In our kitchen this evening, as with nearly every evening this time of year (and some afternoons), there is the steady sound of boiling water, glass jars clanging about, and sometimes, just the sound of the freezer door opening and closing. Despite our modern methods, it's an ancient ritual, this collecting and putting away food for the winter: for seasonal feasts, for sharing, and simply to have enough to feed ourselves.
In kitchens all across the United States now, and all over the world, there is a small tribe of us that works with the rhythm of the seasons. Farmers in Asia and Africa sometimes gasp or cluck when I explain that we have a short growing season. Here in Missoula, we average around 120 growing days, so we are always pushing back those margins: starting seeds inside when snow is still on the ground, or planting under a protective fabric row cover.
But when I explain that the rhythm is the same, that most of the food we eat has a cycle, much like maize in Africa, or wheat in China, with the best time to plant, and the best time to harvest, and then preserve or store, farmer's heads nod. In Borneo, I stayed with an indigenous community for some weeks planting 17 varieties of rice. The forest-based community subsisted on rotated parcels of rice, wild fruit gardens, and food - both wild edibles and game - collected from the forest. But, for weeks, we only stopped working in the evenings because all the rice needed to be planted. There, as here, there are distinct times to gather honey, to follow migrating wild pigs, certain fish that are best harvested by the light of the moon.
And so it is the same way here. We exhaust ourselves this time of the year because the harvest is plentiful but so short: 40 pounds of tomatoes yesterday, 18 pounds of vegetables today, all that need a home in a freezer, or glass jar - either canned or fermented.
This time of year, it's easy to start too late, to stay up in the evening. I think of my friends in The Ivory Coast that process palm oil on their small farms, rendering it into the evening. I think of a nomadic family I stayed with, one night when they processed their own cooking oil from a fresh pig - everything needed to be saved.
So, when we pull seeds out of one of our Black Krim heirloom tomatoes, one that didn't split in the rains of the past days. I think, this one, we'll save. This tomato weathered a whole season of growing, including storms, winds, predators that passed through the garden. It didn't get eaten by animals and then it rippened. While I pull the seeds, coyotes howl. I go outside, in the moonlight, and I think I can hear geese, that flew overhead - on the way to warmer weather - roosting. Soon, before we know it, the harvest of this growing season will be over. So, with care, we pick out the seeds slowly, drying them on cotton towels or a cutting board, any corner of the kitchen where there is space. We lay the seeds down, breath, look up at the moon wild eyed and fulfilled, thankful that we share this ritual with a tribe of fellow growers, harvesters, seed savers and preservers.