Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
Like a homesick numbskull, at times I focus obsessively on how the Upper Midwest differs from the region of my birth, the Pacific Northwest.
I was one of those kids from Portland, Oregon, who found the name of that university in Evanston, Illinois — Northwestern — puzzling. I rested serene and secure in the knowledge that there was only one Northwest, that it was mine, and that it touched the Pacific Ocean.
In North America, it seems, we live on a continent so big that our names cannot quite contain it.
Because differences are always easier to see than similarities, it has taken me a decade and a half to come to terms with what unites the Northwest with the Midwest. “Portlandia” and “Fargo” have more in common than they seem to want to know.
Both places are northern, for starters. For me, being of the north means expecting grand fluctuations of daylight. On summer nights here in Menomonie, 10 o’clock is a good time for the sun to go down; in winter, 3 in the afternoon will find me staring at my reflection in a darkened windowpane.
I never thought about these fluctuations until I lived in Houston, Texas; there, I began to crave darkness. It always felt like the sun went down around 6 there, summer or winter, though I know that can’t have been true. Sometimes it seemed like the clocks were stuck. But really, it was my Northern mind that was stuck.
Those fluctuations of light affect cooking and eating. We northerners are more interested in hot, caffeinated drinks than southerners, I think because the darkness and cold make us sleepy and slow. We use less corn syrup and more maple syrup.
Of course, there are historical and cultural reasons for all of this; it’s not just the light. But it’s partly the light.
Due to the moderating effects of the ocean on the local climate, the growing season is much longer in the Pacific Northwest than it is where I live now. But the advance of darkness seems to influence all of our senses of season in similar ways.
Here in Menomonie, as daylight begins to wane, harvest festivals become serious business. People are locking down their gardens and preserving perishable goods. They are also partying with something that looks like desperate abandon. It’s as if the huge piles of pumpkins and potatoes, the jars of tomatoes and jam, the bottles of cider and beer make us giddy and gleeful. We run around giving each other food and admiring the bounty.
We can’t but appreciate the loot, in part because it’s so physically imposing and in part because we know that winter will hide our gardens from us for months. (In this climate-change era, though, winter is less intense. So, too, our parties may become less ebullient.)
A couple of weeks ago, he took friends fishing for pike, among them a German exchange student. Everyone caught fish. All the fish were big. The elation was palpable, even eight hours later when I finally got a chance to hear the stories and see the fish.
Northerns are big, toothy, and bony. I have seen canoe paddles after a pissed-off Northern has gotten through with them, the green foam torn and checked by the fish’s razor-like teeth. I have watched Northern take off with the line after they’re hooked; the sound of reel spinning rapidly is like an angry, endless unzipping, or the buzzing of an enormous bee.
Northerns are not terribly popular fish because, as well as being toothy, they are hard to de-bone. Pickling averts that problem by dissolving the bones before anyone has to remove them from the flesh.
Alas, Northerns are not native to Oregon or Washington. They do not form part of this sparkly, light-drunk, pan-Northern union I am imagining. Ultimately, this union defies geographic boundaries anyway. Though not all of us experience the dramatic fluctuations of light that I do, if we want to, we can adopt a northern state of mind. We can note whatever seasonal changes we see, we can preserve our goodies before they spoil, and we can party like Prince (a Minneapolis native!).
If you carved a pumpkin for Halloween, did you notice how the orange flesh of the jack-o’-lantern glows when you light the votive at its core? That play of light, for me, is what defines a northern eater and also a northern cook.
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