It’s Porch Decorating Time. The weather has been nuttier than usual this past week – it started out with something close enough to a freeze to scorch my basil, then moved on to torrential rains, and wrapped it up with a bizarre blast of steamy heat. It is every bit as Wrong and Bad to shop for the fall decorations in shorts, sandals, and t-shirts as it is to look for a Christmas Tree the same way. Nevertheless, we persevered.
As we canvassed the countryside for Farm Stands flashing the Sign Of The Gourd, we saw our first colored leaves of the season. One tall, thin tree in a forest of green had started to change its colors for red. Jews have a blessing for everything, and when I say “everything,” I mean every thing, but my favorite of all is the Shehecheyanu. The gist of the blessing is an expression of gratitude to the force that pervades and organizes the space-time continuum within which we all have the form of existence that we know and commonly experience as Life, for preserving us in this state and enabling us to experience this present, special moment. It is said, generally, when the moment at hand involves a First – including a physically or temporally local First. The first sight of a new baby. The first fruit of the season. The first time you enter a new home. The first time you wear a new outfit. The first time you kiss your new spouse. The first time you kissed that person, ever. The first time you see the stick turn blue, the first ultrasound, the first checkup, the first labor pain, the first time you meet your new child. The first star you see in the sky – but not the first time you sight a rainbow after a storm, because there is a different blessing for rainbows. The first snowfall of the season. The first flower of the spring. The first trip down the ski slopes, or the first trip down a particular slope, or the first time on a new pair of skis. The first time you ride your own horse. The first time you canter. The first time you drive alone with a new license. The first drive in your new car.
And the first bright red leaves of the autumn to come.
The delightful thing is that once you start thinking of “Firsts” that warrant a Shehecheyanu, it’s hard to stop. It is too much fun thinking of all of the wonderful things that you greet as a new friend, whether a friend just met, or a friend not seen in a while. The first sight of a cormorant sunning itself on a rock. The first sound of the fog horn drifting through the mist. The first bubble gum ice cream. The first Wellfleet oyster. The first warm day of the spring when you walk with your bare feet on the earth. The first tiny green leaf bud popping out on the tree. The first rainfall after a drought. The first smell of wood smoke floating over a chilly road. The first scream of a seagull. The first cold beer of the weekend. The first burst of flavor from a sauteed morel mushroom. The first warm fresh tomato eaten straight from the vine. The first meow of a new kitten. The first giggle of a toddler. The first crack of a bat of the baseball season. The first home run for your team. The first tailgate party of the fall.
See? Try it. It just feels so darned good to think of all of these Firsts. It’s impossible to stop. I’ll try to anyway, and get back to the Farm Stand Foray.
There we were, tooling through the countryside in my husband’s car – because it has more cargo space than mine and it has the crucial amenity satellite radio. And on Sunday afternoons, satellite radio delivers the Ultimate Prize: a radio show hosted by David Johansen, aka Buster Poindexter, of New York Dolls fame. And David Johansen has eclectic musical tastes that may even exceed my own…and given that the random shuffle on my iPod is as likely to deliver Merle Haggard as Pavarotti as John Coltrane as Lester Young as Edith Piaf as Loreena McKennitt as the Velvet Underground as Rush…this is really saying something. In a nutshell, if it was ever recorded – in the history of recording as we understand it – and has been considered to be “music” by at least ten people at any point in its existence – it has a fair shot at being played on Johanesen’s show.
Today, we were treated to the music of jungle pygmies, followed by John Lee Hooker, followed immediately by an incredibly angst-ridden operatic aria, at which point we arrived at our destination and the Pumpkin Picking began. There’s nothing like pulling up to a rural Farm Stand with an Italian song about the soulless banality of existence pouring out of the car windows.
I do not mean Pumpkin Picking in the same sense as Strawberry Picking or Apple Picking. No walking about in fields with a pair of shears for me. This is Pumpkin Picking in the same sense as Christmas Tree Choosing. One must inspect every single item on display. The choice is complex. It is Understood that the Perfect Pumpkin is out there, and that it is the matter of dedication to find it. And there are many, many factors. The color of the pumpkin: should it be lurid orange, or pale gold, or striped with green? What of the character lent by blemishes to the skin? Some of the most prized pumpkins are a special type with warts on. What shape should it be? Perfectly round? Oblong? Bulbous? Flattened on one side? And the question of the Stem: long? short? curly? thick? One year I found a pumpkin with a stem that was curly and still had a leaf on. Talk about your Shehecheyanu moments. And there is the question of size: what is large enough for the purpose, yet small enough to handle easily? What is the purpose, anyway? And does it matter? Is it ethical for me – who will use the pumpkin only in its entirety as a decorative item for the porch – to seize and take a pumpkin that looks like nature designed it for a jack-o-lantern? These are deep thoughts to have whilst knee-high in pumpkins. It is no wonder that Linus the philosopher arrived at the Great Pumpkin.
Ultimately, choices were made, and pumpkins acquired. Large knobbly bright orange ones with thick wavy stems on – although, alas, no leaf clinging – and smaller, deliciously warty ones. And one with green stripes, and one that could well have served as the model for any artificial gourd to be found in a Hobby Lobby. This, plus an assortment of spectacular mums (at $18/4, no less!) and one bundle of Indian Corn – to go along with this Indian Summer – completes my porch decorations for the year.
Force of the universe, I am grateful that I am sustained to reach this moment of autumnal splendor gracing my porch. And the first chasing of the squirrel away from the corn. And the first buds on the mums just starting to open. And the first wind that will come and knock my plants over. And the first freeze that will bring the flowering ultimately to an end. And the first birds and creatures that show up to eat the frost-softened pumpkins. And the first rustling of dry leaves along the walk. And the first sight of children in their costumes, and the first singing out of Trick Or Treat! And the first apple pies, and the first roasted squash soup. For all of this glory yet to come, may I continue to be preserved and to have the grace to notice every wonderful moment that appears.
Here is the first roasted squash soup of the season. It makes a gigantic amount. But you won’t be sorry, because it is good.
Squash Soup with Calvados
2 very large butternut squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeds removed
4 T olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
2 onions, chopped
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
2 bay leaves, broken in half
1 t coarse salt
½ t ground black pepper
1 C Calvados (or other apple brandy, but it must be an apple brandy)
quart of low-salt chicken broth
12 oz. can evaporated milk
¼ C Greek yogurt or sour cream
½ t ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Brush squash flesh with 2 T oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and a good grind of black pepper. Place on prepared baking sheets, cut side down. Roast until very tender, about 1 hour. Cool 20 minutes. Remove seeds. Scoop out pulp and put into large mixing bowl.
Melt butter with remaining oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, 1 t coarse salt, and 1/2 t ground pepper. Sauté until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Add Calvados and simmer until almost all of liquid evaporates. Discard cinnamon stick pieces and bay leaves. Add mixture to squash in large bowl and mash about to combine. Working in batches, puree mixture in blender until smooth. Put it back in the cooking pot and whisk in chicken broth. Add evaporated milk and mix well.
Mix sour cream and ground cinnamon in medium bowl to blend. Whisk into soup. Serve hot.
Makes 12 servings