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what is

This is a lemonade-out-of-lemons thing. Well, technically I got a pie out of it. And it concerns figs, not lemons. But saddle up and let’s ride this the metaphor out.

A couple of weeks ago, after a hard and surprising first frost, I wandered out to the fig trees at the farm to do triage. Most customers don’t know the trees exist, which I’ll admit to you is a fairly greedy thrill, and those who do aren’t thinking about them in November; plus the girl behind the counter said anything I happened to find was mine for the taking. Take not lightly an ambitious woman with a berry basket.

The figs were small, but I was excited to discover many were soft. So! These could be a pie. These, after being sliced and hit with a drizzle of butter and honey, and sizzled around a little in a pan, could be a pie. A drizzle + a sizzle = redemption. I cleared out every last fig.

One of my biggest challenges* these days is looking at reality head-on and working with it as is. Wishing and wanting aside, and it’s bloody hard to do that, we’re left with the truth in its stocking feet. A big surprise is how often the final product is improved when we create without the benefit of inherent bells and whistles. A bigger surprise is how much pressure falls away when we’re left to retool on our own, and how sometimes we kind of impress ourselves.

They made a pretty nifty pie.

*or irks, depending on the day.

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a plum tale

Been a bit of an arduous Fall so far, as evidenced by the big wall of space between the last time I blogged (two months ago) and now (currently), but I’ve been tossing around lots of ideas. Let’s start with this one:

Every year at the end of August, I go beach plumming half an hour north on Sandy Hook, NJ, a six-mile stretch of pines, sand, WWII training ground remnants, and the odd white-tailed deer. A local pastry chef commissions me to forage for him throughout the year, and one of his favorite ingredients is beach plums, the little wild and astringent ones the size of cherries that grow on Sandy Hook. He candies them and adds them to desserts, and people go crazy.

This year I thoughtlessly* hurt my back a few days before my plum excursion. But I had promised Matt I’d get him a bunch of plums, and besides, after working so hard for so long I really needed a foraging fix in the near wilderness. I went. It took me about 45 minutes to get in and out of the car, but I went.

And despite my injury—or maybe because of it—I ventured more deeply into the wilds, and took more chances, and consequently found more plum bushes. Getting totally lost on this remote peninsula as night was coming on would be a serious matter. But I needed to get lost a little.

Beach plum bushes in this area are ancient and leggy and scratchy. You have to maneuver your way into the center of them in order to get the most fruit. This work is not for the fearful or dainty. I never remember to wear a long-sleeved shirt, I always pay for it with slim cuts up my arms, and every time I’m afraid that standing on one foot and reaching will one day make me pay even more dearly if the aged branches give and I fall into poison ivy. It’s difficult enough work without an injured back.

But I got several quarts of plums, and while standing in the middle of my last bush, so old and tall that it was all dry leafless twigs, I reached, and was surprised that its brittle bones didn’t give. The farther I reached, the more resolutely it gripped me. It didn’t let me fall.

 

 

*I have a little problem with feeling invincible, and not surprisingly, it can get me into trouble. In this episode, I lowered a heavy six-foot upholstery table without help** and felt it in my lower back for two solid weeks.

**Don’t do this.

arbor day

I had every hope of finding Concord grapes today in a local park. But the guy who told me about them impressed upon me the fact that they tend to wrap their viney selves around trees, way out of reach. So I might find them, sure, but would they taunt me from their lofty perch, giggling at my dinkiness? Probably. I suited up (boots past their prime, socks over the cuffs of my jeans, old t shirt, and backpack) and went anyway. I looked like a bohemian infantryman, which worked since the grapes were supposed to be somewhere at Monmouth Battlefield, the site of one of the most intense fights of the Revolutionary War.

It had been years since I’d been on these hallowed grounds—acres and acres of rolling hills, old fences, tree-lined pastures, nodding false Queen Anne’s lace blossoms, and no sound but the whirring of crickets. No sound except for today, when I was hiking behind two elderly couples who stopped every few feet to discuss in detail why the battle was an important one, even though all were Americans and might have heard of the kerfuffle we’d once had with the British. The gentleman who took the lead in enlightening the hikers, the pastures, and the crickets on the battle had the kind of manner that always seems as if he’s pontificating, even if he’s talking about tomorrow afternoon’s forecast. I’d planned on taking a right after the bridge, but took a left to get the noise out of my ears. At a place like this, all of that yammering felt blasphemous.

