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.

Playing with your food

Harvest time

By
November 2, 2011

My romance with the Upper Midwest burns hottest this time of year.

During October, life is full of gold and red. In the daytime, these heraldic colors are set off by robin’s egg blues and slate grays. At dusk, they mute to soft orange and rust in the mist and hush.

As I bike to school, flocks of migratory birds pass overhead, air rushing from between their wings and bodies — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. On the ground the air is sharp — sometimes with a cold wind drifting south from Canada, sometimes with wood smoke and rotting apples.

In October, life becomes urgent and unreal; every day is like the day after the night I have pulled an all-nighter with a new crush. I am overwhelmed, yet blissful.

Mine is an animal love for beautiful colors and strange shapes. It’s a love for temperatures that bop between 30 and 60 degrees — a love of not sweating. And, of course, it’s a love of food.

In the Upper Midwest in October, I eat watermelon in a turtleneck, loving the incongruity of sugar water soaking my wool sleeves.

I pick cranberries in rubber boots, a blickey secured to my waist with a leather belt.

I bake stick bread over a campfire and fill it with sausages or jam.

I carve jack o’ lanterns from Howden Biggies, which can weigh 60 pounds. Half my body disappears as I scoop the seeds and guts from the pumpkin’s core.

Making cider.

If I am lucky, as I was this year, I make cider and grape jelly — activities which consisted, in the first instance, of tossing apples into a wooden funnel that spattered apple chunks into my hair, and in the second, of boiling grapes and mashing them through cheesecloth.

Oh, and I also ate my first quince in decades, plucked from a tree we planted two years ago in memory of my Aunt Edith’s quince trees in Wilsonville, Oregon.

For the last three weeks, I have experienced the colors and shapes of fall in dozens of ways. I am on a ripe and self-indulgent yearly honeymoon. Consuming food becomes an all-consuming pastime in October.

Once upon a time, when I didn’t like the dinner my mom served, I pushed the food around the plate, mashing it as a means of deferring its entry into my mouth. This was called “playing with my food.” As it resulted in protracted conflict, playing with my food was to be avoided. I learned to eat the bad stuff quickly and with a lot of milk; in this respect, I am like millions.

Sometime in the last 10 years, though, I started playing with my food again, in part because I was tired of dutifully gulping it down.

You may not live in a rural area, so you won’t have quite as many opportunities as I do to engage in this kind of play. If you have fallen in love with a gourd at the farmers’ market and taken it home, though, you are just as much of a juvenile delinquent as I am.

In not choosing food strictly on the basis of its ability to get you through the next four hours, you are indulging your play instinct. Those of us who have fallen in love with gardening, and learned to put up with its occasional tedium and failure, know this. Those of us whose grandparents canned fruits, vegetables, and (for real!) meat, and who gazed at the shelves lined with jars, marveling at the mind that could create such beautiful order, know this. Those of us who have watched a four-year-old carefully eating his way around and around the edge of a graham cracker, stretching the pleasure of eating two ounces of graham flour and fat into half an hour, know this.

Joan’s quince.

Play is about seeking beauty and pleasure. It’s about losing track of the body’s deadlines and complaints for a while, and it’s about having fewer preconceptions about what objects of the world are for. An apple can be a ball or a food; a stick can bake bread as well as it can feed a fire; a quince fruit can bring back more memories than a photograph.

Just as different kinds of love have opened our minds up at different times in our lives, perhaps October’s riot of color catches me off guard and encourages me to look at my surroundings anew. That also means that I may talk and talk about my new crush until my friends are embarrassed for me, that I might lose all sense of proportion and common sense for the duration of my lust, and that I might get my silly little heart broken again when October stalks off into the night without so much as kissing me good-bye. I say, here I go again.

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