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skin

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Papery garlic skin, like a lotus flower.

As a kid I remember being told, pretty often, that I needed to grow a thicker skin. And as evidenced by my photo file, this issue still hangs over me. Apparently I have a fascination, teetering on obsession, with fruit and vegetable skins, husks, eggshells, peels. The pictures here, seriously? They’re narrowed down from dozens more.

Let’s spread this out and discuss.

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I’ve noticed lately, and this is new, that people buying fresh corn at the store or farm stand want to strip the ears from the husks right then and there.

What I don’t think they know is once it’s off the stalk, an ear of corn goes through its own version of The Change: its ethereal sweetness begins to turn to bland starch.

What’s more, the silky corn husk has a job: to protect the kernels from the blazing heat of the summer sun and from insects…and to keep its sweetness inside and intact as long as possible. Stripping the ear too soon of its husk accelerates the change to starch. For corn at its tender, authentic best, you want to grab it freshly picked and resist husking until just before cooking.* Tip.

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Moving on to the lychee above. It’s also a hot-weather plant, a tropical fruit. It’s subject to erratic weather—harsh sunlight, drenching rains, and powerful winds, not to mention tropical bugs, which are pretty much legend when it comes to voracity.

Yet the lychee’s skin is beautiful—speckled, transparent, and surprisingly dense. When ripe, the fruit is juicy, almost syrupy, like a miniature rum punch without the risk of migraine.

That lovely complex skin protects the fruit, allowing it to stay wholly and happily itself until it’s ready to be enjoyed.

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Last example: the peach, yet another summer-grower. That’s its skin above. When a peach is picked hard enough to break the windshield on my Accord and shipped in from East Jesus Nowhere, it never gets truly ripe. Its skin needs to be sliced off with a sharp paring knife; the fruit knows it’s not ready, and it puts up a fight.

On the other hand, if a peach is picked at its peak, the skin will peel right off. You can even peel it with your fingers.**

People have proper tangible skins, of course. But we also like to talk about having a figurative skin, as I mention way above. It’s that intangible skin that we wrap ourselves in, as a protective barrier, until we’re ready to drop it.

It can take a lot to shed that skin. It safeguards our insecurities, our awkward histories, what have you. The fear of exposing vulnerabilities, for most humans, is just one skinny rung down from the fear of the guy with the hoodie and sickle. It takes trust, stones, patience, and a heap of good intuition.

Having a thick skin is a good idea. But it’s not something you can just ‘get’, like picking up soup bones at the butcher’s. It has to be real, earned, owned. We’ve all met—or been—people who have pretended to be thick-skinned. It shows. Feigning toughness, bravado—that’s a mask. Underneath we’re just as fragile as those delicate kernels and fruits above.

And (this is important) no matter how thick that skin is, even if it’s like the lychee’s, we need to make sure it’s yielding. A solid protective layer is a good thing; heck, I think it’s essential in this nutty world. But it’s not intended to keep us under lock and key.

A skin that works for us comes from the inside, despite what the Aveeno ads tell us. It should be constructed in such a way that it can be dropped when we want it dropped, because there will be times when we want to reveal our authentic selves. It should work for us.

With people who want to scald you, drench you, peck at you? Stay behind it, safe as the corn and lychee are from the elements and the bugs.

With trusted friends? Take it off with confidence, as easily as the ripe peach skin peels away from the fruit.

And here’s the cool thing, another version of the semi-colon, symbol of a pause before continuing: You can always reassess, regroup, and move again when you’re ready. So you took off your skin too soon, or for the wrong people, and it wasn’t the best idea. When you happen upon the right time with the right people, the ones who will relish the true, sweet, occasionally but somehow charmingly weird you, you can opt to take it off again. Until then, you can always put it back on and walk away cocky.

You get to choose.

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Ground cherry (Cape gooseberry) husks.

*In the U.S. you can do this now through September.

**To find out of a peach is ripe, press on it very gently with a fingertip. If it gives a bit, pick it. Again, now’s the time, but they’re almost gone. Quick. Hit the orchard. Play hooky.

water

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The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

She left out coconut water, but nailed the other three, so I’ll let it slide.

On a 2008 trip to French Polynesia, everyone on our day trip to a nearby motu (uninhabited island) was treated to a lesson in the Tahitian way to crack open a coconut. That’s my ex above at left, giving it a solid try over stakes propped in the sand.*

I was born, raised, and to this day live very close to water. No exaggeration, it runs through my veins via skin and lungs. Where I sit right now, water is on three sides of me: lake in front and side, and the Atlantic Ocean at my back.

Tonight’s post is like running water—what I think of, and remember, when I think of water.

Dripping water is such a welcome sight in late winter; a sign spring isn’t far away. This was shot in March 2011.

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That summer, and a family at the ocean’s edge. Everyone hitched their pant legs and skirts up to their knees and splashed around and laughed. They were really charming.

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Peony petals, sunk to the bottom of a thick crystal vase. The crystal and water changed the shape and color and blurred the edges of the petals. When I go into water, any water—from ocean to pool to bathtub—my perceptions change. Light refracts memories, edges soften around thoughts. I remember looking down at my hands and feet through the glassy salt water where I spent every single summer, and remember how reality shifted and blurred, in a half-sleepy way, the way it feels after massage or yoga. When I finally came out of the water and the sun dried the salt water on my skin, it left a sparkling shadow. It always washed off in fresh water, but the psychic imprint remained.

Does spending so much time in and around water explain my penchant for daydreaming, for going deep? For tangents…?

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The more chances water has to touch something, the softer the edges of that something become. This is lagoon sand, encircled by boulders placed there nearly 100 years ago. When ocean water comes in, it tosses and tumbles the sand against the rocks. It is delicate as baby powder, and the loveliest stuff I have ever had under my feet.

