Each autumn, my tiny mountain community celebrates the transition from summer to winter with abandon. Perhaps here at the very end of the road where our little town sits nestled between the undulating folds of the Rocky Mountains, we live a little less removed from nature. Those thin transitions between summer and autumn, autumn and winter seem a little more pronounced here where the people still depend on the seasons.
As we brace ourselves for winter and what will amount to another nine months of snow, an odd sense of both dread and excitement pervade the sleepy community. Yes, winter brings snow, skiing, snowshoeing and much-needed income from tourism, but it also brings an odd, but intense sense of isolation. In good winters, piles of snow can reach rooftops, access in and out of town can be limited days. Here, you must take a deep breath and brace yourself for winter.
So, as summer fades, the air takes a decided crisp chill, and the aspens and cottonwoods exchange their green for gold, the people of our tiny mountain take a collective breath together – uniting for a week-long celebration that allows us to rid ourselves of any lingering negativity from the past year as we come together to embrace a new seasonal cycle and prepare for what will be another long, cold and bitter winter.
It’s celebration of nature, fire and fertility – beginning first with a dance to honor the Harvest Mother (who is, typically, the most visibly pregnant mother in town) complete with stiltwalkers, belly dancers and song. From there, the energy of the community grows ever more intense with evening storytelling, liar’s contests and the crowning of the Green Man – a man who is a decided lover of women and who consistently gives of himself to the betterment of those around him.
During this time of waning light, we venture into the woods with friends – gathering willows, plumes of golden aspens leaves and the last of the wildflowers with which we’ll make our crowning wreaths. We breathe the fresh air, we listen to stories and song and we dance in the streets with ecstatic abandon. Men kiss maidens, women kiss the green man and we all commit to support one another for another intense and grueling year.
It’s a time of color, love and feasting. Finally, after a week of community storytelling, fire dance, harvesting and feasting, we end the celebration with mumming, street plays and community bonfire in the center of town that can reach four stories tall. As I watch the fire, my little boy snuggled in my lap, I see a beautiful oneness as the flames lick the dark of the autumnal sky. They reach up, releasing our collective woes, and as the flame flickers and rises up there is a brief moment when its bright embers embed themselves into the night and become indistinguishable from the stars.
For our part, my husband and I give to our community through food – through real food. Through our work in our farmers market, we host and organize the community’s annual harvest feast which typically feeds 300 people in what is Colorado’s largest farm-to-table dinner. The dinner also benefits area not-for-profits and is priced very affordably, showing that real food is not elitest, or expensive, and with good work and devotion you can nourish an entire community.
For me, the week starts early – gathering food (over 800 lbs), working with restaurants who generously close so that we can use their licensed kitchens. In the end, we serve a huge meal – roasted meats, roasted root vegetables with herbs, whole-grain sourdough bread, fresh autumn fruit, hard cider, traditional mead and cider-braised cabbage and apples. It’s exhausting and wonderful at the same time (and it also explains why I hardly post or answer emails in September).
We line the street with tables, candles, luminaries and fire cauldrons, and serve the meal on the main street in town, under the dark of night and beneath the twinkling of the milky way’s stars. Later, as we clear away the tables and any leftover food (which feeds local pasture-raised pigs), the cauldrons are lit and the poets and fire dancers venture out to entertain the community.
And though you may not be able to join our community in song and dance and fiery celebration, you can make this dish (my favorite) in your own kitchen and feel a bit of the same feasting celebration of summer turned autumn.
- 2 tablespoons ghee (available here) or pastured lard (available here)
- 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced thin
- 2 medium apples, cored and sliced thin
- 1 medium head cabbage, outer leaves removed, cored and chopped
- 1½ cups sweet apple cider
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon unrefined sea salt
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- Melt the ghee in a large (12-inch) skillet over moderately high heat, then toss in sliced onion. Fry until translucent and a bit caramelized at the edges, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in apples and fry until fragrant, a further 2 to 3 minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium, toss in chopped cabbage, stir well to bring the apples and onions to the surface, and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Pour cider into the cabbage and apples, and toss in the bay leaf. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes or until the cabbage and apples are soften and the liquid is largely evaporated.
- Sprinkle the dish with sea salt and stir in the apple cider vinegar. Continue cooking over medium heat for a further 2 to 3 minutes, then serve.