My neighbors are letting their fruit rot. For weeks, I have walked by a house with three bountiful peach trees at the edge of the sidewalk, spilling fruit onto their lawn and gravel driveway, where it has turned into a mash and rotted under October’s weekly record-breaking temperatures, leaving a smell like stale beer in the air.
I’m tempted to nab a few good ones, take them home, can them or make a pie to bring back to the neighbors. But they have boarded their home with PRIVATE PROPERTY signs. Sometimes a man uses a chainsaw on the lawn to cut large chunks of wood next to the peaches. POSTED: PRIVATE PROPERTY. DO NOT DISTURB. This is Eastern Washington. This is the American West. I leave the wasted fruit alone. THIS LAND IS MY LAND.
I try to eat with the seasons. Eating locally, eating fresh, is easiest in the summer and fall, when fruit plummets freely from the trees with the evolutionary expectation that animals will eat it and take the seeds to flourish elsewhere. Taste is a necessary part of a thriving ecosystem. As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it, “food arises from partnership” (126).
Winter is a different story. Without natural abundance, I try to choose to refuse unseasonable produce. Frances Moore Lappé wrote, back in 1982, that the American diet, defined by “unbridled freedom” to eat, grow, and sell whatever, whenever, is “a frontier concept” that has led to lasting damage: “There’s only so much farmland in the United States, and it’s shrinking, not growing. Yet we give some the right to own 100,000 acres when we know this denies dozens of farm families the right to own any land at all. Is this democratic?” (Lappé 110-111).
I love fall, and all the food associated with it, from peaches to winter squash. Thanksgiving and Halloween both derive from western European harvest festivals—Harvest Home in England, Samhain for the Celts of Ireland and its Welsh equivalent, Nos Galan Gaeaf. As much a way to prepare for winter as to celebrate the harvest, what remains of these old festivals today are the stories they associate with changing seasons.
While agriculture shaped a city-centered and often vegetable-based diet along the Mediterranean, the “modes of production and cultural values” at the edges of the Roman Empire—Celtic and Germanic—“had for centuries criss-crossed the great forests of central and northern Europe,” which shaped food access, and therefore cuisine: “Hunting and fishing, the gathering of wild fruits, and the free pasturing of livestock in the woods” made wild meat the primary dish for many Celts (Montanari 6).
Agricultural development was not necessarily absent, but less structural. Roman colonization “forced the Celts to start growing wheat on a large scale; once the wheat had been reaped and threshed the grain went to Rome,” and after the Romans fell into decline, a series of “invasions and poor or failed harvests sent people back to wild cereals” throughout the early Medieval period (Toussaint-Samat 129). Likewise, after the relative climatic stability of the Bronze Age, “the weather took a turn for the worse towards the beginning of the first millennium” across much of Europe, when “heavy rainfall and strong winds impoverished the soil, peat bogs proliferated, deforestation was rife and upland farms were deserted with alarming swiftness” (Jenkins 15).
Far from reliably cyclical, agricultural development experienced constant disruption, and as farmers adapted, so too did the culture. The harvest festivals of the Celts focused on bonfires, harvesting and storing barley and other wild cereals, apples, turnips, and ale brewed with wild hops. The prime feature of the feast was whichever animals could feed the most people, while guaranteeing they had enough cattle and pigs to make it through the winter.
After Julius Caesar led the first Roman invasion of Britain, he and others claimed that the Druids committed human sacrifice for religious purposes, for which there is modest archaeological evidence. While that evidence does not suggest the sacrifices coincided with the Celtic harvest festivals that predated Halloween—the period of human sacrifice may have been over long before the Romans arrived, who had a vested interest in portraying the Celts negatively anyway—legends about rural pagan sacrifice for mystical purposes have persisted. In The Wicker Man (1973) the residents of Summerisle endure failing harvests, either because the gods are unhappy or because the GMO fruit strains the island’s leader brought from the mainland are unsustainable in northern Scotland. Likewise, an elder in Midsommar (2019) introduces an isolated Swedish village’s festivities by remarking, “And what poetry that it’s now the hottest and brightest summer on record,” in a cheerful voice.
The 2021 Welsh language film The Feast is more overt. The film follows a wealthy, politically powerful family in the Welsh countryside who want to throw a feast for a traditional farming couple, Mair and Lori, whose land Gwyn, the head of the household and the local MP, wants to open up to oil drilling. Mair is angry at the prospect because it’s her farm, but also because of an old, vague legend about a goddess locked where the oil is, a hill called the Rise. Unfortunately, Gwyn and his business partner Euros have already started secretly drilling.
The family hires a maid from the countryside, Cadi, to help cook the feast, consisting of wine, a seasonal but tropical fruit salad, and rabbit. Cadi is mysterious, quiet, horrified at the death of the rabbits but fascinated by the people in the house, especially two spoiled sons. One, Guto, asks her for drugs, and she takes him to the woods to find psychedelic mushrooms. Another, Gweirydd, is a disgraced doctor known for his sexual aggression.
The film has a somewhat obvious ecological message (drilling for oil will incite the revenge of the land), but I think that’s the most surface-level interpretation. Read as folk horror, it’s about a working class woman whose presence disrupts and uncovers a wealthy family’s secrets, her labor in the kitchen an infiltration of the natural world into the enforced order of the aristocracy.
