grocery stores and speciality markets and corner stores all over my neighborhood. There are countless CSA opportunities and friends' gardens and those guys standing on a corner selling mangos and strawberries by the case. So technically, I do not need to 'preserve the harvest' in order to survive this winter. Not even close.
So why do I put myself through this urgent, frenetic process every fall? I can easily buy my applesauce from the Safeway down the hill and frankly, Heinz has been making a pretty decent ketchup since 1876. And come on, I live in California where there is always something edible growing, even in the dead of winter. Why do I feel so squirrel-like, then? Where do these urges come from?
I think it part it's in my bones, some DNA thing from that farm just outside of Prague that my great-great grandmother left over 100 years ago. When the days grow shorter, those peasant ancestors stir inside of me and without thinking I begin counting the number of jars on the pantry shelf and scheming to fit a batch of canning into my schedule. My father's stoic, built-for-survivial Norwegian and German blood pumps through my veins, too. So basically I'm sunk.
But it's also something about self-sufficiency. I like knowing I can feed myself, provide for myself. I like knowing where my food comes from. I'm a sucker for its story, which is romantic, true, but also very informative. For me, the goal is not how to make food more convenient, especially when that convenience comes with compromises to taste, texture and environment. That jar of Safeway applesauce does not even come close to what I make at home on those counts. Not even in the same league.
And back to that farm in Prague and those Norwegian ancestors and, to bring it even closer, to my parents. My father used to drive to the wholesale fruit market every fall, or to the orchards outside of his home in Wisconsin's suburbia, and purchase a bushel of apples. He'd haul it back to his kitchen and spend the entire weekend making applesauce. The shelves behind the bar in the basement that used to host wild cocktail parties would fill up with quart jars stuffed with applesauce and pickles. Whenever I would stop by for a visit, he would send me home with a jar or two, sometimes sneaking it into my purse or a load of laundry.
So it's also about intimacy. Intimacy with my past, with the people I love, with the growers and farmers, with the ingredients, with the friends who take home a jar of my applesauce after a visit. It's keeping alive something of my father that is precious to me, that I want to see continue. A generosity, a need to create, a sense of belonging that is as necessary to survival as food and air.
Do the squirrels also know this? Probably not in the ponderous way my human brain conjures it all up. Nor in the romantic, storytelling babble of my heart. But somewhere in our collective aliveness, in our blood and guts and bones, we share this imperative to quicken the pace as the nights grow longer and cooler, to store up the bounty against the darkness, to stay well-fed through it all, to stay alive.
(Image: Albrecht Durer)