Here we are, where the end of one year meets the start of the next.
Once I heard a filmmaker explain the mechanics of story this way: “Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end is like the beginning…only different.”
The tail end of this year certainly resembles the ass end of the last. Short cold days, long colder nights, warm parties, coping mechanisms displaying the whole range of human goofiness, creativity and indomitable spirit.
But the particulars of each year’s story are unique, and now’s the time to look back upon the fruits and follies of the year that’s ending. And, as the beginning of next year’s story, now is the time to plan ahead.
The food year was good to me. New Years, 2005, found me in the jungle of northeastern Brazil with a group of spirited students of agriculture. Studying agriculture puts you at ground zero in terms of food, and we indulged in the edibles of the land, imbibing much chocolate, coconut, tapioca and banana, all served in dishes whose names you would not recognize. When my responsibilities as group leader ended, my baby and I ate our way north, through the Amazon and up to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. The highlights of the jungle were the fruits and juice. There were, unfortunately, many culinary lowlights, some of which we hurled out the in-door in brilliant purple hues.
I was home long enough to plant my garden before a whiff of fungal spore drew me north to Alaska, where I joined the hunt for morels in the charred remains of more than 6 million acres of burned forest. Barely a meal went by without morels, and I discovered the potent combination of morels, red wine and cream. I ate many pans of freshly caught arctic char, and on an excursion to the coastal town of Homer I learned how to make a fried halibut batter out of beer and pancake mix.
I returned home to an overgrown garden and a summer in full swing, and proceeded to dive headfirst into the salads and barbecues of summer. It was then that I met the Bratmeister, who ushered me into the realm of pre-simmering bratwursts in beer, garlic, onions and black pepper before grilling. When I published the words and ways of the Bratmeister, bless his heart, I invoked a scolding deluge of mail from angry members of various Midwestern tribes who corrected me with myriad variations on the one true way to cook a beer brat.
As the summer began tilting in earnest toward winter, I began the yearly process of stocking up, pickling and freezing and drying everything in sight. My sweetheart elected herself the queen of gleaned fruit leather while I prowled the farmers’ markets for enough hot peppers to pickle 100 quarts. Spinach was frozen, peaches were canned, garlic was harvested, apricot chutney simmered on the stove. Meanwhile, I dove deep into the possibilities of roasted roots, turning them into risotto and mayonnaise.
The harvest had hardly wound down when it came time to pull out the rifle and find some meat for the freezer. Thus I entered a long and beautiful month of early mornings and silent sunsets, even if, in the end, it wasn’t my most productive year. But with three deer in the freezer between my baby and me, that leaves enough room in the culinary schedule to eat the occasional slab of Alaskan salmon or the elk gifted by hunters more successful than I. Not to mention the occasional taste of beef—and whoa, pardner, let me tell you, I forgot how good beef tastes, especially when I know where it’s from.
And here we are, right here, right now. Yesterday I pulled from the freezer a chicken raised by a friend of mine and made a soup with potatoes, carrots, celery, peppers, shallots and garlic, all from the pantry or the freezer. The tail end of my year in food tastes fine by me.
When the New Year rolls around again, I’ll again find myself in Brazil, this time in the drylands, dancing to forro music and drinking coconut water and cachasa. I’ll be with a new crop of students—just as at the beginning of the year, only different.
And already it’s time to plan next year’s garden: like last year’s, only better. Before I head south I’m going to order catalogs from seed companies like Johnny’s, Peaceful Valley and Fedco. When I return I’ll put in my order, with not a moment to spare. Shallots, best grown from seed, need to be started in the greenhouse in February. Peppers get seeded in March.
At this annual time of reflection I invite you to ask yourself: what worked for you in your eating schedule last year? Your garden? Your hunting? Foraging? Now is the time to plan ahead and take an active role in the year in food that’s to come.