Filling the cornucopia
When I was a little girl, every year a few weeks before Thanksgiving my mom would bring out a cornucopia from the cupboard in the dining room. This and a cute set of Pilgrim candles was the extent of our decorations, but they set the celebratory harvest mood.
Recently, I realized that I’ve always taken the idea of the “horn of plenty” for granted. This now surprises me. I mean, our tabletop cornucopia was pretty small, but even a large one wouldn’t hold more than a few ears of Indian corn, a gourd or two, and maybe some nuts. How was something so small a symbol of plenty? Was it perhaps a reference to a hunting horn?
Once I asked those questions, others followed. Was the cornucopia ever used outside of Thanksgiving? When and where did it originate, anyway, and why? Looking for answers, I took a brief foray onto the internet, which led me to dig into Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
The cornucopia appears in Hamilton’s book way at the end, the first in an alphabetized list of “Brief Myths.” One tiny paragraph tells of Amalthea, who — depending on the version of the story — is either a goat, or a nymph who owns a goat. The important part of the story is the goat, whose milk was used to feed the infant Roman god, Zeus, and who had a horn that “was always full of whatever food or drink anyone wanted.”
There’s another story there that tells of a conflict between Hercules and the river-god Achelous. For the fight, Achelous took the form of a bull. Hercules conquered him and cut off one of his horns. The horn “was always magically full of fruit and flowers.”
Regardless of which story the cornucopia actually stems from — and it could of course be both — the root of the word is right there in ancient Latin: “cornus,” i.e., horn (think cornet) and “copiae,“i.e., plenty (think copious).
For most of us in this country, food is just around the corner. Grown, harvested, packaged, shipped, and placed on the shelves for us, we just have to plunk down our money. There are grocery stores open around the clock and fast-food places open until late. Food is always available; we don’t even have to wait for it to be in season. We might worry about our food budget, but we don’t worry about the grocery store shelves being empty.
This is still a fairly recent phenomenon. For thousands of years, survival depended on hunting skills and individual family food production. No wonder some of those lesser myths of ancient Rome included a magical horn that always provided food. It isn’t that long ago, that the majority of Americans lived in rural areas and relied heavily on their own efforts for their food supply. The change was relatively swift: from only six percent of Americans living in cities in 1800; to forty percent living in urban areas in 1900; and eighty percent in 2000, ac-
cording to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Though only a handful of us live directly off the land anymore, there is still something that calls us to celebrate the harvest,
share the bounty, and give thanks. And regardless of the origin of the practice, there is something that feels satisfying at a deep, primal level about filling a cornucopia with fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains — representatives of a good harvest.
It’s easy to assemble a cornucopia. Raffia makes
a good filler for the pointy end. Then select fruits and vegetables that will last for a couple of weeks, for example, mini pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, pomegranates, even apples and deep burgundycolored pears. (Check the tender fruits for spoilage.) Don’t pack them tightly, but let them spill out the mouth
of the horn. Add some unshelled walnuts and some fall-colored paper leaves, and let the celebration begin.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box
80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.