Thursday, September 6, 2012

THE HARVEST MOON: PUTTING ON THE POUNDS



It’s been about three weeks since my last post.

What have I been doing?

I guess it’s time to come clean.

It always happens at this time of year and yet, even though it happens at the same time every year, it always seems to come as a surprise.

One day, you wake up, same as usual…you have the standard breakfast of coffee and a breath mint…you find your cleanest dirty shirt, you check the farmers’ almanac, you hit the day and then you look down and…well, there it is. 

Citybillies, I done got fat.


It wasn’t my fault.  It was Coyote.  Coyote did it…him and his last moon, this Harvest Moon. 

This is the moon for food.  Sure, there’s been food before but not food like this.  No other moon has such an abundant diversity…and thanks to Coyote’s record-breaking hot summer, the trees and plants have just been pumping out food. 

This Harvest Moon…it’s a real gut-buster.

I couldn’t help myself.  I couldn’t stop myself.  I couldn’t say no.

The Harvest Moon was putting out just too much food… the late summer cornucopia of ripe fruit and vegetables…all those colors, all those flavors…and then there was the insatiable hunger…the ravenous impulses…the frenzied cravings…and yet, when I think back to the beginning of this moon, it was all so innocent, so harmless…I never meant to hurt anyone.

I just wanted to watch the trees.

THREE WEEKS AGO…

Ah, summer.

As much as I detest the uncontrollable sweating and the overbearing mugginess and the recent onslaught of silly superhero movies, there’s nothing like the last moon of summer…the way the first cool nights creep into the daily schedule…the way the windblown tendrils of hurricane season drop random rain on the last barbecues and picnics…the way the fruit just starts popping off the branches.

It was really quite a show out there when it came to the fruiting trees and, three weeks ago, I’d spent my time tracking down some of my favorite trees.

Like the mimosa…the Night Sleeper tree…its thin branches were hanging these thin, green, wide bean pods that seriously must have some relationship to the sugar snap pea.


Then there was the sweetgum tree.  This tree, by far, has my favorite Latin name: Liquidambar styraciflua.


The first part of the name, liquid amber, refers to the fragrant juice that flows like sap out of the tree.  The second name means star fruit, referring to the spiny, asteroid-like woody orb that hangs from the tree…


…but it also evokes its tell-tale, star-shaped leaf.


You see, three weeks ago, it was mostly just harmless inedible fruit.
 
Even the Chinese Scholar trees were stopping me in my tracks.


In just a couple of weeks, their late flowers had already transformed into those distinctive, bright green, pearly bean pods.


The native sumac was also in season. 


It was so nice to see red again.  By this time in late August, these sumac bunches have been hanging on the trees since spring and, due to the hot months of summer, they were perfect right now to be harvested and used as a spice for gamey meats and exotic dishes. 


In the Middle East, the dried sumac is used as the main ingredient of za’atar and it’s used to spice up salads, lemonades and even hand-rolled cigarettes.

It was also the season of the horse chestnut.

 
They look like beached sea urchins, right? 

They drop on the ground, dry up and split their husks, revealing something that resembles the holiday chestnut but, please, don’t eat it. 

 

















The horse chestnut is poisonous for just about every member of the Animalia kingdom.  Even horses can’t suffer it.  For horses, it causes tremors and lack of coordination.

Hey, that was cool with me.

Three weeks ago, I wasn’t so hungry.  What happened?  Back then, I was so happy just hunting down all this ripe, seasonal, inedible fruit…and then, as it happens every year, the Harvest Moon starting shining down on me.

The hunger had started…the belly growled.

TWO WEEKS AGO…

I knew I was jumping the gun a little bit…of course, I knew this…but two weeks ago, I’d gone hunting a little early…marking my territory for all the seasonal fruit about to drop off the branches.

First, I went looking for black walnuts.

 
From what I’d read, you’re supposed to pick them while they’re still green and greasy. 

I still don’t have the hang of the black walnuts.  I’d collected them, sat them on my windowsill, tried to dry them out and then cut into them.

Their yellowish-green husk is actually used to make a dye for hair and fabrics…and you can see why…

Chopping into the wet husks, my kitchen was immediately filled with an atrocious odor and my hands were devilishly stained with this stinky yellow dye.

Little did I know that, despite the rank smell, I was only whetting my appetite for the inevitable Harvest Moon gourging.

After the black walnuts, I went hunting for hickories.  I found some in the Pennypack Woods in the Northeast and, to my surprise, one growing in the front yard of a West Philly home.

 
Have you ever eaten a raw hickory nut?   


It kind of makes your mouth turn inside out…like you’re trying to kiss the back of your neck.

Hey, that was okay.  Back then, I was patient…curious, yes…but still just biding my time.

I knew I had to wait. 

Sure, the sunflowers were ready.   


All throughout the city, the drooping sunflowers were quenching my hunger…all I had to do was pick a few seeds and I’d be all right.

Or I’d just catch a few fig trees.   


They’re more common now in the city…I think it’s because it’s a very low-maintenance fruit tree.

In the few blocks surrounding my urban cabin, I’d already found three fig trees and they were just popping with fruit.

The fig is a real distinct fruit…it’s actually not really a fruit at all.  It’s really an inside-out flower…or an outside-in flower…


…yeah, that’s right.  That soft, sweet, stringy fruit is actually a flower that keeps its pistils and petals away from the sun, blooming from the inside out.

