Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You Can Smell It in the Air

Seasonal changes are accompanied by characteristic olfactory shifts, and today I'll write a paean to fall smells and seasonal changes. The phrase, "it's in the air" connotes both an immediate sensory experience and also anticipation of what's to come. Today I mean both.

When people say that "fall is in the air" they're referencing the subtle, earthy odor of decaying leaves; the smoky haze from burning brush piles; the way clean laundry smells drying quickly in the autumn breeze. Hell, even cold mornings and heavy dew have a different nose, and I appreciate the quarterly change of menus. That phrase also implies that winter is on its way (in the sense that the grasshopper should be sorry for having dallied away the summer, while the ant is thankful for having steadily stockpiled against the hard days to come).

At Sandhill Farm, there is a distinctive marker that heralds the arrival of fall—the sweet smell of boiling sorghum. Sorghum syrup is a traditional sweetener in the Midwest and the South and is my community's signature agricultural export. In a good year we'll make close to 100 gallons, which translates to about $30,000, or one-third of our annual income—all of which is typically cut and processed in about three weeks of all-hands-on-deck harvest madness. It's my favorite time of year.

Tomorrow will be our first cooking of the 2010 harvest and I anticipate being able to detect the pheromones of hot sugar in the air. This year's harvest commenced much later than usual, due to a wet, cool spring that delayed planting. While the plants are doing their level best to catch up (the Midwest is experiencing a solid stretch of sunny, Indian summer weather right now, after flirting with frost over the weekend), it's a race now between waiting for the plants to reach maximum sugar content (which occurs when the seed heads are dead ripe) and losing the crop to a killing frost (which bursts the cell walls in the stalks and exposes the juice to the atmosphere, leading to souring). We're watching the weather forecasts closely and dancing the edge, holding off with our machetes as long as we dare.

This afternoon we'll start gathering the first field of cane (cut last Thursday) and start up the sorghum press for this first time, producing the characteristic rhythmic sound of large metal gears driving the slow-motion rollers that crush the cane—the aural equivalent of smelling boiling syrup. The modest amount we grind this afternoon will have settled overnight and be available at dawn when we fire up the boiler. By the time I've consumed my first cup of coffee—circa 7 am—Stan & Kris (our master cookers) will already have hot juice in the cooking pan.

While most of our on-farm crew will be focusing on sorghum tasks tomorrow, I'll be handling auxiliary food processing (on a homestead farm, sorghum is hardly the only crop that's harvested in October). My main duties will be to process eight five-gallon buckets of tomatoes (the last hurrah from the summer) and to transform two buckets of cleaned and peeled horseradish roots (that were dug Monday) into eight cases of prepared horseradish sauce.

Every time I go outside tomorrow to change buckets, I'll be able to smell hot sorghum, bubbling in the pan. Tomorrow, fall really will be in the air, and I can hardly wait.

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