As a child of the coalfields in the 1970’s, Holidays could be stressful. Valentine’s Day required that you have a girlfriend, a terrible burden for a youngster to handle. Easter required new clothes and an interminably long day spent in church services while all you could think of were all the new creatures cavorting in the forest, following the old trails. July 4th meant that I must, must, play baseball. I hated baseball. Any chances of my enjoying a sport that incorporated a small, but deadly ball hurled at my person at speeds in excess of a speeding car were ruined by my father’s insistence that I catch it.
One such Holiday, which included a demolition derby (loved it!), a lot of locals performing antics on newly acquired dirt bikes (equally entertaining), lots of hotdogs, Chow Chow, homemade chili, pickled eggs and peppers (the highlight, really) really stands out to me. As usual, a brisk and competitive game of baseball was initiated by some of the younger men and older boys. Sides were chosen, with me being picked last and banished into far left field, where I was happily captivated with the natural wonders of rocks, soil and the marvelous ecosystem of insects.
To my dismay, just as I had discovered a small anthill occupied with the eusocial little creatures, all rushing madly and in perfect synchrony, I heard my name being called. I looked around. There, to my greatest of horrors, hanging in the sky like a bolide capable of rendering the next greatest extinction, was the baseball. Headed straight for me. Solutions danced through my young mind. Pretend it’s not there? I was quite deaf, hence the yells; so could I imagine I couldn’t hear the calls? Walk away? Continue eating my hotdog, abandoned and previously forgotten, now covered in the tiny relatives of wasps?
Through it all, my Dad’s commanding whistle shattered my contemplation of possible paradigms, which included a black hole and parallel universes. I knew what he was ordering, but hoped for the impossible: For him to order me not to catch this incoming meteor. To just walk away. Run, even. I sighed. He signaled in no uncertain terms that I was to catch the ball. I did. I walked to the pitcher’s mound as the small crowd cheered and screamed, for I had apparently won the game. I handed the ball to my Dad and vanished into the comforting silence of the forest, where there were no such emergencies, only the peaceful cycle of nature.
Christmas had its own horrors. It drug on forever and the buildup to the BIG DAY was insufferable for a child. With my head spinning in glorious, delirious, fantastical possibilities that are driven into the very souls of bambinos by the relatively new Hollywood-Inspired wave of commercialism, I was inevitably disappointed in the reality of Christmas.
Thanksgiving, to my mind, was the most glorious of Holidays: A simple celebration of thanks. An opportunity to cook, taste new foods, open jars of pickled treats wafting of summer. It was a time for peach jam, which we were not allowed to touch until then, spread on Sourdough Bread, a reminder of long days of hazy sunshine, whippoorwill calls and the sound of tiny insects celebrating their short existence as only they can.
It was a time to sing Christmas Carols early in the season, a day of prayer and most importantly, food. My Mom would prepare a glorious turkey, fresh cranberry sauce and sourdough stuffing. She would have pickled eggs, onions and late season ramps, redolent with the smell of fall.
It was also a time of hard labor. Pigs were selected and harvested, rendered into manageable parts and parceled out in a division of work. Fall Capons, fat from acorns and rest, were quickly dispatched and plucked. The final cords of dried oak would be split, usually by my brothers and I, a satisfying task in the cold of early winter. The staves would resist our mauls with their shrill creaks of protest, but we were hardy and strong, in those days before video games, flat screen televisions and social media.
Thanksgiving was also a day to hunt. I was never cursed with the fever that grips some in the primordial task of the kill. My parents recognized in me at an early age a tenderness and reverence for living things that was unusual in a seething soup of manly activities. I preferred feeding the chickens over eating them. I loved the piglets, the occasional cow, tiny chicks in the spring and all growing things. I was often bullied for my projected weakness, which could rapidly become a terrible mistake for the perpetrator. I was not afraid to fight.
Nor was I hesitant to harvest animals when need persevered over the Anthropomorphism that was rapidly becoming part of our society, for better or for worse, coupled with the popularity of Disney movies and a disconnect from our food sources funded by capitalism, government and demand. My family had taught me to be a woodsman. By age seven I was at home in the forests, knowledgeable of the ways and haunts of every member of the constant cycle of life and death in nature. I had no illusions of where our food came from; just as I had no misconceptions of the reality of Santa Clause.
This Thanksgiving, my health relatively stable and feeling well for the first time in two years, I participated in a goose hunt. I was happy to be a part of the tradition of the Eastern Shore and contribute to the accumulation of nutrition for the rest of the winter. I also found, with great relief that my childhood traits were still with me. I still shoot only to kill. I appreciate each magnificent animal for what they have given us and the ultimate sacrifice in what was to our ancestors a serious venture to provide nutrition for their families.
I enjoyed it very much, and I was reminded of how blessed we are in this country to have a choice between supermarkets and harvest. We can choose how we wish our food to arrive on our tables and in our larders. Not many countries can replicate this feat. It gives me pause as one who is inherently distrustful of food that is not prepared by myself or loved ones: We still have a choice.
Which includes medium-rare goose marinated, cooked and served over a cranberry, red onion, Black Twig apple, garlic and shallot reduction sauce!