By Jefferson Weaver
It hung, glistening, waiting to be a victim.
I was more than happy to oblige.
The grape was among the last I could find on the wild vine near our front gate; on a whim and in token defiance of the squatter’s rights claimed by deer, bears, squirrels, foxes, coyotes, possums, coons and my own horses, I twisted it from the vine, chewed once or twice, and spat out the purple-black hull and seeds to join those left behind by my competitors.
My conscience was clear, as the wild things always manage to clear the persimmons before my sad little harvest of Carolina Quince are ripe enough for human consumption. It’s rare that I find any of our grapes, be they wild or domestic, before all the other hungry things can devour them. This one, single, lonesome grape deserved to be remembered and appreciated, and besides, I hadn’t had more than two or three this year.
November to me is a month of food. Not just Thanksgiving, of course, although that obviously has its place. The time of the Beaver Moon is the last chance for many woodland residents to pack on some fat before winter, and when you get down to the visceral level, we humans ain’t much different.
November is when the slabsided saltwater fish taste their best – “Cold fish are good fish,” my old friend Hugh Howard would say, deft fingers weaving in, out and over in precisely the right spot for the next opening in his latest net. Whiting, mullet, camouflaged flounder unblinking in the glare of a light, methodical matter-of-principal spots, ponderous drum, blues and Spanish savaging anything in their path in the bloodlust that leads to being fooled by a bare hook, followed by the righteous indignation of meeting a predator even hungrier than they are.
A riverside campfire is a comfort rather than self-defense against mosquitoes in a normal November, especially when the air has a bite but the water is still warm enough to keep the catfish curious.
By the eleventh month, the deer have become cagey, guarding their tender backstraps with all the ferocity of a well-raised young woman shielding her reputation. The bears are rolling in fat, not even close to gaunting down as they do when winter (such as it is around here) finally kicks in. The wild hogs are in their prime, fat on nuts and mast and cornpiles.
November is the month for the hungry hunter, since virtually all small game are in season, and a successful day can lead to a long night of skinning and cleaning the harvest.
For those whose tastes are more pedestrian (and you have my sympathies) there are fundraiser fish fries and barbecue sandwiches at turkey shoots where reputations and family honor are measured on how many pellets strike the center of the target.
Thanksgiving has been a bit less predictable in recent years; years ago, we always rushed from pillar to post, trying to see all the family. There was a sit-down, dress-up dinner of turkey and tradition at Miss Lois’ table, a meal from which only love outmeasured the stress of the day.
Then there was big family gathering with Miss Rhonda’s mom’s kin, followed by (or sometimes preceded by) a visit with her dad’s folks. I’m fairly sure that there were a few times that possession of the last plate of the greatest chicken pastry on earth was settled by a knife fight, but I am sworn to secrecy. For the record, I’d have been a willing participant.
The last of the year’s garden vegetables, the banana puddings and pies and cakes always made with a specific cousin or grandchild in mind, fluffy biscuits and crumbly cornbread and businesslike brown and serve rolls, fried chicken for those who didn’t want turkey or ham – all crowded together like the jostling crowd of happy cousins who were sometimes hardpressed to remember who begat whom, much less the names of the children who couldn’t care less, since they were enjoying a day rushing through the leaves with new playmates.
Our Thanksgiving dinners tend to be more sedate nowadays, with just Brother Mike and Cecelia, and a smaller crowd at the in-laws. Sometimes we even eschew the traditional celebration altogether, instead spending the day in the woods with a plate of leftovers and a thermos of coffee. The trappings are nowhere near as important as the traditions and the truth of Thanksgiving.
November is when we can finally eat the pumpkins and butternut squash that have been so infuriatingly slow in maturing into the ingredients for pies, souffles and consumable containers for the slow-baked mixture of butter and sugar nestled where next year’s seeds once rested.
As good as the gastronomical treasures of indoors can be, I prefer being in touch with my inner hunter-gatherer during the first full month of what feels like fall. Pignut hickories, pecans, walnuts and “Chinese chestnuts” offer small reward for great effort, but the reward is worthwhile to those with patience and a craving. Years ago, a dear friend brought me a grocery bag of chinquapins the day before Thanksgiving, and I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.
The last of the forgotten ugly pears that have escaped wasps and wildlife are ready for their last hurrah, dripping and oozing down my beard as I eat myself silly. The same goes for the apples once carefully cultivated and guarded by a farmer’s wife in a kitchen yard of a house now long since consumed by time and the woods. Blueberries grow there, too, but needless to say it will be months before they can even be more than a dream.
November is a time for oyster roasts and clam bakes, a deft twist of a pocketknife followed by the inevitable slurp of pleasure, perhaps garnished with a tiny pink crab that picked the wrong day to nap in an oyster. A professional oyster-eater can open one whilst swallowing another and casting aside the empty. There is an indescribable pleasure in sitting around with a group of friends on a brisk November day, warmed by the fire that steams the shells sandwiched between a sheet of steel and wet burlap, providing just enough heat to make them warm and ready to be devoured.
November is a time to eat, whether in fellowship or an atavistic need to prepare for the oncoming winter. November is when the stars are bright, icy points in the night sky, families gather, the persimmons are frostbitten just enough to finish their ripening, and my belly growls.