Food & Water

The Hungry Month

August 2, 2023

Ed. note: This piece was posted on Eliza’s blog on 30th July.

In many northern communities, July is a hungry month. The spring flush of greens and quick-growing roots like radishes and beets may still be trickling out of the garden, but most have bolted and run to seed. However, even those that remain are long on fiber and short on calories, and little of the spring harvest is amenable to preservation — if there are means of preservation at hand in the July damp heat. Most traditional methods of keeping the harvest require cool temperatures or dry air.

There is milk, and this used to be the main source of nutrition and calories in the middle of the growing season, each family or small community from farm to city having at least one dairy cow to turn all this rampant grass into a stream of nutrition that humans can ingest. But in the last couple centuries dairying has been concentrated into a few intensive production farms that mainly serve urbanites — the privileged get the cream, the laboring classes get the watery whey with additives.

The same goes for eggs. Whereas every family used to keep some kind of domestic fowl to turn food scraps and pestilential bugs into delicious eggs which would quell the hunger in the lean summer weeks, now eggs are produced in horrifying factory conditions mostly for consumption by the wealthy because eggs produced in this manner and shipped long distances are costly — and there now needs to be profit in each egg rather than nutrition. Moreover the chickens are now fed a diet that is not complimentary but in competition with human nutrition, grains and legumes.

And the grains and legumes are not quite ready in July. In the beginning of the month, there may be garden peas, but these are grace notes on the diet, not bulk calories and protein. In the middle of the month the more cold-tolerant grains like oats, barley and rye are harvested. However even in mechanized farming the process of turning the seed-heads of grass into edible food takes a quite a bit of time and labor. It may be mechanized labor, but it is still necessary work that must be done before eating. Grain is never edible right off the plant, quaint tales of baking bread from the first or last sheave notwithstanding. Also the cold-season grasses produce seeds that are relatively high in plant proteins and fiber, but they aren’t the calorie-dense foods that empty bellies are craving in this season of hard work. Those energy-rich seeds mostly come from spring-planted wheats like durum and hard red — that which gets made into most of our pastas and high-gluten doughs like white breads, pizza crust and bagels — and these grains are not ready for harvest until August and not available to fill bellies for many weeks after the harvest begins.

There is one cold-tolerant, calorie-packing crop that is ready to eat in later July — the potato. Like the family cow and flock, small communities and homesteads have cultivated a potato patch since the Andes were invaded and this highly engineered ball of easily stored energy was shipped off to northern climes. Potatoes grown as local food are extremely energy efficient. It doesn’t take much to plant or nurture a bed of potatoes. It actually takes more work to keep them from taking over in limited spaces. Harvest is a bit time-consuming, but it is not particularly hard work if the soil is kept hilled-up, light and loose — the way potatoes prefer it. Storing potatoes can be as complex as the Andean methods of freeze-drying the tubers into virtual rocks that can be kept for years or as simple as dumping the spuds in a bin of sand and placing the bin in a cool, damp place. In climates that don’t get so cold that the soil freezes hard, potatoes can even be left in the ground and dug up as needed.

It is not romanticizing to say that Ireland fell in love with the potato. Grown as food, the potato nourished all classes. The potato harvest became a central pillar of Irish culture, with its own mythos and traditions and wisdom tales — and recipes! Combined with cabbage and various alliums, the potato makes nutritious ballast for the belly. Paired with fish or roasting meats or all sorts of dairy products, potatoes provide the caloric boost necessary to digest the proteins, as well as a perfectly balanced blend of flavors. Potatoes are even eaten alone, as fried chips or simply roasted whole in the fire, as fluffy and rich as a warm loaf of bread — with much less effort.

In Ireland, there was a tradition of fair season, Lughnasadh, the wake games of the harvested land. This complex of holidays was centered on the third cross-quarter day in the Irish calendar, August 1st or 2nd. Lughnasadh predates the potato in Ireland, probably by millennia, but once the spud showed up, the jubilation of the potato harvest took center stage in late July and early August. Most of the traditions associated with Lughnasadh are related to the potato — from the first harvest pot of colcannon to be shared out with all and sundry to the anxieties over a late or failed harvest that might spread to other fields. This was combatted by making sure everybody got to eat the first harvest, even if some fields were not ready.

We remember the Famine and some blame the potato for failing the Irish people, but this could not be further from the truth. There was blight and it did decimate the harvest for several years running in the 1840s. But the main cause of the hunger was the same as the cause of hunger today — crops were being grown for profits that accrued to distant owners. Potatoes were commodified. The best land was enclosed and taken out of food production, turned into acres of wealth extraction. The former variety of potato cultivars was cut to just one or two strains, which made crop failure nearly inevitable once pests and disease-causing microbes adapted to the introduced plant. And rents on land and housing were simultaneously ratcheted upwards, so that the Irish people could barely afford either food or shelter — but not both — while all the traditional community support networks were undermined and destroyed.

