An undeniable sign that autumn has arrived is the unholy quantities of pumpkin spice that have been inflicted upon our great nation.
The stuff is literally everywhere. There are pumpkin spice air fresheners and pumpkin spice shoe inserts. I recently saw an automotive service station that had a marquee that blared “Treat your tires to pumpkin spice NitroFill!”
All of this spice nonsense points to the irrefutable fact that the seasons have changed. Summer, our erstwhile bosom buddy (and, let’s face it, fair-weather friend), has flown the coop.
The inexorable march of ever-shortening days and cool nights awakens a primordial instinct in we Northern folk. We rush hither and yon, squirrel-like, as we prepare for the approaching Long Cold. Even though our rational brains know that fresh strawberries will be available at the supermarket throughout the dead of winter, our squirrelly impulses are so strong that we will nonetheless make frantic efforts to store up food-based calories.
There’s probably a good reason for this ingrained behavior. I could imagine one of our long-ago caveman ancestors grunting to his neighbor, “Why you filling your cave with all that mammoth jerky?”
“Geese flying south,” grunted the neighbor, pointing at the sky. “That mean hard winter coming.”
Saw a woolly bear caterpillar today with wide stripe,” replied the first caveman. “That mean gonna be easy winter. Probably won’t even snow. You wasting your time.”
“Suit yourself,” muttered the neighbor, who not only went on to survive the winter but also established the world’s very first chain of superstores which he named Jerkymart.
This is the time of year when many fruits are at their sweetest and most delicious, so we scramble to hold onto their yumminess. Yes, we realize that these items can be purchased at any modern megastore even when the mercury hovers at -30. But preserving this fruit is our way of hanging onto a tiny bit of summer and shouting at winter, “You can’t push me around, by golly! And I have this quart jar of apple butter to prove it!”
Preserving food and laying up calories for the winter has led to some creative food science. Winemaking is a good example.
It’s lost in the mists of history, but at some point in the distant past, some guy picked up a piece of fruit that had lingered long past its expiration date. Upon sniffing the fruit, his nose was tickled by the exotic aroma of ethanol. Did this mean that the fruit was spoiled? Might it be deadly? Would taking a bite cause him to fall into such a deep sleep that he could only be awakened by a kiss from handsome prince? Did he even know a handsome prince?
Despite these questions, the guy shrugged and said, “What the heck. I’ll give it a try.”
Numerous pieces of overripe fruit later, the guy was singing maudlin songs (especially “Mandy”) and blubbering about a girlfriend who had recently dumped him. The only thing that kept him from drunk dialing her was the fact that cell phones were still several thousand years in the future.
His pals were disgusted by his behavior. But they also wanted to know if they too could experience the altered state of consciousness that had gripped their friend. Strictly out of scientific curiosity, of course.
This, in a nutshell, is how the wine industry was born.
Some years ago, in the interest of storing up calories for the winter, I planted a few grapevines on our farmstead. The spindly little sticks somehow survived our harsh winters and attacks by vicious rabbits. They eventually grew into jungle-like tangles of vines.
It took several years before the vines produced enough grapes to be worth juicing. Once the juice had been extracted, I poured it into a special fermentation vessel I had purchased — a sterilized plastic 5-gallon bucket — tossed in some yeast, applied an airlock and waited for the magic to happen.
Waiting is a major part of winemaking. You have to wait until the fruit is at its peak, wait until the fermentation stops and wait some more while the wine ages. And then you’ll probably wait for a special occasion to pop the cork.
One autumn evening, after enduring all of those steps, I decided to open one of our bottles of Chateau d’ Nelson. I poured two small glasses for my wife and myself.
The stuff was truly awful. Some mischievous microbe must have snuck into the wine and converted it into something akin to shellac remover.
My wife, kind soul that she is, looked up at me through watering eyes, smiled and said, “It probably wouldn’t be too bad if you added some pumpkin spice.”