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The many flavors of autumn

November 15, 2023 By Xinlin Jiang
A large, orange pumpkin grows on the vine in a pumpkin patch.

Pumpkins and pumpkin spice have become synonymous with fall, but the flavors of the season are far broader, encompassing cultures and traditions from around the world and celebrated by students across UW–Madison. Photo: Althea Dotzour

(Editor’s note: Xinlin Jiang is a UW–Madison senior who’s an international student from China.)

Walking on State Street in Madison in early November, you can catch glimpses of the last maple leaves to fall as they blow past in streaks of flame red and golden yellow. If you take a deep breath, your senses fill with the aromas of autumn spilling out of coffee shops and bakeries.

Fall is synonymous with harvest time, a time for gathering with family and friends and returning to the family traditions and flavor of seasons.

For Hailey Griffin, a senior journalism and international studies major at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the flavors of autumn come from oranges and apples. Griffin grew up in Madison, and fall is one of her favorite seasons. “Pumpkins and apples are fall flavors [for me]. Whenever I see them in the store, I will buy them because they’re not going to be here forever. I used to eat them all the time when I was little, so it makes me feel very nostalgic,” Griffin says.

As the weather gets colder, Ella Beyer, a junior student majoring in journalism, finds herself echoing Griffin’s feelings. College life has deepened her longing for home during the fall — a family gathering time in the Beyer household, especially during Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Halloween has been a family affair since Beyer was little. She fondly remembers how her aunt and uncle would make their house super spooky for Halloween. Her uncle would get into the spirit by dressing up as a ghost or some other characters. It became a tradition to congregate there, spooking trick-or-treaters, sharing pizzas and enjoying togetherness. Amid the festivities, Ella treasures apple-picking excursions and the sweet indulgence of caramel apples.

As the leaves continue to fall, Beyer’s heart grows eager for Thanksgiving at her aunt’s house. Relatives come from far away, each bringing a different homemade dish like turkey, pies and mashed potatoes. After they’ve enjoyed the feast, they all play football outside.

“Speaking of autumn flavor, I would say sweet and a hint of cinnamon. I only ever use cinnamon during the fall colder season. Also, I would say a little bit warmer, maybe a little bit of a spice,” says Beyer.

Since I hail from China, autumn to me is the sweet taste of mooncakes we share while enjoying the harvest moon at big family reunions during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Each year, a full moon falls on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, illuminating the night sky as we celebrate the harvest. On this day, families scattered across distances converge at their homes for a reunion feast, sharing mooncakes beneath the moon’s radiant glow.

The pandemic has kept me from my homeland for two long years. Around the Mid-Autumn Festival, whenever peers brought it up, I felt a swell of emotion. An old Chinese proverb says, “独在异乡为异客,每逢佳节倍思亲” – “Being a stranger in a foreign land amplifies homesickness during festive days.”

This year, I sat on the rooftop of my apartment, sharing a mooncake with a friend, lost in the same moon’s glow that bathed in my childhood, magnifying my yearning for home.

Echoing my sentiments is Yiran Dai, a freshman from Shanghai. Celebrating her first Mid-Autumn Festival away from family, Dai found herself unexpectedly craving the mooncakes she once dismissed as overly sweet.

Dai shares that she used to not like mooncakes in China because they were extremely sweet. Whenever there was a festival, she would only symbolically share the mooncakes with her family, taking only a small bite. “I remember when I was still in Shanghai in August, people were already buying and giving mooncake gift boxes to each other, and at that time I still hated the cloyingly sweet mooncakes, but merely one month later, around the Mid-Autumn Festival, if there were mooncakes on-site at any of the events that I went to, I would eat a lot of them. The flavor of the mooncakes hasn’t changed; they are still just as sweet, but I miss them,” Dai admits.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for family reunions in China, and Yiran Dai’s first Mid-Autumn Festival in Madison was a very festive one, as she participated in many activities, such as eating mooncakes and enjoying the moon with her church friends and watching the Mid-Autumn Festival party with the International Learning Community in her dormitory. She and her friends had a great time during this festival, however, a part of her still longed for familiar tastes and traditions.

“Although I had a great time in Madison, and I enjoyed Mid-Autumn Festival with my friend, during such a family reunion festival, suddenly I started to feel nostalgic for the things I used to neglect, such as a craving for mooncakes, and a nostalgia for the food and flavors of my hometown,” she says.Fall, with its rich connotations of harvest, memory and reunion, resonates globally.

In Mexico, people celebrate the Day of the Dead on the first and second days of November. For people of Mexican heritage, this is often a big day. The multi-day holiday brings together family and friends to pay respect and to remember friends and family members who have died.

Kelly Carranza, a junior at UW–Madison affiliated with the Latinx Cultural Center, shares how her family celebrates the Day of the Dead. Her family makes the favorite foods of their loved ones who have passed. For Carranza, autumn’s flavor is the taste of her aunt’s sweet pan de muerto — a loaf of sweet bread — and her parents’ special mole, a dish that balances spicy and savory along with the sweetness of chocolate.

Carranza explains that in Mexican tradition, the Day of the Dead is the one day each year when the spirits of loved ones come back to visit. “It’s more of a spiritual thing that we know that they’re there and we know that they’re with us,” Carranza says.

Carranza’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico and settled in Madison. Every year on the Day of the Dead, Carranza goes home to her family. “When I think about autumn flavors, I definitely think about a reunion. I think about love because my mom will cook big holiday meals,” Carranza says.

Similar to Carranza, Juliana Zarate, a senior majoring in community and nonprofit leadership, looks forward to autumn and the special foods of the season. With memories of vibrant face paintings and family gathering, she shared, “Food is heavy in Mexican tradition.”

What Zarate misses most is having pozole, a soup with pork or chicken in harmony, with cabbage and radishes on top. “It is an easy dish that can feed a lot of people. People connect and get warm after drinking soup together,” Zarate says.

Despite the scarcity of authentic Mexican eateries in Madison, Zarate says she will often embark on lengthy bus rides to gather ingredients, recreating a taste of home. “I’ll make food that reminds me of home, where I’ll call my mom and ask her how to make a certain dish. I’ll ask my aunt how to make her enchilada sauce,” Zarate says.

Across traditions and borders, the harvest season is a warm-up for winter, a time for sharing meals and stories with our dear ones. Even though the American, Chinese and Mexican traditions featured here root in different cultural soil, they all share the same threads of warmth, sweetness and togetherness. So, what does fall taste like to you?

Tags: student life