When I first came to America, I was surprised to learn that autumn is commonly called “fall” here, probably due to the falling leaves. The autumn foliage of red and yellow and orange in Pennsylvania is spectacular. Nothing characterizes the autumn better than the word “fall” of these beautiful leaves in such a scale. Though this is quite a good reason to name autumn “fall”, I think it’s a little negative as if the season is stumbling towards the dark bottom of a hole. It’s nothing but. The season is lulled into a rest and waiting to be “up” and “rise” again; and of course “plenty” too.
When I was young and living in the arid northern plain of Shanxi, which is close to where my Mongolian ancestors came from, fall can be best described as “plenty”. We children were all tired of eating tomatoes, apples, and pears. They were so plentiful that we were sick of them. They should be shipped out to big cities or other places, but the transportation capacity was limited at the time. So the local stores were overstuffed and the price was so low that it’s practically a giveaway. Boys turned their attention to date trees and walnut trees which grow here and there. These trees were tall and some even taller than buildings of three stories. Boys usually worked in groups. One would climb up the tree carrying a stick, which was used to hit the tree branches to disturb the ripened dates and walnuts. When they fell to the ground, his teammates waiting underneath would start to pick up the fruit of their labor. Girls would stand a little further away from the boys and watch them since girls were not considered to be a part of the manly sport of tree climbing and harvesting. Whenever an errant date or a walnut fly too wide to the girls’ vicinity, girls would rush to pick it up while the boys would shout, “that’s ours,” but to no avail. I never joined these girls but I watched them through my window. I lived on the second floor and there are date trees and walnut trees right behind our building.
Suddenly adults started to team up to make pickled mustard green, turnips, tomatoes. A huge wooden container about five feet tall and five feet wide would come out–one doesn’t know where it was stored when it was not in use–and go around the neighborhood. One day, these three families would be using it and the next day it was placed in a new place where another three or four families would be using it. The vegetables were cut, thrown into the container, together with salts. One man would wash his feet and jump into the container to stamp the vegetable forcefully. When he’s tired, another man would jump in. This lasted for hours until all the vegetables were processed likewise. Then pulped vegetables were dispensed into small containers and these would be the picked vegetable people eat for the coming winter. This is why whenever I eat anything picked, I always feel that there’s a faint taste of feet in there. Still, it is no less delicious.
Grapes would come too but nobody likes grapes in those days since they are too sour. Eating just several of them, your teeth would feel weird for a day or two. The only way to deal with grapes was to mash them up, drain them, and add sugar to the liquid. However sugar was scarce in those days and most mothers would not hear of dealing with grapes no matter how much their children begged them to.
My favorite were dates pickled in alcohol. In those days, there were no regulations on underage drinking and alcoholed dates were sold openly to children. It was a treat you could only get during the two or three months before winter came. Adults had absolutely no interest in such a treat while children were all wild about it. The peddler who sold alcoholed dates always rode his bicycle with two big containers of his delicious goods balanced at the back seat. He would tout in a loud voice in the neighborhood and his voice was often louder than the music of ice cream trucks here. As if he needed to do that. He really didn’t need to since all the children heard him. I bet there were many arguments in many families on whether to purchase the treat since it was not a cheap treat. I could only manage to convince my parents to buy it twice a year, and no more. I actually dreamed one day of this poor peddler falling off his bike and a group of children, me included, eating all his dates up until we stuffed ourselves.