Harriet Walker: 'Now is the perfect time to think food'


Autumn is the perfect time to think about food – and that's saying something, because I think about food almost all of the time. Whether I'm choosing a pie over a salad or rolling the icing off a Victoria sponge and eating it as a snowy, squidgy flump come the four o'clock tea break, my inner Tannoy is normally musing aloud about the next snack in the piggy pipeline.

The reason eating is so good in autumn, though, is that all food suddenly feels like a treat again. In summer, it is an accessory: something light, green and wholesome with which to punctuate the eternal daylight; refrigerated, one would hope, in order to combat sweating. There is no worse feeling in summer than being a bit too full and having to climb into a hot Tube carriage, or worse, a bikini.

And in winter, food is fuel – a means of simply getting through the day, and a reason to get out of bed. Stews and pot roasts and hearty soups and casseroles that gurgle and blurp and ploop on the hob for hours, ready to be scoffed when noses are running and the costume drama is about to start. Winter eating is one of life's greatest pleasures, but it's the act itself that we celebrate rather than the foodstuffs involved. It's a "yah boo" to the clingy clothes of summer, which show every lump and bump of every dessert, and a big old huggy welcome to shapeless sacks, cardigans and jumpers.

But in autumn – the season favoured by everyone who has something interesting about them (lyrical types prefer spring, vapid ones the clammy throes of summer) – food is colour and texture and taste and essence. Food is life. Food is eggs in the morning, or better, pancakes. Food is greasy again. It's red and orange and brown and burnt sienna, with a smattering of green for good measure. Or not, if you're my boyfriend.

I've explained before how cooking for me extends to a bacon sandwich and Super Noodles, so it isn't even that I feel overjoyed about autumn food in a culinary way. It's just a mindset, in the same way that autumn makes me yearn for opaque tights, cashmere socks and a high Victorian novel the size of a breeze block.

And it's just so enjoyable. One never really feels one can "tuck in" during summer, further than delicately picking from a bowl of berries. But autumn is the time to sit on the sofa eating crumpets or a whole packet of biscuits, washed down with tea or a pint of real ale.

And it's Harvest Festival, of course, which is the only semi-religious festival I've ever really got on board with, because I feel it's similar to a raindance and, as such, not really religious. My mother used to furnish me with baked beans to lay on the altar at the feet of Our Lord, and I'd come home with a corn dolly, excited that He had sanctioned great gluttony for the next six months.

After I left university, I existed briefly as an au pair to my four-year-old niece and experienced Harvest Festival anew. To be brutally honest, I had almost forgotten it after the routine of singing hymns and bringing in baked beans had ebbed from the sense memories of my cells and the alcohol leeched in instead. I was delighted to rediscover it and once again give spiritual meaning and devout justification to the annual process of stuffing myself silly. Harvest Festival in London is a little different though, as I discovered when I took little Gracie to the supermarket to choose her offering.

"Baked beans are traditional," I intoned like a lay-preacher putting a tin in our basket, "because the baby Jesus really liked them."

"But baby Jesus is only a baby at Christmas," Grace pointed out, entirely correctly. "What about that?" The darling child pointed to a tin of lobster bisque. "Or that? I like that." Royal game soup.

This is the problem with tilling your proverbial harvest in a poncy suburb's ponciest grocer. Eventually we settled on kidney beans (a mature choice for the ageing baby Jesus) and some rice pudding, because rice is the sort of thing (grain? pulse? seed?) that people harvest at this time of year, I explained to Grace pompously, hoping I was correct.

Oh, how my heart crumbled when Grace and I got to school and the other children were carrying Tupperware containing rather more substantial and homemade offerings. I exchanged a look with a dad carrying a sacrificial can of Jolly Green Giant sweetcorn.

"This is just some new-fangled way of doing things, Gracie," I muttered. "Tins are how you're supposed to do it. So just put them on the table and eat some of the cakes that everyone else brought. And don't forget to say thanks to autumn." 1

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