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Ed’s Corner

Walking recently in the crisp Fall air, with multi-colored leaves crunching underfoot, I was struck, as I often am, by the undeniable truth that surrounds us in nature. As I walked, the lyrics of Malvina Reynold’s 1964 folk song, “God Bless the Grass”, came slowly out of the recesses of my memory. I thought I’d share them with you here:

God Bless the Grass

God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that’s gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man’s door,
And God bless the grass.

The Holiday Menu’s Story

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, traces the history of the Thanksgiving menu and gives us ideas of how to incorporate the past into our present fare, including a recipe for acorn squash custard.

I was always interested in history. Becoming an archeologist was one of my childhood dreams that did not come true. With Thanksgiving approaching, I decided to do a little digging. Together with my children, I wanted to learn more about what food historians have to tell us about the origins of the Thanksgiving menu.

Food history seems to be a fun interdisciplinary field. It examines food in the context of cultural, historical, social, and economic circumstances. Its methods include archeological research and go as far as, for example, studying pollen found at the Plymouth Plantation. The goal of this particular inquiry is to find out what the Pilgrims grew in their gardens. I am not sure how hundreds-of-years-old pollen gets preserved, found and identified, but I find this kind of research fascinating.

As we all know, the origins of Thanksgiving celebration go back to 1621. The three-day feast of Pilgrims and the local Native Americans was, of course, not called “Thanksgiving”, and it was not intended to start a tradition. It was simply a harvest celebration (present in most cultures in some form) with festivities that we hardly miss today (think: hunting). Thanksgiving was later celebrated on and off, but only became a tradition and a national holiday much later. This was partly thanks to the perseverance of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. I have learned in the course of my “digging” that she was the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book—sort of the Martha Stewart of her time—a trendsetter for everything household related. Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned 13 presidents (beginning in 1827) with the idea of establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. President James Polk hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner in the White House in 1845, but the holiday wasn’t officially established yet. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Hale pitched the idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. This time it worked. Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Food historians tell us that they are quite sure about the foods that were not on the table during the 1621 harvest festival, but there is less certainty regarding what foods were actually on the menu.

We know that a lot of meat was eaten; the kind of meat and poultry that most likely won’t be part of our Thanksgiving dinner.  We would like to think that the Pilgrims enjoyed some turkey as we do today. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. There was an abundance of wild turkeys in the area, but there is no proof that turkey was actually served during the 1621 harvest celebration. If it was served, it certainly wasn’t the centerpiece of the dinner table.  Local wild fowl (ducks, geese, possibly swans) were prepared, and we know for sure that there was plenty of venison to go around. Seafood was certainly part of the menu; most likely lobster, oysters, clams, and possibly bass.

As for the preparation of the food, boiling and roasting were the two methods employed. Big pieces of meat or whole birds were roasted on spits, while the open hearth in the house was used for other cooking.

The birds might have been stuffed with onions, herbs and nuts, but not wheat bread stuffing. The Pilgrims did not have wheat flour, so bread stuffing was off the menu and so were pies. Not only there was no flour, there wasn’t any butter for the pie crust or even an oven for baking. At that time, the Pilgrims hadn’t constructed an oven yet. But they did not give up on pumpkin based desserts. They improvised by filling a hollowed out pumpkin with milk, honey and spices, and roasting it in hot ashes. Voilà, pumpkin custard!

Locally available vegetables such as wild onion, leeks, squash, Jerusalem artichokes, and beans were cooked. Probably some English crops (turnip, cabbage, parsnip, onion, thyme, rosemary, carrots) grown from seeds brought from Europe were available. To know for sure, we need the above mentioned pollen research.

As for other side dishes, corn in the form of porridge and sweet corn pudding was served (but not corn on the cob). Two of our favorites, potatoes and sweet potatoes, can be ruled out. Potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean, had yet to reach North America. Cranberries were available and perhaps present on the table, but not in the form of sweetened cranberry sauce. Today we take the availability of sugar for granted, but the Pilgrims had none, since by the fall of 1621 they ran out of the sugar brought from overseas.

Over the course of history, The Thanksgiving menu has evolved into what it is today. There was a roasted turkey and there were mashed potatoes on the menu printed in The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. At the same time, this menu included many items that we hardly associate with the Thanksgiving dinner (oyster soup, sterling sauce, chicken pie, and fruit pudding).

