The nature of things on the northern plains is that September brings a quickening - a frantic race to get things done and into order before that night train of autumn comes smoking through the land. I am a great keeper, and lover, of calendars - calendars agricultural, ornithological, academic, recreational, liturgical, culinary. The congruence of quickenings during a prairie September is challenging.
Such was the subject of my reflections during an enforced pause in the September rush - waiting in the long line to be served at the St. Hildegard’s Fall Dinner, out along Old Highway 10 near Menoken. This is one of our great fall feeds. It used to commence serving at 11:00am, but that made it hard to finish reasonably early in the afternoon, and so the time was backed up to 10:30.
We arrived before mass even got out, but when the priest stepped onto the front step, there already were 150 people lined up. Some were there, I suppose, because this is one of the few fall dinners that serves Juneberry pie. More were there, I know, to get their portion of legendary sausage from the Richter Recipe, in this seventy-first year of the annual event.
Savoring the fare, my thoughts went in this direction: at this time of year especially, we need to make place for the sensate experiences that define prairie life. Perhaps I was following the aesthetic lead of my Labrador retriever, who had led me across the Coteau chasing sharptail grouse the day previous, Labrador retrievers being beasts inclined to stop and smell the roses, or anything else with identifiable scent.
Labor Day weekend is an interlude for sensate experiences. The prairie garden is a riot of productivity. Appreciative friends of ours will be receiving gift jars of high-octane horseradish, which opens up your sinuses for sensing all the other joys of autumn. Tomatillos are a new thing in our prairie garden, long-season fruits that truly are racing to the fall finish. Chile verde and green salsa are in store.
Our shelterbelt came through with a thrifty crop of native plums, mostly golden, some scarlet. The house baker nabbed a few cups of these to produce a dandy cobbler; the rest I have cooked down for plum better, which will be great with scrapple this winter. But I’m not ready to make scrapple yet; all things in their season.
Question of the moment: do you ever dig up a hill of red spuds, slice off the end of one, and taste it raw with the dirt on it? Just asking.
But while we’re digging down and dirty, I will bring up one of my favorite September rituals - laying in a supply of channel catfish. Small ones, a pound or pound-and-a-half, for frying with the tails on; mid-size ones, two or three pounds, for grilling, stuffed with onion and herbs; and larger ones, five or six pounds, to be chunked into nuggets for frying. (Bigger than that I throw them back.)
Your final exam for fall experiences is, then, can you see the beauty of a channel catfish emerging from the muddy Sheyenne River? Aren’t those floppy barbels just elegant? The whole fish is so sleek, no scales, no slime. Sometimes they talk to you a little bit, too.
Back in line at St. Hildegard’s, or here and now, I am celebrating, as once did the Icelandic sage Snorri Thorfinnson, “autumn’s rare and glorious days.”