At first I found a lot of what looked like grape vines—they were all over—but found no grapes on them, so I figured I’d just enjoy the walk and the soul of the place. But I kept looking. And when I spotted my first few, a few feet over my head under an awning of leaves, I just stared, dumbstruck. These are the variety that’s made into grape jelly. Treasure is in the eye of the beholder.

There were in fact a few clusters out of reach along that pathway, maybe a half mile long. I think the deer probably got to the lower ones first. But a lot were accessible, even for Miss Five-Foot-Three, and I got about a quart’s worth.

Most important thing I learned while picking Concords: Wild rose canes are vicious. I’ve added their tiny vampire-like cuts to the ones I got last week while picking beach plums (more on that later). War wounds on war-grounds. Worth it. And I’m so grateful to those couples for their insufferable prattle or I never would have turned left.

I think I’ll make peanut butter muffins and top them with these.

summer school

This time of year I spend a lot of time under blackberry canes. It’s not hard, since the ones at my favorite farm tower over my head. And unless you count the bees*, I always seem to have the spot to myself. An hour or so will go by as I pull off ripe berries, letting ones that aren’t ripe stay on the cane a little longer. This experience, like paddling a canoe or hiking, chills down the old bp and helps me to clear my head. When that happens I end up making connections that I wasn’t able to make before. Which is cool.

There’s an awful lot of clutter in the world right now, a lot of noise, a lot of BS to cut through. When we’re able to narrow down What Matters, it’s a blessing. Just to sit in a truth is a blessing. And for what it’s worth, here’s what I learned this week under the canes:

Berries that are ready for you will practically drop off the cane. They only need the slightest coaxing.

Berries that aren’t ready will fight you. They hang on. And even if you’re able to yank them down it won’t have done any good because they’re too firm and tart. Let them be, because they’re not worth the effort.

Working toward something that you know will bring a good outcome is useful and rewarding—worth all it takes. Working too hard, swimming against the tide, having to fight just to fight, all for something that doesn’t want to be won—this is not worth it.

Easiest and sweetest is what *wants* to fall into your hand.

*Tip: When picking berries, go where the bees go. They know which are ripest. Just remember to defer. I’ve been surprised before by a bee, and have had to say, as graciously as I could muster, ‘I beg your pardon. Enjoy your berry.’

hot mess

On my kitchen counter I keep a little stack of recipes that I’ve torn out of my weekend New York Times. Some, like Caribbean-style ribs, look astoundingly delicious, but I’m never going to make that just for myself or I’d eat them all and they’ve have to cut me out of my apartment through the window, the way they move grand pianos out of pre-war walk-ups in the city. Recipes like that I file away for when I cook for company. For me, I do simple but powerful.

A couple of days ago for dinner I pulled just such a recipe from the stack, a spicy open-faced sandwich from Mumbai called Eggs Kejriwal. The ingredients are fairly normal, but together sound maniacal: cilantro, Cheddar cheese, red onion, a chile pepper…and mustard? Then you top it off with a fried egg and serve it with ketchup? I did it all but the ketchup, which seemed like double overkill at the time (but now that I think about it, next time I’ll give it a whirl).

You butter both sides of a slice of Pullman bread and sizzle it up in a pan until it’s lightly browned. Then you top it with the mustard, the cheese, and the rest of the veg. Pop it under the broiler until the cheese melts. In the meantime, fry the egg. You can use the same pan. Top the slice of bread with your egg, add cracked black pepper, and go to town. It’s gooey, it’s drippy, and it makes you cry, but in a good way. A perfect dinner.

The cilantro and egg I got fresh from the farm; the latter came right out from under the hen and was still warm. The recipe calls for a serrano chile. But Tom at the farm is a friend of mine and gave me a ghost pepper for free*, so I cut up a teensy bit and added that. The ghost pepper, also known as Bhut Jolokia, is the hottest chile produced, doing the Watusi at around 1,000,000 Scovilles. I keep it in my fridge crisper where it’s likely antagonizing the leftover cilantro. Adding just a 1/4 teaspoon of ghost pepper at a time pretty much assures I’ll have it until Halloween. Appropriate.

