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Food For Thought

The first two things that come to mind, when the first crisp days of autumn arrive, are apple-picking and leaf-raking. From about the time I was in third grade, my mother would admonish us to come straight home from school because there were apples to pick, or leaves to rake. Before that, we lived in a house on a large double lot where my dad had planted nearly all the yard with a garden, we had no fruit trees and only two tall elms in the front of the house near the street. There were lots of flowers and berry bushes, but no other trees to drop bushels of leaves everywhere like there were after we moved to a big acreage on the edge of town.
There, we had several elms along the driveway beside the house, an enormous silver maple that shaded the east side of the house and half the spacious lawn, and an over-grown hard maple in the yard in front of the house. That tree shed enough leaves each fall to result in a knee-deep blanket all the way from the street to the front porch. With so many leaves piling up each year, it was impossible to ignore them for they would have smothered the lawn and buried the iris and other perennials that Mother had planted.
I would have known, even without her telling me, when to expect to spend a week or two raking leaves, because I could smell the smoke from leaf fires all over town, long before I arrived home. It was a pleasant smell, reminding me of marshmallow roasts and the big family picnic we had each fall when my mother’s parents and all her brothers and sisters, my cousins and a few of my parents’ friends and their children converged on the farm where my grandparents had lived southwest of Knoxville in Clarke County.
That was a glorious, all-day picnic. We set out early in the morning. Dad always packed his traditional sack-swing with its long rope, a couple wooden benches for the comfort of some of the older relatives, an old room-size wool carpet to ward off the chiggers, and some pillows for postprandial naps. And, of course, guns and ammunition for hunting squirrels, and a washtub full of ice, soda pop and cans of beer.
Mother would load on her big roasting pan full of fried chicken, a gallon of potato salad, a crock of baked beans loaded with onions, bacon and brown sugar, bags of marshmallows and potato chips, hot dogs and buns with all the fixings, at least one cake and a couple apple pies– and a double batch of homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Aunts and uncles brought along equivalent feasts and equipment– croquet sets, balls and bats, baby strollers and playpens, hammocks to hang between two trees. We looked like a caravan of gypsies or settlers heading west.
And, always there was Dad’s big enamel coffee pot that would hang on a chain over the fire all day, refilled many times before it was finally dumped on the ashes just before we headed for home at sunset. Dad specialized in “picnic coffee” tying the grounds in a cloth with a raw egg before bringing the water to a boil– the only occasion he ever made coffee.
Our family went on lots of picnics and cooked outdoors many years before the backyard barbeque grill became common-place. My grandparents farmed all their lives and had gone homesteading in Colorado when Mother was just a toddler, so the camping skills must have come naturally to them. Mother certainly took to campfire cooking easily enough, and if there was a brush-pile to burn, or a yard full of maple leaves, she was as likely as not to bring out a bag of marshmallows or a package of hot dogs to take advantage of the flames.
I suppose it’s no wonder I grew up thinking that leaf-raking and burning were expected of me. My husband took notice and, generously, let me continue to believe that. I’m pretty sure that the closest he ever came to raking leaves was to chop them up with his riding mower. We had a number of large trees on our big lot when we lived in Iowa City, and if any leaves got raked and burned, I’m pretty sure it was assumed to be my responsibility.
At present, I’m sure I own several hundred trees of various sizes and species. From walnuts that drop their leaves fairly early, to burr oaks that hold onto some of theirs until the snow flies. Not counting the fields and pastures, there is still a sizable lawn to mow and keep attractive. I have learned, though, that when you live in the woods, it is futile (as in insanity) to rake leaves.