Most of us perceive Thanksgiving not only as a harvest festival but – more than anything else – a family celebration.  On our Thanksgiving table, food history meets family history. Each of our menus is most likely a combination of the usual Thanksgiving menu items with those unique to our family. Like every family, every menu has its own story worth “digging” up.


Squash Custard in Squash Shell

My children were intrigued by the idea of pumpkin custard baked in a pumpkin shell. We decided to improvise and to create our own recipe for acorn squash custard. We liked what we made. This recipe is a tasty and healthy alternative to a more conventional seasonal dessert.

1 small acorn squash
1 egg
¼ cup milk
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
tiny bit of ground cloves

Cut the squash in half. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds. The seeds won’t be needed for this recipe, but they can be roasted and enjoyed as a snack.

Scoop out about half of the squash flesh and put it in a small mixing bowl. The squash shell will serve as a baking and serving “dish” for the custard.

In another bowl whisk the egg, then add milk, maple syrup, cornstarch, vanilla extract, and the spices. Mix together.

Put the two halved pieces of squash into a small baking dish.  Carefully fill the squash with the milk and squash mixture. Bake in a preheated oven on 350 F for 30-40 minutes or until the filling is set and the flesh around the shell has soften.

The custard can be enjoyed warm or cold.

 

A Forager’s Thanksgiving

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes his forager’s feast, and it sounds so good that one can almost taste it.

Every year since 2011, I have come together with a group of fellow wild crafters to celebrate Thanksgiving with a forager’s feast.

We begin planning in October, when there is still plenty to be foraged, although some of us even gather and preserve seasonal food throughout the year, in anticipation of our yearly gathering.

Anyone hearing of a wild foods feast may imaging barely eatable dishes made from weeds. But quite to the contrary, many of our number are excellent chefs, and produce some delicious and imaginative culinary creations.The dishes that arrive at our pot luck gathering may contain such gourmet ingredients as Maitaki or Chicken of the Woods mushrooms, wild fruits such as Autumn olives and Mayapples, and game such as venison or partridge. We also incorporate common wild foods such as Stinging nettles, Chickweed, Dandelion, and acorns.

In addition to using the leaves, we grind and roast the dandelion roots for “coffee”.  We process the acorns to make flour for creating exotic nutty crusts for our pies and pastries.

Drinks range from home-made kombucha to Dandelion wine.

We always look forward to these gatherings, to enjoy the delicious food and great company. No matter what sort of feast you’ll be having this Thanksgiving, I hope it makes you feel the same way.

 

Ed’s Corner

It’s About Time

We think we can manipulate time, twist it like a Gumby, do whatever with it.
For example, we say we can save it, spend it. But I don’t know of a time bank where you get time interest from the time you put into it.

You can have a great time, a terrible time; we believe we can even make time; take time out; be on time; waste time; lose time; run out of it; squeeze time.

To me, time is:

now….now….now….now….now….now…. You get the idea. We live only in this moment, this now.

Good news!

There are a lot of moments in front of you. You are blessed with many possibilities and choices of how you want to be or what you want to do in the next many moments. Yes, the choice is yours: what will you make of the most precious thing you have?

This month of October is glorious in so many ways. I hope you will choose to “spend” your time with your children out-of-doors.

The Season of Squash

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, describes one of fall’s most notable vegetables and some imaginative uses for it.

If summer is the peak in the circle of the seasons, then winter is the valley, and fall is a gentle stroll downhill into the land of winter. Fall is a season that brings no promises, but instead, it gives a lot on the spot. To compensate for cooler weather, it warms us with colors of gold, orange, rusty browns and reds, and nourishes us with an abundant harvest. The dominant taste of the season is sweet. Fall treats us with the sweetness of ripe wine grapes, fresh apples and apple cider, roasted squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, and parsnip. Towards the end of the growing season, peppers in the garden turn not only red, but also sweet; so too do many leafy greens, as temperatures drop.

