Last weekend was the Summer Solstice, and I celebrated it in my traditional way: I had a barbeque!
John Beckett wrote about building a summer solstice tradition, which is exactly what I’ve been doing, but I disagree with him that Midsummer is not an important holiday. It’s Yule’s counterpart, and it’s still widely celebrated in Northern European countries. I actually have a lot more trouble feeling a connection with Lammas/Lughnasadh than Midsummer.
However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary to build new Midsummer traditions. I’ve written before about the necessity of adapting pagan holidays to the local environment in order to fully appreciate the spirits of your own ecosystem. I’m a Heathen, but I live in Texas, so even if I celebrate Heathen holidays like Midsummer or Yule, I think they should be celebrated in a Texas way.
So what does June 21 mean in Texas?
Well, this is not quite the hottest time of year just yet. Statistically the first week of August is the hottest time of year here, so really Lammas is the hottest holiday. This year we haven’t yet hit 100 degrees, though we’ve come close a couple of times. It’s actually been kind of nice lately. Mostly in the low-90’s with some thunderstorms which have been very helpful putting a dent in this severe drought. Hail Thor! Everything is still green. The grass hasn’t dried to a crisp yet.
I’m harvesting lots of green beans, okra, and tomatoes from the garden. Squash and eggplant is coming soon.
The sunflowers, Indian blanket, esparanza, roses, and Mexican oregano are all blooming nicely.
I have decided that the traditional feast for Texas Heathen Midsummer is barbeque. And by that I mean real southern barbeque, not just some hot dogs or burgers on a grill. Every year on Midsummer (or the weekend day closest to it) I get up early (yes, on a Saturday!) and start a big slab of meat or two smoking in the brick BBQ pit in my backyard. To Texans and other southerners, barbeque is slow-smoked meat. In Texas that meat is usually beef brisket, and the wood for smoking is usually mesquite. And “barbeque” also means the social event where such meat is served, because roasting big hunks of meat and celebrations go hand-in-hand. (Sorry vegetarians!)
I sometimes vary a little bit from the traditional beef brisket. I’ve also done pork shoulder, ribs, turkey, and chicken in my smoker. I always fill up the smoker no matter how many guests I’m having since it’s the same amount of work whether the smoker is full or not, and smoked meat makes great leftovers. Smoking the meat becomes a ritual in itself. It forces me to be outside in the backyard, with all the nature spirits and birds and plants and bugs and heat and humidity. I’m serenaded by cicadas as I tend the fire, turn and mop the meat occasionally, and get all sweaty and smoky. It’s a lot of work, but I think that preparing a ritual feast should be.
(Meanwhile, my husband mowed the yard, which is a really big deal when you have a yard as big as ours, with only a push mower.)
This year I cooked two chickens and two large fillets of steelhead trout, which my guests all thought was salmon until I told them otherwise. Farmed steelhead trout is a “Best Choice” on the Seafood Watch list, costs half as much as the sustainable wild Alaska salmon, and the same amount as the unsustainable farmed salmon. I’d never done fish in the smoker before, but it turned out amazing. I used the recipe for smoked salmon from amazingribs.com, and based the chicken off his Simon and Garfunkel chicken recipe (using almost all herbs from my own herb garden). I sometimes wonder things like what would Meathead think if he knew his recipes are being used in a ritual feast to honor pre-Christian Norse deities.
I ended up using oak for the fish, and a mixture of oak and mesquite for the chicken, since that’s the kind of wood I have on hand. We have a lot of oak wood from a few of our trees that died in the horrible summer of 2011. Oak is a pretty good all-purpose smoking wood, but mesquite has a powerful flavor that can overwhelm fish, which is why I didn’t add it to the fire until the fish was done and I was just doing the chicken. I also feel good about using wood that my husband and I harvested ourselves to cook the meal. I wanted to put as much connection to our land as possible into the meal, which is why I tried to put something I’d harvested myself into every dish, even if it was just an herb from the herb garden.
To go with the meat was pasta salad containing green beans and cherry tomatoes from the garden, sweet tea with some peppermint from the herb garden, and a pound cake with seasonal fruit on top.
OK vegetarians, I also made a pot of beans. I usually put pork products of some sort in my beans, but I had some vegetarian guests coming, so I wanted a vegetarian protein that was just as special and delicious as the meat. So I got some heirloom Anasazi beans (not just ordinary pintos!) and cooked them in my Lodge cast-iron camp Dutch oven in the bottom of the smoker. I pre-cooked them a little the day before because dry beans take a really long time to cook, but finishing them off in the smoker let them absorb some smoky flavor.
I prayed to Frigg before I started cooking to ask her to help make everything delicious, and apparently it worked. I always make tons of food for these kinds of things, and everyone happily ate their fill, with just enough left to offer some to the deities and land spirits, and for my husband and I to take some to work for lunch for the rest of the week.
As the sun finally set on the longest day of the year, we made a Midsummer fire of juniper wood in the backyard fire pit. Juniper (a.k.a “cedar”) has a wonderful smelling smoke that also repels mosquitoes. There were several Heathens in attendance, and the rest of the guests were all pagans of some sort, so we decided to do a Symbel in my ritual circle. One of the heathens brought his drinking horn and some home-brewed cider. We first gave an offering to the gods, and then did rounds of boasting and gratitude. Instead of making oaths, which I think is more of a Yule thing, I thought boasts would be more appropriate. During the dark time of year, you can think about what you lack in your life that you want to change, but under the abundance of the Midsummer sun, it’s time to focus on what you DO have.
Focusing on the positive is a difficult thing for me, so I think doing a ritual like that is especially important. It takes me out of my comfort zone much more than a more somber ritual would. During the boasting part, I was forced to say nice things about myself, and during the gratitude part, I had to hear other people saying nice things about me. But perhaps getting out of your comfort zone is what good rituals are all about.
So that is how you celebrate Midsummer, Texas-style! With wood, fire, and smoke, meat and beans and garden-fresh tomatoes and sweet tea, ale and cider and citronella candles and the smell of fresh-cut grass and a bunch of good friends. I would say this is one of the best Midsummers I’ve had in a while.