I am working hard to come up with a rationale for winter that sounds more convincing than “it feels so good when it stops”. I am weary already of the hunched posture of winter in the north, the clench against the cold, and the days of grey rain or sloppy melting snow. The things people cite as winter joys — sweaters, fires, hot food — seem more like defense against the cold than a celebration.
I am hanging onto the notion that there is some kind of kinship, remembered in our DNA, with people since forever who had to weather the inhospitable season. I think of those Dutch paintings of medieval villages, smoke from the chimneys, skaters on the ice, people and clothing the only splashes of color in a scene of black stark trees, grey sky, white snow.
Leeks and potatoes make a hearty soup that feels right for the cold, and grainy bread, squash and a few withered apples baked in a crisp seem familiar and timeless this time of year.
But I suspect winter has always felt like the enemy. People harvested their gardens and crops with an eye over their shoulders to the blue north wind, the clouds that looked like snow. They worried whether they had enough laid away to get them through. Old people and little children didn’t always survive the winter; my sense is that people hunkered down by the hearth in the smoky dark and waited it out, content to just be safe and fed in a time when worries included, not just economic woes, but an actual wolf at the door.
Firewood, and meat. Those are the currency of winter: enough wood (or peat, or buffalo chips) to keep some heat and light going for the winter, and the only winter harvest, which required a kill.
Yesterday morning there were two deer hanging from the frozen swingset in the back yard. I take some pride in being a good skinner, because it feels like work that women’s hands have been doing for millennia. I am eager to remove the skin, the head, the feet, any evidence that the meat was not always just meat. I’m aware of my emotional hypocrisy, as I am not the least bit hesitant to eat what comes in pink rectangles at the store — from creatures I have never met. Still, I like the end of the process when the deer looks less like Bambi and more like those butcher shop diagrams locating roast, tenderloin, chop, and steak.
We took the carcasses to my dad’s, so he could walk us through the process of removing the best cuts of meat. He is better at wading in to do it himself than he is at showing us how, but he was having trouble with his hands and eventually relinquished the knife.
We brought the deer back to our own kitchen, working on big plastic fold-up tables, and Jeff and I worked late into the evening, cutting and vacuum-sealing steaks and chops, tenderloins and stew meat. Most of what we had we ground, with a little fatty pork roast for moisture, since we use it for chili, tacos, meatloaf and burgers (we really never buy beef.)
Connor and Molly pulled up chairs and set to work with sharp little knives, oddly engrossed in the project. Molly was quite proud of her clever little hands, holding up each meaty bit to say, “This looks too good for the grinder. I’ll put this in with the stew meat.” Tyler is not a fan of gore, and opted to help get supper on, instead of joining the butchers.
We finally quit, backs aching and weary of little gobbets of red, but this morning two more rear haunches are waiting for me to cut steaks, and a mixing bowl of bits still awaits the grinder. Jeff and Connor have gone to grandma’s to discuss the details of thanksgiving fare, peas and pearled onions, sweet potatoes with candied ginger. I’m going to finish with the meat, fire a kiln, and this afternoon we’re off to the library. I need to pick up the full spectrum lights my doc recommended to keep me focused in this season of grey, and then we plan to take a family walk at the park if it doesn’t start to sleet or rain.
Either way, the summer’s split wood is stacked outside my kitchen window, and the fall’s venison is stacked in the chest freezer. It’s like insurance against the worries of winter: we’ll be warm, we’ll be fed. We don’t know what’s coming but we’re OK for now.
Happy thanksgiving to all…