There is a lot one could do on a nice fall day, and there are lots of ways to engage children in seasonal activities. So much can be done with just some winter squash and pumpkin (which is also a type of winter squash). One could carve a pumpkin of course, visit a farm for a pick-your-own pumpkin event, decorate the house with pumpkins or squash, or use them as materials for craft projects.

Any type of pumpkin or winter squash will bring the feel of autumn into our homes, but gourds are especially sought after as a seasonal decoration. While not edible, they can be used to craft functional objects; such as birdhouses, bowls, vessels for liquids, instruments, or even gnome homes. With a little imagination they can be turned into improvised toys. Their unusual shapes will make our kids think of dinosaurs, daisies, dumplings, swans, and who knows what else.

A French heirloom pumpkin, Rouge vif D’Etampes, also known as a Cinderella Pumpkin, will transport us into the realm of fairy tales without the magic touch of the Fairy Godmother. It is a fairly large pumpkin of vivid orange color, with a flattened and heavily lobed shape, resembling the fairy tale carriage of Cinderella–hence its name. I imagine it would be fun to use one of these to create a carriage for a favorite doll or a dwelling for a magical creature visiting your backyard. According to some sources, this variety had been cultivated by the Pilgrims and served at the second Thanksgiving dinner. Besides being the perfect pumpkin pie ingredient, it can serve as a lovely biodegradable serving dish for a squash soup. If simply put on a table or shelf it will be a statement in itself. Another French variety, Musque de Provence (or Fairytale Pumpkin), has similar great looks and qualities.

The sweet harvest is waiting to be embraced in the kitchen too. Winter squash can be enjoyed simply roasted, or mashed with a bit of cream and a dash of nutmeg for a side dish, used in soups, or in muffins and sweet breads. Acorn Squash or other smaller types like Baby Hubbard and Japanese Futsu can be filled with a variety of stuffing and baked. The flesh of pumpkin and succulent winter squashes works well as a filling for pumpkin pie. Seeds and fiber of any edible winter squash can be used for stock or as a snack for a flock of chickens. Pumpkin also offers edible seeds that taste great roasted. Aside from the high fat content, pumpkin seeds have abundant protein and lots of trace minerals (zinc, manganese, magnesium, copper and iron.) Even better for seeds than pumpkin is Kakai Squash. This medium-sized, slightly oblate squash with orange and dark green stripes is grown and valued for its hull-less or naked seeds. Instead of a shell, the seeds are covered with a thin cellophane-like membrane. Since they do not require shelling, one is tempted to eat them fast, and the possibility of overeating is very high for everyone who loves the taste of freshly roasted pepitas. If there are any left after snack time, they can be used as an addition to your granolas, salads, pumpkin soup, breads, or rolls.

While munching on a handful of pumpkin seeds the other day, I found myself thinking about winter, and realized that I felt a certain melancholy about it being just around the corner. I sometimes find it hard to enjoy fall, because winter is next, with its cold and short days. But I’d like to be fair to this season of abundance, so I am reminding myself of all of Fall’s sweetness and gifts; stay in the moment, stay present to all of the beauty that is in it.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

 (From A Fresh Pumpkin)

Do not discard seeds from your pumpkin intended for carving. You can make a Jack O’ Lantern and a great snack from the same pumpkin.

Scrape the seeds from the pumpkin with a large spoon. Clean away the stringy flesh. Rinse the seeds with water if needed. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet, and let them dry for several hours in your kitchen or on a sunny spot outdoors. The seeds are now ready for roasting and seasoning.

I prefer my pepitas dry-roasted without any seasoning, but they can be flavored with a variety of spices.  Most children will appreciate Pumpkin Spice Pepitas.

Dry-Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Spread the seeds in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through. Seeds should be golden and crunchy when done.

Pumpkin Spice Pepitas

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 – 1 ½  teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • ¼ teaspoon fine salt

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Combine all ingredients and spread in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through.

 

Bring on the Barberries

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden introduces us to a superfood found growing by some of our favorite hiking trails.

Barberries are an introduced plant in our area, having escaped captivity and made their home at the edges of our woodlands.

Straight off the bush, the small elongated red berries tend to be rather tart, but they can be pretty tasty when they are prepared correctly.  However, I eat them straight off the bush, regardless of their flavor.  They are such a potent superfood, that I don’t mind the flavor.  I rarely pass a bush without helping myself to a few berries.  It is as though I am taking a supplement.