Glenda, Gwyn’s wife, helps Cadi prepare the feast. Early in the film, she praises herself for using local ingredients but complains about the local market’s limits while opening a Styrofoam package of mail-order produce: mangoes, pineapple, and pomegranate. Gwyn comes in with two freshly shot rabbits, casually dropping them onto the counter for Cadi to skin. The food is a mix of local and imported ingredients, all of which the family can access with their wealth and the scale of their land for hunting.
As a food movie, The Feast does something surprising: Every scene of someone eating is utterly disgusting. Euros eats with his bare hands, jamming rabbit deep into his throat, at times sliding his fingers well past his teeth. Gweirydd brags about his special diet of raw game meat, a version of the paleo diet, while the mushrooms Guto mashes into his food cause him to hallucinate maggots in his leg, which Cadi (either in reality or as another hallucination) graciously licks from his leg to devours in front of him. That leg is eventually severed in the woods by Gweirydd, which Glenda, in a trance, cuts into bacon-thin strips while Euros fills his jaw with unidentifiable meat.
The Feast is an eco-Gothic parable that ties together the rural symbolism of folk horror, the class anxieties of Gothic literature, and the environmental terror of ecohorror. Director Lee Haven Jones has explicitly stated that Cadi was inspired by the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, in which two magicians create a woman from flowers and oak to give the legendary hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes a wife. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, though, Blodeuwedd is angered at her creators for bringing her into their world to serve someone else’s needs, and takes revenge on them.
With rural, agricultural settings as the backdrop and harvesting a common plot device, folk horror often calls back to premodernity. Many classic English folk horror movies—The Witch, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, and A Field in England—take place in the seventeenth century. Starvation is a looming threat in folk horror, before something even worse emerges from the woods, the same woods the ancient Celts used to scavenge freely for their food. Horror often reflects broader social anxieties—body horror mirrored the AIDS epidemic, ecohorror reflects climate change. What secrets buried in the woods does English folk horror seek to uncover?
Seventeenth century England saw another round of political disruptions to established agricultural practices. Parliament began passing a series of laws known as the Acts of Enclosure, which codified “the abolition of the open-field system, an arrangement by which villagers owned non-contiguous strips of land in a non-hedged field. Enclosing also included the fencing off of the commons and the pulling down of the shacks of poor cottagers who had no land but could survive because they had access to customary rights” (Federici 69).
The Enclosure Acts allowed English lords to privatize the commons—the woods and fields that peasants had used to freely gather food and firewood for centuries—as well as state-owned and communal Catholic land. Previously, King Henry VII had propped up individual peasant families by mandating that small-scale farmers possess a minimum standard of sheep and acreage, the effect of which, according to Francis Bacon, allowed English farmers to “keep the plough in the hands of the owners and not mere hirelings.” In Marx’s formulation, the destruction of the commons and often violent privatization of state land, “given away, sold at ridiculous prices, or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure,” coincided with the expulsion of peasants from their familial estates. With nowhere to go, they became the first proletariat, a class of workers who, for the first time in history, were legally required to purchase the privilege of shelter (Marx 884). Building on this analysis, Silvia Federici looks at the effect of enclosure on women through the lens of Europe’s witch hunts, which “destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe” (Federici 103). By privatizing state and common land, by legislating away centuries of agricultural relationships to reclassify as “private property” as many forests and lakes as possible, the state-sanctioned beginning of capitalism marked a severe turning point in people’s relationship with land, and therefore food.
Horror has plenty of gastronomical elements: Dracula drinks blood, zombies eat brains, and cannibalism appears in everything from Silence of the Lambs to Sweeney Todd. In ecohorror, as in folk horror, food is understood to be a collective problem that dwells on contamination. Food is poisoned, crops fail, or we bring into the kitchen something unwanted. Food in horror is often a reminder of how fragile we are to interruptions in season, diet, and health.
Gwyn’s motive in The Feast mirrors the enclosure acts, and Cadi reflects the classed, gendered, and ecological consequences of enclosure. English folk horror calls back to a world that was understood to be held in common. Anyone could fish, hunt, or pick fruit in the wild forests, so starvation was primarily a concern during winter. A successful harvest, after all, was an important communal affair.
Maybe I’m a coward for not picking those peaches. The warm months are finally over in Spokane, and the fruit is no longer falling from the trees. I could have baked a late harvest pie, a dozen pies even, but instead I stick to what I have from my grandparents’ little garden, carrots and tomatoes and buttercup squash, making chili and roast squash. I cook for myself. Private property has broken so many people’s brains out West that it’s become a kind of religion. It can turn people into outright monsters. If there’s one lesson horror movies have taught me, it’s that you never, ever, leave the group and set out on your own.
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia, 2014.
Jenkins, Geraint H. A Concise History of Wales. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Kimmer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweet Grass. Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Lappé, Frances Moor. Diet for a Small Planet. Ballantine Books, 1982.
Marx, Karl. Capital Vol. 1. Penguin Books, 1990.
Montanari, Massimo. The Culture of Food. Blackwell Publishers, 1994.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. Blackwell Publishing, 2009.