There is a lot of discussion these days in the ethical-eating press about our distance from the source of our food – not just the geographical distance (food miles, carbon footprint etc), but also the emotional distance. A huge percentage of folk (maybe most?) have never actually seen an apple still on a tree, or a potato still damply dirty from the ground - never mind a pig being slaughtered to make the breakfast sausages. We pay a huge price for this distance, not the least of which is a lack of reverence and appreciation for the earth’s bounty. It is this which makes us waste at least one fifth of all the food that we purchase.
There is a great loss that we have suffered too, which I have not heard discussed. We no longer participate in, or even know about, the wonderful celebrations and feastings that used to mark many of the important milestones in the food-production year. To lose an opportunity for a community party of thanksgiving is not progress, my friends.
A week or two ago we discussed ‘missing meals’, and now I want to remind you of some of the annual feasts that are missing completely from our civilized calendar. In previous blog posts I have talked about Martinmas (or ‘Split Stomach Day’), St. Thomas’ Day, and Midsummer’s Day.
Today it is the turn of the Harvest Supper (or the Churn or Kern Supper, Mell Supper, Feast of Ingathering, Harvest Home etc) There are regional differences in the use of the names, in some places the feast followed the reaping rather than the ‘ingathering’, and in other places there was a celebration at the end of the sheep-shearing season, but no matter – the idea is the same.
There are many common themes to the harvest supper. It was the time of the year when Master and servant sat down together to feast ‘on terms of perfect equality’. Corn dolls (‘corn’ referring to wheat in early English usage) were made and dressed, and games of ‘guising’ were played. Young men were the usual participants in the ‘guising’. They would dress up in clothes of ‘the gayest motley imaginable’, with masks or blackened faces, and would then ‘force entry’ into the supper hall, claiming ‘the privilege of conquerors’ (which no doubt they hoped included the favours of the young women present.) Any votes to bring back the Harvest Supper?
The man we go to for advice on the harvesting business in the eighteenth century is William Ellis, who wrote The Country Housewife’s Family Companion, in 1750. We have previously heard his thoughts on ‘Victualling Harvest-men in Hertfordshire’, and on the importance of apple pies and pasties as part of that process. There is no doubt that the housewife spent a large part of the year putting by supplies to feed the huge increase in the number of labourers she would have to feed at this time. Ellis discusses in his book the importance of a good housewife furnishing herself with ‘a due Quantity of Suet against Harvest-time’ – the suet being an indispensible ingredient for the puddings expected in great quantity by the harvest workers. He reminds us of the importance of supplying ‘culinary vegetables’ at this time too.
The Benefits of getting Roots, Herbs and other culinary Vegetables against Harvest-Time.
In our Chiltern country of Hertfordshire, several of our prudent housewives foresee the great conveniency of having broad beans, pease, carrots, turnips, potatoes, cabbages, onions, parsley, and other kitchen ware, ready for use against a want of them in harvest-time; for that some of these not only prove a sauce, but also help meat to go the further. And here I think it necessary to inform our country housewife, that she ought to have a bed of grass-onions ready all the summer time for her pot uses, even 'till Allholland-Tide. Now what I mean by grass-onions, are Welch onions; whose green large flaggy stalks will endure cutting many times in a year, and will last ten or twenty or more years, provided the bed is dressed once in three years with soot, ashes, or malt-dust, and not suffer'd to run to seed. This I yearly prove to my great conveniency, as being thus furnish'd with early and late onion-stalks, when roots and stalks of others are not easily had; and for having these onions, its seed may be had at any of the London seed-shops, by asking for a pennyworth or two of Welch onion seed: But I have further to inform my reader, that this is the seed which produces the forward sort of young onions, which are drawn by May-Day to be eat with sallads; therefore this Welch onion seed may be sown for an early drawing of them, as well as for a durable crop to cut in flags. And as for broad beans, they serve, in some measure, as a second sort of meat as well as sauce, and are so necessary to a family in harvest-time, that that gentleman, yeoman, or farmer, who does not provide a sufficient crop of them against such an occasion, is very much wanting to his own interest; for it is this most cheap and serviceable vegetable which allays thirst, and so relishes fat bacon, or salt pork, that the men often eat it with a good stomach, to the saving of much expence in the consumption of beef and other meat; it is easy of carriage to the field, will keep hot some time, and prove a very wholesome nourishing eatable. Pease also are valuable, as a change of satiating diet, and are cooling and pleasant to the taste. In the harvest of 1748, as well as in former harvests, I fed my harvest men almost every other day with bacon and beans, or pickled pork and beans. Carrots, turnips, cabbage, and potatoes, are also good kitchen provision to be eaten with salt or fresh meat. Onions, sallary, leeks, parsley, thyme, and savory, are also necessary in harvest-time, because with these our country housewife cooks up her lean orts of beef, her pieces of bacon or pork, her offald cold turnips, carrots, cabbage, or potatoes. And if the meat is a little tainted, yet by her skillful management in the use of some of these roots and herbs, she may recover such meat, by causing it to be hashed or minced according to the art of good housewifery.
How to make Hertfordshire Cakes, Nuts, and Pincushions.
These are much used in Hertfordshire, for giving farmers servants a changeable dinner now and then to their satisfaction; for if they are made as they should be, the men are generally fond of them. To do which, our housewife puts skim milk and hogs-lard over the fire, and warms them only for mixing. Then she takes some flour, sugar, yeast, and an egg or two, with the powder of Jamaica spice, and makes a paste of these and the milk and fat, as if for pye-crust; and when it is work'd and rolled enough, to the thinness of about a quarter of an inch, she cuts it out in two-inch square pieces, and boils them in hogs-lard in a little kettle, or in a stew-pan or frying-pan. Others roll up this paste in the shape of walnuts, and dress them in the same manner the square pieces are.--N. B. No fat is so good for this as hogs-lard, because the lard hollows the cushions or nuts, and makes them look whiter than any other fat does; though some for want of this make them with dripping, &c.
Quotation for the Day.
Care less for your harvest than how it is shared and your life will have meaning and your heart will have peace.