Barberries are remarkably high in antioxidants.  They have been measured at 9 times that of Goji berries.  For this reason, they are a good anti-cancer food.  Naturally, they help build the immune system.  During the winter months, they are a good source of Vitamin C.

As I mentioned in my last Barberry post, these berries have been clinically proven to be highly effective in clearing up acne.

Now, as we head into winter, Barberries are once again coming into season.  If I can gather enough of them, I will usually make some Barberry butter, which can be used as a sauce over ice cream or as basting sauce for chicken, duck or fish.  It is excellent just spread on bread.

Upcoming Fall Events

24th Annual Food and Farmers Festival this weekend

When: Saturday, September 23rd, 11 am – 4 pm

Where: The Hungry Hollow Co-op Market @ 841 Chestnut Ridge Road, Chestnut Ridge NY

Join us at the co-op’s annual celebration of farmers and local food producers, featuring live music, grilled local food, organic cotton candy and popcorn, nature walks, hay rides, cider pressing (with us), and more!

Admission to this fun family event is free and your support of the co-op and local food producers is very much appreciated.

       

Green Meadow’s Fall Fair – Hope to see you there!

 

When: Saturday, October 7th, 10 am to 4 pm

Where: Green Meadow Waldorf School @ 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY

Join us for Green Meadow Waldorf School’s annual Fall Fair. We’ll be there pressing apples into cider and welcoming autumn back into our lives. A wonderful family event with activities for all ages! Stop by any time between 10 am and 4 pm. Additional details can be found here.

See you there!

Our Fall Open House

 

When: Saturday, November 4th, between 1 and 4 PM – by appointment 

Where:  Meet at the Lower School Building @ Green Meadow Waldorf School: 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY

The best way to learn more about The Nature Place is by coming to an open house. We’ll take you on a tour of camp, give you a full picture of what we do and why we do it, and answer your questions about the ins and outs of camp.

Please email us in advance at camp@thenatureplace.com to set up your appointment.

Ed’s Corner

To those of you who are reading our blog for the first time, welcome! To those who are long-time readers, it’s good to have you back. Each year, when I am called to prepare my contribution for September’s issue of The Dirt and its corresponding blog post, it is a tell-tale sign for me that summer is over, and it is time once again to enter the magical and transformational season called ‘fall’.

As many of us know, beyond our personal, unofficial signs of fall’s arrival, there is in fact an official beginning to the season. This year, the autumnal equinox occurs on Friday, September 22nd at precisely 4:02 PM, when the sun crosses the celestial equator. On this day we will have equal parts night and day. From then on, nights will slowly become longer than days, until we arrive at the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice in December. From there we begin the slow lengthening of our days as the cycle through the seasons continues.

With the thought of this cyclical, circular motion in mind, I’d like to share with you a poem I wrote following our last day of camp, just a bit over a month ago. Though the season has begun to turn, the memory of that day is still just as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday. It is one that I will hold dear as we enjoy each changing season, until we arrive at glorious summer once again.

 

Love Is All Aground

On the big field, on the last day of camp,
without fail, we take time for goodbyes.
Holding hands, we form one large circle
that this year held one final surprise.

With all of our campers and counselors
each holding the hands of two others,
no matter how many, how far afield,
we always find room for each other.

Once our living circle has formed,
the center we share gives us reason
to recall all the circles we have in our lives:
the earth, the moon…the seasons.

We may feel a little bit melancholy,
knowing this summer’s camp is now done,
but we take solace in the circle of time:
we’ll be back, under next summer’s sun.

As we stood hand in hand, I became aware,
my eyes tracing our ring, start to start:
though our ‘circle’ may not have been perfect,
it did form one great, perfect HEART.

The tipis that still dominated the field
had sent us a little astray,
enough to dimple our circle of souls
in this wondrously suitable way.

I was called to the middle to share
some meaningful, well chosen words.
I had them scripted, but this surprise heart
had rendered them moot and absurd.

All I really needed to do
was point out the heart we had made,
shaped by our own hearts and hands
though we hadn’t known what was at play.

Love and tears suffused the air,
the oohs, the ahhs were all profound.
We’ve always known our camp is Love —
here the proof stood on the ground.