Boo.

*With apologies to Billy Joel. You Gen Xers know what song that sounds like.

elegy in sugar

I’m going to talk about friendship, loss, and candy. It’s a tall and improbable order and it’s also late at night, but I’m going to try anyway. Let me know how I did.

Once upon a time there were two families whose houses were just a few yards away. The kids were pretty close. Holiday parties, birthday parties, in and out of each other’s houses, falling out of each other’s trees, playing Atari and street games until dark, waiting for the school bus.

The two boys in the two families were especially tight. When the green-haired clown at one kid’s birthday party would call him up to the stage, the other would go up in his place. Not just once, either. No one ever really figured out why, but it was pretty funny.

One time, while talking on the phone, one of the little guys was eating jelly beans and wanted to share with the other, so he put a jelly bean on the receiver. It didn’t work and he was bummed. They were pretty young.

And remember when we all had land lines, and when you called someone, there was a split second before the phone rang? Once one of the boys picked up the phone and dialed the other…who was right there on the other end in that split second, ready to call as well.

The little girls in the one family delivered, then got older and made and delivered, holiday bread to the other family. This has persisted, without fail, since the late 1960s.

Everyone grew up, as these things go. The boy in the one family married, moved across the state, and became a dad to three daughters. One of the girls in one of the families became a kitchen fiend, the kind who makes Grandma-style treats and talks about it a lot. Once she made Martha Stewart’s recipe for marshmallows, which makes eleventy-hundred of them, and gave the boy some for his three daughters.

Suddenly the boy with the three daughters fell sick and didn’t recover. I know it looks like I just dropped that into the story out of the clear blue sky, but that’s actually how it happened. Everyone was blindsided. The families, both of them, kind of went numb, as these things go, too. At the wake the kitcheny girl spent a good amount of time wiping her eyes and hugging his dad and his sister. And she met his three daughters, now teenagers, for the first time.

In the hallway of the funeral home were cards on which visitors were asked to write a favorite memory of the boy. The kitcheny girl remembered, in writing, the time she asked him if his daughters might like some homemade marshmallows. How could she forget? His reply was, ‘…Is this a trick question?!’

His sister said goodbye with a last hug and said, “Allie, Vicki, and Stephie remembered you. They said, ‘It’s the Marshmallow Girl!'”

Life’s story, right? We’re lucky if it starts sweet and ends sweet.

RIP Johnny.

laissez-faire

It’s beautiful weather now, and has been for a few days. But this month, for a good long spell, the weather was blazing, and every brand-new flower and fruit was gasping along with us humans. The pastry chef I work with was panicking that he’d lose mulberry season either to the heat or occasional sudden downpour, and I scampered out to pick the first round for him as soon as I could. And they were pretty small and dry, sure enough.

I had the same concerns about elderflowers and honeysuckle, which share the season with mulberries. Today I picked one of the last of the elderflowers and what must have been the last in reach. These shrubs love watery areas, which means I risk tumbling into a marsh, and/or usually have to contend with other shrubs around them, which I try to avoid traversing because I’m afeared of ticks. The flowers are a little dry, too. And I’m sure the honeysuckle will be as well. Doesn’t take much for them to shrivel.

Once the irritation/guilt at not getting my butt outside to pick them faster because work runs me ragged, etc., passed, I thought I’d just go with it. Why fight it?

So they’re dry. I’d pick them anyway, let them keep right on drying, and make tea with them. Never did that before. And I think honeysuckle and elderflower tea might go down pretty nicely in the raw of January blizzards.

While snooping the banks for reachable elderflowers tonight in Asbury Park, a city so eccentric that no one blinks at anything remotely weird (the reputation is eerily accurate, and whew to that), I saw what looked like old rose canes, and what looked like rose hips on them. Then I remembered it’s June, and rose hips don’t show up until August. A wineberry. I was close; they’re in the same family. Tasted one. No, not tart enough. They’re dark…it’s a blackberry. No, too small—and they come off hollow inside like a raspberry. Because that’s what they are.

As if as soon as I decided just to go with whatever nature happened to be, dry or not, and quit whimpering about it, the universe rewarded me. Here’s a cookie. Better than that.

Would you believe I found wild black raspberries tonight?