On Cold-Weather Vegetables

Gnarled sweet potatoes, tips curling like the feet of witches. Hubbard squashes, big enough to sit on, warty, blue. Mushrooms flaring their gills. Back in July, the tomatoes and corn the farmers offered were cheery, Crayola-bright. October is scary: it holds out every child’s most despised vegetable in its wrinkled claw.

Cold-weather vegetables are demanding. They require a little muscle behind the knife, and their hard shells can’t be sliced as much as hacked at. Inside, their flesh is richly colored and dense. They’re messy: eviscerate is the word that best describes how we scrape stringy flesh and seeds from a pumpkin to ready it for carving. We wrestle with them. They refuse the ease of the salad bowl and insist on a long roasting.

They are either bitter (Brussels sprouts, kale) or, in the case of the roots, sweeter than the uninitiated might expect. They’re acquired tastes, ones I didn’t love until I was in my thirties, my husband an even more reluctant convert than I. But this time of year and at this time in our lives, our meals together are changing. When the air begins to bite with cold and the smell of decaying leaves, the colors and tastes of what we eat begin to deepen.

I watch my husband from the kitchen window as he pulls dead morning glory vines from the trellises. I love him differently than I did the day I married him. In the fifteen years we have been together, I have helped bury his father, he has cleaned up my vomit, we have both been bored by stories we’ve heard dozens of times. We have lost two pregnancies. Two falls ago, in one five-week stretch, we were each separately taken to the emergency room in an ambulance and had to start thinking about what it would mean to lose the person who has witnessed so much of our lives. Eventually, surely, one of us will be left behind.

Andre Dubus describes the meals between married couples as not mere eating but a “pausing in the march to perform an act together,” a sacrament that says, “I know you will die; I am sharing food with you; it is all I can do, and it is everything.” My husband and I have eaten together maybe ten thousand times, in three states, in various rentals and then our house, at the same oak trestle table. Watching us, you could chronicle changes — I quit vegetarianism, he learned to cook, we started to say grace — but the act remains.

Christians regularly take communion, a ritually shared meal that acknowledges the mysteries of life and death, but mealtime is especially poignant in the fall, when Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, and Celts once celebrated Samhain, and ancient Greeks told the story of Persephone disappearing into the under- world — all harvest festivals that connect sharing food with death and gratitude. So we start with what the earth has given us. We shape it into something else. Perhaps there are candles. We talk. We have enough and are together, even though one of us will someday eat here alone.

The vegetables of summer are easy to love, as it is easy to find young men and women beautiful, to promise commitment before it has been tested, to be happy beneath a cloudless sky. I’m still not sure it’s natural to prefer what’s difficult and unwieldy, to feel affection warts-and-all. But the world is older and slower and more patient than we ever will be. These vegetables keep, and have helped every generation before ours survive long winters. They are part of the great practice of not having what we want, but wanting what we have, and after years of trying — of trying and trying — my husband and I have both come to love, even crave, beets and butternut squash, the hard vegetables of fall. We appreciate their complexity. We find them very good.

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two collections of poetry, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. Other essays she has published in Orion have been selected as a Notable Essay for the Best American Essays series and won a Pushcart Prize. She directs the creative writing programs at Hamline University and lives with her family in Saint Paul, MN.