Autumn Tasks

Kage Baker was energized by autumn.

It was part of her inner squirrel sympathies. Ever since she was very small, she had liked to pretend to be a squirrel; as a child, she would scurry about the enormous yard that surrounded the house, collecting things for a winter stash. An extraordinary variety of things grew in Momma’s garden: berries, grapes, nuts and corms and seeds.

Lots of them were edible, and even the ones that weren’t could be pressed into service as pretend food. Bee balm and rose petals make splendid pretend candies; the inflorescence of calla lilies can be ground into pretend flour, though it’s actually thousands of tiny flowers. Eucalyptus nuts come in several interesting shapes and sizes, and can be nibbled for a refreshing burst of menthol flavour.

Not that Kage actually ate any of them (well, she nibbled). Mostly, the point of the game was the storing up – the selection and curating of a hoard of goodies against the coming winter. She’d take real snacks out into the yard in the long autumn twilights, and eat amid her squirrelery before being called back into the house for the night.

When Kage grew up, she was able to play this game in earnest. We kept ample stores of dry goods; the pantry was never complete unless we had flour, salt and sugar in ample amounts. Our freezer was full of cuts of meat carefully divided into meal-sized portions; Kage got a real thrill out of cutting up some enormous roast that would last for half a dozen meals. Whenever we were flush, we stocked waaay up on whatever needed it – paydays were a carnival of acquisition. And she adored CostCo – the first time I took her to one, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, it’s the perfect squirrel paradise!” And promptly went happily mad.

None of this went to waste, either. Kage was a sensible squirrel – true, she enjoyed the mere act of acquisition, but the actual point of the exercise was to be able to be safe and comfortable through the coming season. She was an excellent and inventive cook, as well, so nothing we carried home in bulk was abandoned to go stale: she found ways to use it. She experimented with historic recipes (turnips poached in cream; venison with fruits in syrup; pottage of leeks) and with the cuisines she invented for various of her novels – Bandit Beef with tangerines and green onions was from the Children of the Sun. Chicken broth with sherry, ginger and teeny little pasta pockets full of herbs was a Yendri dish.

The winter delights Kage would concoct for Dickens Fair were all practiced during autumn. Her determination to make the perfect boiled pudding was a delirium of tastes – she experimented with all sorts of fillings for both sweet and savoury puddings – jams, slivered or pureed meats, fruits dried and fresh … the best were the apricot jam pudding, and the sticky toffee one.  Though the plum was astounding. And the spotted dick, the steak and onion, the toad inna hole … and a semi-comic variation, toad onna stick …

Let no one wonder how I mostly avoided processed food, and yet ended up spherical in my old age. Kage was a divinely inspired cook who didn’t know diddly squat about portion control.

Nor is this to claim I was innocent in gustatory experimentation. I can cook, though my specialities in our household were primarily baking: all sorts of breads. I make killer pies – potentially literally, sometimes, as I learned how to produce giant coffin pies a la Mendoza. And for years, Kage’s bag lunches were anchored by fresh scones that I baked every Sunday and apportioned into her daily lunch. Her favourites were the parmesan ones.

Good times. Good eats, good games – a little girl’s squirrel fantasy, grown up and broadened to use all the riches of the harvest season. This time of year, we forted up and settled down; the time that wasn’t spent in frenzied Extreme Christmas was spent on the thorough enjoyment of security and warmth. It’s a pretty nice way to live.

It’s quite true, alas, that I have lately also been fighting off the tendency to hibernate. Now that the season is finally changing in Los Angeles, the nights are growing cold: wonderful, perfect weather to sleep 14 hours at a time. Narcolepsy has spread shining wings and revealed itself as an incubus: I am drunk on sleep, in love with my bed.

But when I achieve something like consciousness, I am going over some of the other autumn store Kage left me. I’ve sent another story to my agent; I’m looking over the notes on urban fantasies, because a nice editor actually asked me to consider submitting a story to a new anthology! I’m making the last-for-now corrections to an entire novel to send to Linn. Kage and I wrote it together, in turns and with much hilarity and acting out of silly scenes and characters, long long ago … she mined out much of her work (and a little of mine)  later, and turned it into Anvil of the World and House of the Stag and Bird of the River. But a lot remains. We shall see.

So it’s fall housekeeping now. The season of the squirrel! Time to finalize the full pantry, the groaning shelves, the shining bits of fire and glory in the dusty caverns of my desk drawers. Who knows what I can find, to stave off darkness and the killing cold?

Well, Kage, of course. She left it there for me, after all.

About Kathleen Bartholomew

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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