When you eat a fig, you’re actually eating a wet, juicy, carnal flower embedded in that bursting, tear-drop, backwards capsule…


Enjoy every bite.  I do.

Looking back, that was the beginning of the Harvest Moon.  Sure, there was plenty of food but the food was coming at the right pace.  I could control myself.  I could enjoy every new fruit or vegetable making its premiere on the lower branches or on the farmstand tables.

Like purslane.


This is a native, tenacious weed…usually growing in the compacted soils of brown-lots and sidewalk cracks but treasured by the Asian community as a nutritious salad green.

It’s actually a member of the Succulent family, the cacti. 

I happen to love it.  It’s got a great crunch and a slimy but pleasant lemony flavor…plus I think it’s just cool to be able to eat a raw cactus.

With my belly full of figs and sunflower seeds and edible cactus, I was doing all right.  Sure, my svelte, scrappy figure was taking a small toll but it was the Harvest Moon…any sophisticated lady would understand a few extra pounds during the Harvest Moon, right?

And I wasn’t done yet…I still went hunting for native fruit…knowing I was just a few months too early.

Out in north Philly, in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, I found a medlar tree growing in the parking lot of a warehouse food pantry.

 
















 
This is an ancient fruit, a stranger now in the 21st Century but once an autumnal delicacy back in Shakespeare’s time, even up until the Victorian Era.

The medlar is only edible after the frost and, even then, you’re just supposed to pick it and let it sit for a month or so.  It’s only edible after it rots…and then it becomes the consistency of jam…tasting a bit like a seedy quince or a roasted apple.

Shakespeare himself once called it an open arse and, well, if you use your imagination, you can kind of see it for yourself.


I even went back to the hardy northern kiwi vine, growing along a hidden fence in a West Philly backyard, knowing that I was way too early…

 
...even though I was starting to get hungry.

Whatever.

So I’d have to wait for the native fruit.  Back then, two weeks ago, waiting was no problem. 

I even went to stake my claim for the upcoming pawpaw harvest. 

Do you remember the pawpaw?  The prairie banana?  It’s the largest fruit in the Hardy Agricultural Zone Seven…the only tropical fruit to grow so far up north…and there's no way I was going to miss its season.

It’s important to stake your pawpaw tree early.

Outside of the Pennypack Preserve Visitor’s Center, there is a sprawling, healthy pawpaw tree. 


But, like I said, I was a few weeks too early. 

There they were, Pennsylvania’s only tropical fruit, but you have to wait until it turns a mottled and squishy brown before it’s ready for eating.

 

















By the look of these pawpaws, I’d probably have to wait until October.

And that was all fine…back then...two weeks ago. 

I guess I didn’t stop to notice how hungry I was getting.  That restlessness…that burning desire to find native and wild fruit trees here in the city…it turns out that hungry hum rumbling in my belly…all those sunflower seeds and figs and cacti…it was all just an appetizer.

Hunting for inedible, unripe, seasonal, wild fruit?  Looking back now…it turns out I was just starving.  

I was only a mere week away from turning into a glutton.

ONE WEEK AGO…

I guess you could say it all started one lazy afternoon, after work, when I decided to visit my friend’s farm at the Schuylkill Center along the outskirts of Philadelphia.

There, farmer and Zen Master siren Gina Humphreys was turning out a Harvest  Moon banquet…


…and my uncontrollable, inner-piggish dinner bell had officially rung…damn you, Coyote.

There was food up and down every row, every square inch, of the Urban Girls Produce Farm…

…pole beans and peppers…

 
…all those hot chilis just making me sweat with hunger…


…my favorite winter vegetable, the spaghetti squash…


…and the eggplants…I love their small purple flower, knowing that this delicate violet will turn into the hard, woody clamp that tops that familiar eggplant fruit.

 
From then on, I hit just about every farmers’ market that I could…and it was just manga, manga, manga.

I’m talking grapes…

 
…I’m talking lima beans…


…I’m talking corn and cantaloupe…


…and just what the heck was I going to do with all this watermelon…


…or all these early apples…


…or all those early Asian pears…or all those early winter squashers…

I couldn’t stop.


It was the Harvest Moon, the summer peak…from the beginning of this blog with all those colorful and hardy flowers…this was their rightful crown of ripe fruit…the final burst before the autumn colors…the zenith of the growing season…the acme…the climax…all these plants and trees just maximizing their productive output…and, before you know it, this is just a typical scenery of a late summer citybilly refrigerator…


…AND NOW…

And now, I still can’t stop.

I’m still just putting on the pounds. 

The refrigerator calls to me…a deep, pleasant, cooing call.

Get it while it lasts…that’s what it’s saying.


This is the Harvest Moon.  It’s Coyote’s swan song. 

The animal totem for this moon?  It’s the brown bear, the Ursa arctos.

Out there in the wild, the brown bear is currently stalking the meadows and fens, the hills and the woods, eating and eating whatever it can find.

The brown bear, during the Harvest Moon, gains an extra four-hundred pounds of fat during this time of year, the only way it can survive the winter hibernation…the cool, dark cave.

All day long, it’s jamming the summer honey into its bloated gullet…the bursting fur-belly…rolling in the wildflowers…the meandering paw…the merry, merry tongue.

I guess that’ll be me.

Yo, brown bear.

Eat up…manga, bear…and have a nice, long, sleepy winter.

See you on the other side of the cave.



1 comment:

  1. Where did you find the black walnut trees?

    ReplyDelete