Up to the age of 22, I spent my life solidly in leaf-peeping country. I grew up in Maine, on the coast, on a road tangled with white pines and red maples and tall, strong oaks. The population ebbed and flowed with the colors: full on red, empty by brown, and come green, filling up again.
For college, I moved to Vermont, and the rule held fast there, too. The start of classes marked the arrival of the lackadaisical, meandering drivers: Subarus pulled over shoulder-side, necks craned, mittens clutching cups of cider and big eyes gazing up toward the sky. Their windows danced with scarlets and mustards and vermilion as they cruised up and down Route 7, back and forth until the first snowfall came.
When I moved to the Cape, I realized that here, it’s a whole new game. Driving out I watched the trees shrink down, broad deciduous shoulders giving way to scrawny, tufted pitch pines along the edges and a swath of rusted oaks in between. I felt the town swell up with visitors in May, and let out with a whoosh come Labor Day. I waited for those crisp, bright fall days. The feeling came, but the colors were all a different paint. The last of the beachgoers left, and in their place settled muted oranges, browns, a quiet grey.
The second fall, the year I was 23, my friend Caitlin sent a letter from Vermont. “October 17th,” she began, “The foliage is back again.” There was a maple leaf tucked in—dried and pressed, a bright, carmine red, and on the back of the card, a recipe for a warm fall salad of roasted pumpkin and harvest veggies with chickpeas. I clipped it up on my recipe board and promised to write Caitlin back when I tried it that week. November passed and then December, and slowly, two years trickled by. I got used to the quiet and the grey, and new recipes covered the notecard up.
Last fall, in early October, when the squashes arrived at the farmers markets—Hubbard, butternut, acorn—I brought a sugar pumpkin home. I had a few lingering tomatoes and cucumbers, too, and a stockpile of red onions I was drying out for the fall. I rustled through my recipe pile, searching for inspiration, and a red maple leaf fluttered out.
I paged through my clippings, and at the bottom of the stack, there it was: a navy blue and yellow note card with Caitlin’s handwritten instructions scrawled out. I followed them to a tee: roasted the pie pumpkin, tossed it with garlic, boiled the chickpeas with onions and a bay leaf. I chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and made a dressing of olive oil and lime juice. I peppered and salted and mixed, and in less than an hour, I had on the table Caitlin’s dish.
It was perfect the way it straddled the seasons—the last of the fresh harvest, the first of the storage goods. It wasn’t cold tabouli, but neither was it hot soup. It walked the same middle ground as October, one day warm and bright, another that quiet, chilly grey. The next morning, I got out a note card and a pen, wrote Caitlin a letter and stuffed the envelope with the small tan leaf of a Cape Cod oak.
Elspeth’s recipe for pumpkin, chickpea, and harvest vegetable salad.