Today I got out my recipe for Sausage and Fennel Stuffing: a classic fall dish from Epicurious that I first adopted for a Thanksgiving dinner back in Boston in 2004. It uses lots of butter and sausage and fennel in two different forms and it is delicious. It’s not exactly “light” and doesn’t quite go with what is happening outside my window: a hot wind to start off a day in the ’80s which will grow to ’90s before noon and over 100 shortly after that.
This is spring in Botswana.
Living in the northern hemisphere for 37 years is not something that goes away quickly though: the rhythms of the seasons get into your blood and prime your cells for certain changes. Every October, I get a rush of productivity, which for many years was accompanied by an appropriate chilliness in the air and the turn towards winter. It is the season for buying books and getting scarves out of the closet and getting revved up for a play-off chase and letting the briskness in the air fill your head with new ideas.
But there are no red leaves or cute fall boots outside. In Gaborone, our winter (all five seconds of it) ended in August and we’re on the home stretch now toward the hottest part of the year. From my window I see palm trees and cactus in my garden under a sky so bright you have to squint. I hear heavy garbage trucks picking up barrels of dry twigs and exotic birds trilling their music.
In Botswana this month, the only sign that it is spring comes with the beautiful Jacaranda blossoms on every other tree in town. When I moved to Pakistan in April 2009, spring and those same jacaranda blossoms welcomed me with a soft lavender carpet on every street, their sweet smell in the air mixed with grilling meat from the markets and the smoke of my neighbor’s burning trash early in the mornings. There, like here, spring itself was fleeting: by May the temperatures in Islamabad were stratospheric and piles of dirt cheap mangoes quickly replaced the fallen purple flowers as the default corner decoration.
So the jacarandas are here again, reminding me of the new life that spring brings. My son was born at the end of October last year, a day that will for most of his life mean Halloween and back to school and Thanksgiving just around the corner. But for his grand entrance, he chose spring in Cape Town, South Africa, at perhaps the most beautiful time of the year, a month in which the sea glittered in a specially sparkly way and the winding road we took to the hospital burst with lush, green life. My daughter got to pet new bunnies and guinea pigs at a farm that month, and then we brought our own sweet little baby home for her to hold. Next week my son will have his first birthday and I am reminded of that magical time.
But everything else about Botswana in this moment reminds me more of the baked summers of my California childhood, the sweaty dust of my middle school days in Arizona, black vinyl seats in the hot sun of a closed car, the relief of icy popsicles dripping down salty chins, garden hoses and kiddie pools and the buzzing heat of a day deep in the middle of July. It is very very hot right now. Gaborone’s dam failed last year, water cuts in our neighborhood increased from three days a week to four, and it has suddenly become quite easy to understand why for so long this part of the world and its blistering desert have been inhabited by just a few. Humans have put in shiny skyscrapers and Italian restaurants and air-conditioned malls in the capital of Botswana, but despite these changes, this year at least, Gaborone seems to be losing its long war against the landscape.
In my own kitchen I choose to ignore this reality. While outside the grass shrivels and dies, and the water level drops farther and farther down the blue tiles of the pool each day, indoors I am making sourdough breadcrumbs and smelling onions sizzle and grating a little ginger to put in the mashed sweet potatoes. I brought out the prized box of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Bread mix that I’ve been hoarding for two years since my sister sent it in a care package to Africa, blowing a layer of dust off the top and adding a cup of chocolate chips to the batter because that’s the way I eat pumpkin bread. I also want to simmer cider and cook with the flavors of orange and nutmeg and make something in the oven that requires basting. And the funny thing? I received my weekly basket of vegetables from a local farm like I always do on Tuesdays and discovered that the season for fresh fennel is spring. It turns out my stuffing recipe couldn’t have been better timed.
We’re nearing the “festive” season as it is called here; Christmas is only two months away. For the last three years in Botswana we have celebrated the holiday with a pool party and barbecue: watermelon margaritas, hamburgers, corn on the cob, cooling Greek salads, and ice cream have been the mainstays of the menu. My sausage and fennel stuffing doesn’t belong anywhere on this calendar. It is heavy, rich, and fragrant: a hearty side for a cold gray day. But old habits die hard, and 37 turns around the sun this time of year are making me hold on to fall in October, even from the other side of the world.