by Nate Rafn
When summer reaches its end, and autumn arrives to take its place, we all get that same fleeting feeling. It's a feeling of seasonal transition, of anticipation, and of warmth.
Because it is cold outside, what we seek is warmth. We find it inside our homes- sitting by a wood stove, fireplace, oven, electric baseboard heater, or while taking a hot shower. We obtain a very different kind of warmth by spending holiday time with family, quaffing local wine with friends, or enjoying the comforting foods of fall.
The visual signs of autumn are obvious. Home gardens begin to die down, the temperature drops, clouds fill the sky, football is on television again, and fresh produce available at the farmers' markets has changed.
Crops that are harvested during (or just before) autumn tend to be valued for their long term storage capacity, and in some cases, for their warming effects on the human body.
Typical autumn crops include apples, pears, hazelnuts, walnuts, corn, winter squash, parsnips, cabbage, potatoes, and members of the onion family.
While most of these items naturally peak at this time of the year, it's the style of preparation that truly embeds them in our cyclical memory. Sure, we remember the trip to the market. But more often, our recollection of fall's agricultural bounty is triggered by the smells and flavors of the finished dish. For example, most of us hang-on to past memories of spending time around the dinner table, and eating classic autumn fare, like pumpkin pie, apple cobbler, roasted meats with potatoes, or creamy corn chowder.
Mid-Willamette Valley restaurants play a key role in our cultural food experience, and in turn, are closely tied to nostalgic feelings for a particular season.
The Silver Grille is a perfect example.
Chef/owner Jeff Nizlek has returned from brief stints at Wellspring Medical Center and the Oregon Garden Resort, to operate the Silver Grille once more. Patrons who frequented the downtown Silverton restaurant in years past, can again enjoy Nizlek's style of fine local cooking, joined with the moody atmosphere of the Silver Grille's tiny dining room.
"We're just starting to pull out Blue Hubbards and Butternut squash from our garden," says Nizlek, who often cooks with fresh vegetables from his very own nearby farm. "I think we've got about 100 pounds down here, and we're going to pull out another 200 pounds or so."
Nizlek's brand of cuisine seems to focus on two important concepts- buying locally grown, seasonal ingredients, and preparing them in a thoughtful manner.
"Definitely mushrooms, definitely truffles, winter squash, stronger herbs, more rosemary and sage, more oregano," says Nizlek, referring to his ingredient options for autumn. "Roasted garlic- always."
Well-respected restaurants have the ability to provide a guiding hand in developing a community's perception of local, seasonal food. A talented kitchen staff can (and should) support nearby farms, utilize those ingredients, and experiment with seasonal flavors.
Likewise, artisans and farmers can influence the conversation by delivering topnotch local products- new styles of cheese and bread, sustainable fruits and vegetables, and pasture-fed livestock.
Ultimately, our nostalgic feelings for seasonal food is wrapped up in personal experience, centuries of tradition, geographic limitations, and the intricate web of the local food economy.
No one knows where the next classic, influential autumn dish will come from. But we do know this. Nature will create the components, farmers and foragers will collect them, home cooks and chefs alike will interpret them. And when the dish is finished, we will all consume it, and remember it, every autumn.
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