This is the same familiar story we see the world over when capitalism comes to the community. Homes and families are ripped apart, and local food-ways are trampled into the dead dirt. Those who used to thrive on nutrition and calories produced for themselves, become wretched and hungry when wages and long transport lines come between the soil and the belly. Crops raised for wealth extraction gut the land in a race to the bottom possible cost per yield. And eventually the weakened soil and plant communities will falter and die, leaving long-term scars on the land and failed harvests of all kinds. The Famine was not the potato; it was theft.

But there was this tradition of July of the Cabbages, the Hungry Month, the lag time between the promise of planting and the bounty of harvest. A time heavy in labor and light on reward. So as the Irish people recovered from the rape of their land, the potato took pride of place in the celebration of the first fruits — because it ended the season of hunger, filling all the bellies like the August storms filled all the lakes and streams.

This became Crom Dubh Sunday, or Garland Sunday, or Bilberry Sunday. In the old traditions, people spent the day in pilgrimage to the high places to give thanks for the quenching of the summer heat and hunger. In the newer traditions, farm-wives cooked vats of potato mash flavored with new bacon to share out with their neighbors, especially those whose fields languished, the ‘wind farmers’. This is when offerings of flowers and milk and honey were left for the Fair Folk; and Crom Dubh, the ‘dark bent one’, was thanked and honored for allowing the people to take the harvest from the land. This is when children gathered the wild blueberries known variously as bilberries, fraughans, whortleberries or heatherberries from the hedges and hills — and young women and grandmothers baked that bounty into delicious cakes to sweeten the potato feast. This is when contests and games were held for the sheer pleasure of using the body and mind again after summer lethargy was shaken off. This is the beginning of the fair season, the revels of the harvest, the gathering of the people for feasting and communion and good-natured competition in which there are rarely any losers and everyone wins the prize of a delightful day. It is Lughnasadh, the ‘games of Lugh’, inaugurated by the god of the tribe to honor the sacrifice of his step-mother, Tailtiu, when she labored to clear the fields so the people would be sustained.

I am celebrating today by tending to my own harvest. My garlic is ready to dig. The potatoes and onions are nearly there. I have a few tomatoes and chiles to round out a black bean ragout. The farms around my town have ripe pick-your-own blueberries, and the sweet summer apples are starting to show up on farm market tables. My own apples are just starting to turn color. But mostly I am still in the cultivating stage, still stuck in the hungry month. There are weeds to pull, brush to chop down, and vines to tie up. The rodents are leaving daily disasters to mitigate. The heat and smoke are relentless, and my plants need protection from the almost daily deluge.

I can’t imagine holding Lughnasadh games in this heat. I am rather surprised that the World Cup is ongoing, and I think Paris is in for a rough time in next year’s Olympics. This year, July was the hottest month ever recorded, likely the hottest experienced by the human species, a record that will not last long, given the number of hottest months we’ve lived through in recent years. This is a time of Balor of the Withering Gaze, not the Old Bent One of the Mountain, Crom Dubh, who holds back the ferocity of nature while the people labor on the harvest. And the potato harvest has been in decline for the last four years with not much reason to expect increases this year. It would seem we’re again heading into a time of theft and induced famine, when commodification has taken all that can be taken from the land before collapse is inevitable. Only this time it is globalized.

But there is hope in this famine. Because this may spell the end of capitalism. There are no more lands to rape. There is no untapped market nor new labor pool of the forcibly impoverished. There is no hope for a congenial climate to nurture the harvest of wealth. The Earth can no longer support this massive transfer of all resources into useless money for a very few humans.

However, there are blueberries — both wild and cultivated by small farms. The commodified potato harvest, a process of expensive chemical inputs and mechanization and huge shipping costs, is failing to produce profitable yields. But there are still potatoes to eat. My garden is overrun with them. Spuds of all colors are overflowing the bins at my co-op. Similarly, while the commodified wheat harvest keeps setting record lows each year, there are grains grown on small farms even in cold, damp New England sufficient to feed this region. The harvest is failing wherever it is driven by the mandates of wealth extraction. But many harvests, those of food and necessity, are thriving in all the small margins of the world. Soon it will no longer be possible to take wealth from the land; and when that happens, capitalism and all the strains it places on humans, on land, on life, will fail. It will not be a famine, except for those dependent upon this system. For most of the world, it will be the end of the hunger — though July will always be difficult.

There will be a need to celebrate the end of the summer dearth and the beginning of the autumn harvest. Even in all this smoke and heat. So I foresee a time very soon when Lughnasadh will be the necessary release of joy that it once was in Ireland, and vats of calorie-dense foods will again fill bellies hollowed out by the hunger of July. Though I also believe that there will be less hunger when there is more food produced — those family cows and backyard chickens and gardens of diversity will once again be common ways of ensuring that there is always food.

So enjoy today! Take some time to use your body and fill your belly. Play games. Climb to the heights. Gather the late summer flowers and the early autumn fruits. Make garlands to grace your table. Cook a first fruits feast. And give heartfelt thanks to the gods of your place for allowing you and your people to take a little, your own needs, from the land’s vast bounty.

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: community fruit harvests, hungry gap, rebuilding resilient food and farming systems