It’s hard to be sure, but I think the first time I actually gave any thought to the idea of a seasonal feast (apart from Thanksgiving) was when I was attending the University of Rhode Island. On my way home on the odd weekend toward the end of Spring semester, I’d be coasting along in my grandfather’s ancient Hillman Husky, eyes peeled for the inevitable “Pick Your Own Strawberries” sign. There was a wonderful older couple who ran the small farm and allowed the students and passersby to either go out into the field with a borrowed basket or choose from pint and quart baskets of already picked berries. I learned quickly always to buy two – one to take home to my family, and one to enjoy on the ride. There were no throngs of people sampling new uses for strawberries, or small children with balloons but I had music playing on the radio, the windows open letting the sea-scented breeze rush through, and the sweet, ripe-in-the-moment berries on the seat next to me all the way home.
Later, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I became like so many Silicon Valley “foodies,” driving many miles in all directions on the weekends, not only to the famous California wine festivals but to events like the Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras, the Castroville Artichoke Festival, the Half-Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival and what became to many of us the granddaddy of them all, the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Gilroy’s Garlic Fest was the brainchild of a couple Rotary Club members in the late 1970s. By the time I was in my mid-thirties, it had grown to an event drawing a quarter million people over the course of a long weekend at the end of July. It may well have exceeded even those numbers by now, but I can’t imagine anything at all has been lost. A man dressed in cotton gauze and padding was the “Stinking Rose” personified, and from dozens of food stands, everything from rich, pungent Paella to garlic ice cream and garlic wine was offered and enjoyed. I made a personal tradition of buying a long, lovely garlic braid each year which would hang in my kitchen. Every time I took a head off it to cook with, I’d count the months until the next Garlic Festival.
Decades have passed since those days, and I find that anyplace I can think of has its own wonderful offerings – at least one crop or specialty that it produces and proudly offers up in a spirit of fun and local celebration at just the right time of year. Midwest friends of mine have sent postcards of Corn Festivals, while folks I lived near in North Carolina call to mind the Sweet Potato Pie contests. Closer to my current home, I’ve enjoyed Kennet Square (PA’s) own Mushroom Festival. Delaware is home to a particularly funny event known as the “Punkin’ Chunkin’,” which is essentially a pumpkin festival and fall harvest celebration, punctuated with contests in which locals, who each bring their own home-made catapult contraptions, compete to see how far their machines can lob pumpkins through the air. Part of me cringes at the waste, but there’s no denying it’s local and it’s unique!
Meanwhile, at my own front steps there’s cause for a feast on a smaller scale. The Brandywine vine is covered with knobby, deeply grooved giant tomatoes; the cucumbers and pole beans that were trained to grow up sisal braids onto a porch post are surprising me. Some mornings on my way out the door to work, my vegetables seem to have gotten to the urgent stage for picking since…wasn’t it just last evening I was sitting out there? The slender green eggplants that were a new thing to try this year have begun producing the perfect-sized fruit for grilling, and the peppers and chilis of a half dozen varieties go into the mix at all stages of red and green for fresh salsas.
I still hearken back at this time of year to my roots in Rhode Island, making clam cakes to go with corn on Friday nights, and my yearly garlic braid now comes from a mail-order supplier. But just as with people who collect a postcard, or a souvenir from the places they’ve traveled, I still savor the rich variety of harvest feasts I’ve enjoyed and always will.
Where do you live? What’s the specialty of your area? Do you celebrate with quiet, elegant garden parties, or are your harvest feasts boisterous and decorated with craft booths and a carnival atmosphere? Do you realize how much they have become a part of you? I bet you’d be amazed.