 

 

Black Walnut Riches

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes the ways he makes the most of this sure sign of autumn.

Every fall, beginning in mid-September, I gather the black walnuts that litter the ground like green and black tennis balls all around our neighborhood. I try to gather the green ones, as they are less likely to contain the ubiquitous husk maggots. I remove the husks (usually by rolling them underfoot until the husks split) and put the nuts on a tray to dry them out, either in a low oven or in my dehydrator. After the initial drying I leave them sitting on a wire rack, to cure for about six weeks. Around Thanksgiving time they are ready to use.

To make use of the husks, I put them into a large bucket and pour on hot water. After a while, the water turns a deep, blackish brown. I pour it through a strainer into a second bucket, then use it to dye clothes or to stain wood. It makes the best tie dye effects.

Once the nuts have cured, I begin using them in my recipes. If I need nuts in my pastries, I’ll use either hickory nuts or black walnuts (or both), secure in the thought that they are fresh and haven’t been irradiated, like so many commercial nuts. Besides, black walnuts taste great!

The most challenging part is opening these tough shelled nuts. I use a strong knife and a hammer to split them in two, and then some snippers to remove the remaining shells (see below).

I encourage you to explore the many uses of one of nature’s many autumnal gifts.

Back to School

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recalls daydreaming during class in Catholic School, and what his Third Grade Nun had to say about it…

It happens at the end of every summer. Come September, there is the ritual return to school. The beginning of my third year at Catholic School was much like the year before. Marching in well-ordered lines from the playground/parking lot into the tan-bricked school building and up into our first-floor classroom, we were returned to our formal training. Ricky Cramshaw, Cousin Buzzy, and Cindy Maloney were across the street at the public school, which was called the Washington Avenue School. But I was sent to the Sacred Heart of Jesus school, where my mother Tessie hoped I would be inspired to lead a sacred life. My dad, Walt, didn’t care which school I went to, as long as I skipped as many days possible and spent them in the woods.

Our teachers were called Nuns, and they were women who wore black and white robes with hats that were called Habits. Ricky observed that they looked like penguins (and they did, sort of). My First Grade Nun was an elderly woman who didn’t seem to know why she was there. My Second Grade Nun was an exceptionally short woman, who was one of the toughest Nuns I ever met. But the Third Grade Nun was just the opposite. She was tall and gentle and she sang out constantly—beautiful psalms and hymns while we were doing lessons. She even taught us to sing. She was the first woman teacher at this school whom I was not afraid of.

During the first week of school, I found myself assigned to a desk near the window. The maples had yet to turn and the squirrels were busy running about the branches and pulling on fresh, new acorns. No matter what the subject, my thoughts drifted away and out the window, first to the squirrels in the trees and then further on to the woods back home. At mid-morning of each school day there was a recess, wherein all the kids were marched out to the hall and then each one took a turn to visit the bathroom, whether you needed to or not. On the third day of third grade, when we marched out to the hall, this singing nun (whose name was Sister Barbara Ann) stopped me and looked into my face and said, “Master Stead, for the past three days I have seen you stare out the window and drift away into the trees out there.”

 

I nodded my head in agreement, since there was no sense in hiding what she already knew. But then she said this, “And I can see by your face that you go beyond the trees to some other place.”
Again, I nodded, but I was now scared that she could see inside me.
She said, “Where do you go?”
I spoke slowly and said, “Up the mountain to look for animal tracks.”
“What kind of animal tracks?” she asked.
“Squirrel, opossum, coon, cat and dog.”
“Why?”
I told her, “Because that was how nature writes its story.”
She looked at me and her face was full of wonder. She said, “I’ll tell you what, Master Stead, when I see that look in your eyes and think you are searching for animal tracks, I won’t call on you, OK?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
Then she said, “But sometimes I will need to call on you to help me answer things about places and arithmetic and about double negatives…”
I said, “I ain’t got no double negatives.”
She smiled and said, “I don’t got no negatives neither.”

She then stood up and sent me to the bathroom. And for the rest of the year, I knew there were times when she saw that I was looking out the window, and she did not call on me. Sister Barbara Ann was my first favorite teacher, for letting me go away when I needed to.