Friday, October 23, 2009

Harvest Holiday

The autumn school holidays are coming to an end here in Germany. For two weeks in late October, school children throughout the country get a break. Many families take this Indian summer opportunity to get out of the country or into the countryside, little gets done because so many parents take this holiday from work.

HH is in his first year of school and it seemed he had just gotten his new rhythm down, getting up a little after 6AM, bathing, eating breakfast, a little Lego play of course, and then off to school. This break turned things around a bit, even though he spent the first week with his afternoon group taking field trips to the Zoo, visiting a Piano maker, making Pizza and generally having a good time in a semi-organized fashion. We did, however, take the chance to get out of town and went for a visit with Oma in the Eifel region nearby.

The days were bright and cool and the landscape was full with color and bounty. It was harvest time after all, the reason behind this break in the first place. Not that long ago, this time would be used to bring in the crops and the children would be out in the fields alongside their parents, digging in the rich, wet earth for potatoes. I would venture to say that most of the children in HH’s school did not get their hands dirty digging potatoes over the last two weeks. HH, however, did.

We had taken long walks in the forest nearby, looking out over the cliff sides into the sweeping green valleys of the Eifel National Park, gardened with Oma, and generally had a relaxing time in the country. Then on our last afternoon there, one of HH’s older and somewhat distant cousins came by with his son to dig potatoes. It was cold and the earth was damp. The work was done by hand except for the hand-driven plow that lifted the raised rows of earth to expose the treasure of the potatoes that rolled out by the dozens each time it made a pass. HH and I scrambled along behind it, tossing the dirty spuds into a wicker basket that would later be dumped into large burlap sacks. It was truly surprising to see just how many potatoes lay beneath the surface in such a small space.

HH took to it with relish and worked with his older cousin who had to watch his hoe when HH reached into the nearby dirt to pull out an escaping potato. Our “help” probably slowed down the process, but after a few minutes of it we got into a rhythm and made a pretty good crew.

It’s hard work bending and digging and hauling and HH’s mother kept her distance. When she did come out to see us, her cousin came over to her and reminded her of the late October when she was 5 years old and sat in a field nearby wet, cold and crying. She told me about it later, about how this time of year was a hard one and that she and her sister worked in the fields with their parents. There was no child care for the little ones, and they worked or sat in the dirt until it was done.

Our experience was different - exhilarating and novel. But it did offer a small glimpse into the food chain, a chance to see where our food comes from and how much work it can be to get it to the table. It was similar to an experience that I had as a child somewhat older than HH is right now. We too dug potatoes on an autumn day and the memory of it has stayed with me.

When we got ready to return home, Oma brought out a large sack filled with potatoes, small ones the size of a grape. When we were digging that afternoon, I had mentioned to my cousin that these small potatoes would be great to pan cook, whole, with a bit of olive oil and rosemary. He had collected them and when I got home I opened the bag to find hundreds of the tiny things, many of which we had for dinner last night. HH even tried a few.

Later we called Oma to get our cousin’s telephone number to thank him for the gift. When we told her why we were calling him she laughed; these small potatoes, the ones I treasured for cooking, were generally culled from the crop and fed to the pigs. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat them.

But eat them we did and the meal that night was a happy one, something about knowing the food, taking it out of the earth with our own hands, made that dinner special. How far we have come from our agrarian roots, that we now romanticize the digging of potatoes on an autumn afternoon.