An Homage to Fall Cooking

We all know that that there’s a change in the air this time of year. We’re in mid-October. In September we start watching the calendar looking for signs of Fall, soon followed by Winter.  We know the holidays are just around the corner - from Halloween to New Year's. And then BOOM! that first blast of crisp, cool air arrives. Our minds quickly shift into thoughts of the cooler months - flannel, sweaters, jackets, hoodies, courderoy. The crackle of that first fire in the fireplace. The colors that surround us darken and deepen. They shift from yellow, blue, and green into red, burgundy, and orange. The Summer’s farmers market bounty is fading. And the produce in our grocery store starts its inevitable, annual welcome change. The markets swell with apples (a gazillion different kinds!). The winter squashes. The pumpkins. Even though most of us don’t live the agrarian lifestyle of old, our minds still seem to know how to shift into a different mode, the harvest mode of early Fall. And so does our cooking. Our eyes start to get drawn toward those warming foods - breads, pies, stews, soups. Things that are warmer and take longer to cook. Every year I wonder why. Do you?

I speculate that several reasons account for our shifting approach to what we do in our kitchens.

1. Weather/light

The colder weather and the expanding hours of darkness bring us indoors more. It makes us think of fires in the fireplace, the oven baking away with smells of cinnamon and apple, and a warm stew or soup long-simmering on the stovetop. That cozy feeling that envelops our senses is like wrapping ourselves in a favorite sweater that’s been put away for 6-8 months. After a day spent in and out of the colder weather, there is nothing better than the promise of a warm meal.

We also seem to be very sensitive to light. Less of it, studies show, prompts us to seek food and eat it faster.

2. Harvest time

The long growing times for Fall and Winter foods are ending. There’s now something edible at the end of those very long vines that have wound their way through our gardens all summer long. Finally, finally the foods of Fall are here. Squashes, potatoes, apples, sweet potatoes (and, later, the citrus fruits of Winter) are just about everywhere. It’s hard NOT to start cooking those darker, deeper, more robust flavors when we are virtually surrounded by them. These foods are abundant (and often now less expensive) and so welcome. They often require longer, slower cooking times and incorporate warmer ingredients like brown sugar, cinnamon, and “warmer” herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, and oregano.

3. Tradition/emotion

The calendar can indeed drive some of our emotions. October, November, December start to make us recall good times and holidays with family and friends. And along with that comes certain dishes. Ask anyone what they think of when you mention Fall or Winter. Inevitably, certain dishes and flavors and scents come to the surface. It’s hard to dispute that there exists an emotional tie between certain foods and good, warm feelings.

Some who have studied these issues believe that we eat certain of these foods because we simply have more opportunity. I believe there's some truth in that too. Time off from work at the holidays, more holiday gatherings, visits with family and friends are often accompanied by more eating. Put more food in front of us and….well….you know what happens!

4. Primitive impulse

Let’s get a little physiological for just a moment. There are indeed physical aspects to our cravings. When the weather gets cool, we are simply more hungry. Our bodies subconsciously take note of the weather and some primitive impulse tells us to store up calories for the colder months ahead. A 1991 University of Georgia study confirmed this. They found that the study’s subjects consumed about 200 more calories a day beginning in the fall when the days grow darker. Long ago, the heavier, denser dishes of Autumn helped get our ancestors through the longer, darker nights and colder days ahead.

I believe we retain some of that in the core of our being. We gravitate toward these dishes not simply because they are available, but also because they remind us (even subconsciously) of a deep-seated need to nourish our bodies in a different way as the weather changes.

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Yes, every year brings earlier and earlier signs of Christmas. (Thanks, marketers.) I say ignore all that. Don’t pass by Fall. Embrace it. It’s a wonderful, beautiful season. Commit yourself to enjoying the bounty of Fall’s harvest. Choose some new recipes that will welcome Fall into your home.

Thanks for letting me wax philosophical today. :) Maybe we’ve thought about this long enough. Do we really need a reason to fill or homes with the scent of Fall cooking? I encourage you to find a new Fall recipe - a stew, a soup, a pie, a warm side dish - and give it a try. Let’s just enjoy the bounty of the Fall harvest season and cook and bake - and bring smiles to the faces of our loved ones.

So what does Autumn mean to you? Do you have a favorite seasonal recipe? Do you have a new one that you plan to try?