The Fat of the Land

Month: November, 2013

Frost

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The first frost arrives without spectacle—a spirit train that rolls in after midnight, leaving behind a world covered in the sparkling soot of its cold fire. Part release, part restriction, it promises only finality. Even gardeners that seem perpetually prepared must wonder, as they cover their less robust plantings with sheets, how these thin cloths offer real protection. If the frost is severe enough, remnants of the summer garden will wake blackened, beckoning the coming darkness as they collapse back to the soil, leaving nothing where there was something.

The first hard frost is the final puff of exhaust from Persephone’s private jet to the underworld. Daughter of Demeter (goddess of agriculture) Persephone was the vibrant green apple of her mother’s eye. When Hades abducted her, forcing Persephone to live in the underworld, the earth became a dark and barren place, so deep was Demeter’s grief.

Though Hades was compelled to release Persephone so the world could sprout back to life, he tricked her into eating a few seeds of the pomegranate, fruit of the underworld, guaranteeing (in the circuitous logic of mythical deities) that she must return back to him a portion of each year. And when she goes, the earth is again plunged into darkness: the days grow shorter, deciduous leaves drop, trees run their sap back to their roots, seeds drop to the ground, rotten plants and flowers collapse, returning what is left of their life-force to the soil.            

But frost does not rob the earth of everything vital. Evergreen trees and shrubs stand in defiance. In our climate, the grass grows greener while Persephone’s away. And the winter vegetable patch is actually improved by frost; with each cold morning those stout specimens grow sweeter in the deepening chill; the water in their cells converts to sugar, functioning like antifreeze and preventing the cells from bursting. Perhaps it is Persephone injecting them with sweet pomegranate juice from the underworld, masking their insubordination.            

Frost itself contains a curious energy. Wild forms balanced precariously on leaf tips and delicate stems. Maps of planetary topography, or the branching, feathered foliage of mythical flora, painted across panes of glass. Sparkling soil, heaved into stalagmite pillars and miniature caves. Frost dishevels, and a warm creature walking among it, exhales turned cumulus, becomes complicit in the folly.

Jack Frost, the spritely and mischievous personification of frost, captures this spirit. An Anglicized version of Jokul Frosti, Norse mythological character responsible for the artistry and ambiguity of crisp weather, the modern Jack Frost maintains many of the same attributes: jolly, fun-loving, but apt to turn a little unpredictable, nipping noses and toes, or creating conditions more treacherous when the spirit overtakes him.

The catalog of frost forms reads like an excerpt from Herodotus. Hoarfrost (eccentric and delicate crystalline shapes that materialize when the anchoring object becomes colder than the surrounding air, and whose architecture intensifies with air moisture), window frost (Jack’s prolific artistry), rime (jagged ice spines), frost beards (fine filaments of ice that form in cottony clumps), meadows of sea ice (a frost that forms on the water’s surface in upright, grass-like shapes).

The queen of them all is the rare frost flower, a bizarre formation of ribbon-like ice that forms when water is slowly released from hair-thin fractures in plant tissue. Conditions must be perfect for a frost flower to form: freezing air surrounding yet unfrozen ground turns slowly extracted fluid from a fissured stem into ice. Since the plant’s roots are still relatively warm, fluid continues to move through the stems, forming a slow-growing ribbon of ice that gently folds up and around itself to create flower-like sculptures.

Frost heralds the garden’s contraction and the gardener’s time of rest. We hang our clean tools in the shed, notice with relief that the slugs have taken refuge underground, that the weeds (like all the garden’s plants) have slowed or halted their growth for a spell, and we sit back, sipping something warm, finding our bearings in this stunted world.

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The Immortals

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The dominant character of the pome fruit is tartness, ranging from the pear’s syrup-cloaked acidity to the impenetrable sourness of quince and crabapples. Though we tend to laud the less tart among them, all pomes have found their way into our cuisines, raw and cooked, sweet and savory. Pome fruits are nostalgic, carrying memories of childhood, of crisp autumn days and long forgotten mythologies. Perhaps this is not surprising, as scent is our memory’s most reliable trigger and the pomes, as a clan, have perfected the art of perfume.

Botanically, pome fruits are a group defined by the fleshy ‘accessory tissue’ built around their core to protect, and perhaps encourage transport of, the seeds. Many plants use the pome form to disperse seeds. The pomes we see at market—pears, apples and quince—evolved in the fertile valleys of eastern Kazakhstan, where the first selections were made by bears and other wild mammals who sought out larger, sweeter fruits and dispersed their seeds in droppings.

Apples are the most recognizable of the pomes and one of the fruit world’s great success stories. Because of their convenient physiology, apples were easy to transport in the ancient world. Carried by traders along what would eventually be known as the Silk Road to the Fertile Crescent and Europe, apples traveled a great distance in a relatively short period of time. By the age of the Roman Empire, they were firmly rooted in the customs and mythologies of multiple European cultures.

Pomes fall into the same taxonomical family as roses, and rival their cousins in the category of enchanting fragrance. A ripe quince would tie any rose in the race to fill a room with knee-weakening perfume. Cook that quince slowly, and its fragrance develops into a flavor sequence that goes something like flower, apple, cranberry, saffron. Certain pear and apple varieties contain an undertone of spice as well—clove or nutmeg—as if they anticipated a future need to harmonize with the warming flavors of cinnamon and ginger.

Since its diaspora began, pome fragrance has worked a subtle magic on us. Symbol of fertility, immortality, love, and temptation, the apple played many integral roles in European and Central Asian mythology. Though the bible makes no mention of specifically what fruit should not be picked from the forbidden tree, art and literature of the era made it clear that the people’s choice was the apple—or was it quince? Early writings often conflated these two, and their appearance can be strikingly similar.

Given that these pome fruits all hail from the flanks of the Tian Shan Mountains that divide Kazakhstan and China, perhaps the discrepancy doesn’t matter. Certainly a quince and an apple are distinct, but their provenance (along with pears’) followed a similar path, shrouding them all in the same brand of mystique. The Tian Shan are a range of high, snow-covered peaks and mist-filled valleys bordered, in part, by desert. Ancient Kazakhstan was virtually inaccessible and as much fodder for imagined inhabitants then as it is today: Herodotus’ Amazons to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.

In their new homelands, pomes became the emblem of mystical places and mythological personalities: the Garden of Hesperides, in which the Greek goddess Hera grew golden apples of immortality; Avalon, the Celtic utopian ‘island of apples’ featured in the legend of King Arthur; Idun, the Norse goddess who keeps the rest of her pantheon well fed with youth-preserving apples; and the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lost their immortality for a taste of the fruit of duality—a bite that contained good and evil, life and death.

Though our contemporary pomes carry a much lighter cultural load, we still pin hopes on them—an apple a day keeps the doctor away!—and consume them with equal vigor. And they still enchant. We flock to orchards in autumn for the privilege of seeing their jewel-colors dangling in the foliage, of plucking a portion of the treasury for ourselves and visiting the fragrant land they govern. Is not this intersection of scent and memory, this instant transport to a sweet but distant recollection, a kind of immortality?