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The below was taken from the bow of a little crabbing boat I was in last summer on the Navesink River, which feeds from the nearby ocean. When the clouds went across the sun, the wind picked up, and the choppy water became a luscious deep blue-green, like an enormous, expansive, malleable semi-precious stone.

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Water that surprises: I was riding my bike into Asbury Park last summer to meet my friend Lauren for lunch, and I bumped along the boardwalk as I rode. The old boards were dark and damp after strong rains, with just enough footfall in them to create puddles, and I caught the sun yawning and opening its eyes in the reflections.

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Another surprise last winter, when I was watching my step across the icy apron of my building’s driveway, I spotted this big trapped snowflake. Fantastic surprise.

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Last April I blogged about fog.** Couldn’t help it. This is my road looking east, about three blocks to the ocean—a dreamy 360-degree universe of tiny salt- and fresh water particles hanging mid-air, brushing my cheeks and hair and clinging to everything I wore. I could not stay away from the beach that day, craving the paradoxical comfort of being enveloped by icy water, of not being able to see beyond a few feet, let alone of the horizon. It was nourishment for a very weary soul.

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Autumn leaves floating by on my lake, in 2010, and the contrast of black water on a dark afternoon against shocking color. I look at it and smell the lake water, full of rain and salt (from the ocean, again), and the intoxicating fragrance of decaying leaves. The lake is another flavor of peace.

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When I was little and playing at the beach, sometimes I would get a cut. And when I’d run up to my mom and show her, she’d always say the same thing: ‘Go stick it in the water.’ That was the rule; other kids were told the same. No Band-Aids for the minor stuff. They’d fall off in the sand and water, anyway.

There’s not a lot the ocean can’t heal.

Here it is a few summers ago, early in the morning and early in the season, a mess of sparkles and chill as the sun rises.

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Tonight, at the end of August, it was warm and pink-lit. I just rode back a few hours ago, and am typing this with my sandy feet stretched out in front of me, nourished outside and in.

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*Since I dehydrate easily and have gotten myself sick during August heat waves, I’ve taken to drinking coconut water liberally. Luckily I love it. Gatorade was my first effort in getting back electrolytes, and was sweet enough to embarrass New Coke.

**Fog blogged? Flogged? No, that would hurt.

transience

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Last year I picked corn—like in a corn field—for the first time. It was one of the most exquisitely peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. The field was several yards off a quiet road; no one else was around; the stalks towered and rustled over little me; and I’ve never seen Children of the Corn. All factored into a delicious, unscary sense of being enveloped, especially that last one.

Usually when harvesting I take in the beauty inherent in lush LIFE growing all around—the intense colors and weight of fruits and vegetables, full of water and sunshine, right at the peak of their lives. This year, quite unexpectedly, I noticed the beauty in the other side of the season, in the hints of autumn brushing dustily by, even in the heat of the sun.

In Japanese culture, it’s believed there is beauty not just in fullest life, but also in impermanence and decay. In the U.S., this concept confuses us and tends to make us a little jumpy. What do we do when a flower in a vase begins to wilt? We throw it away; we don’t want to see it once the wheel turns. I’m no different. But I want to learn to appreciate it at every phase.

Oddly enough, I found corn just as beautiful in its dropped and drying starkness as I did green and growing. And I edited in black and white for everything I shot, whether alive or dead, to keep from being distracted by color.

I do love a paradox, love disturbing juxtapositions. Maybe I can grow to love a wilting flower, too.

So. Here is summer—waxing and waning.

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summer sandwich

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I used to hate fresh tomatoes. Growing up in New Jersey, that was as heretical as blasting Conway Twitty music on the street outside the Pony.* I said it anyway, though. And to be fair, the supermarket tomatoes I grew up eating were hardly flavorful. Grown strictly to withstand shipping and handling, picked unripe and hit with ethylene gas**, they were pink, watery, and a bore on the taste buds.

Then maybe eight years ago I had a fling with an heirloom tomato and became even more smug in my distaste of remotely grown fresh tomatoes. Heirlooms taste like the berries tomatoes are: tender and richly flavored.

Yesterday I walked into Asbury Park for lunch—well, for the makings of it. First I stopped by a local organic farm stand run by a woman in a floppy straw hat. When I picked up one of the two tomatoes on display, I asked if she had raised them herself. She said she had, and warned me that the tomato I held ‘wasn’t perfect.’ I gave it a little squeeze, and a tiny bit of juice oozed out. It was probably two hours off the vine, a youngster in a new town. I told her I don’t care about perfect, and bought it.

Then I went to the bread stand run by a gregarious Roman guy. As he talked to customers he sliced up narrow anchovy-provolone sandwiches, casually handing bits to passers-by.*** Sold me two rolls for a buck. ‘Thank you, sweet dahling!’

Then I walked home, stopping by the lake to pick some wild mint.

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The tomato sandwich with basil is a time-honored thing, and for good reason. I figured mint and basil are cousins, so I’d give that a whirl. Picked a bunch—some for my sandwich, more for my friend who loves to cook and wouldn’t look at me the way the anti-Conway-Twitty crowd would. It takes a rare person, Jerseyan or not, who will not look at me askance for eating plants I picked by a lake. She is one of them.****

I sliced up the roll and gutted it a bit—I don’t like too high a bread-to-filling ratio—and added a slice of Trader Joe’s addictive mozzarella, a little bit of mayonnaise, and kosher salt. The juice from the tomato mixes with the mayo and makes the bread a little soppy, but that’s a plus.

You can try to build a quicker, better, cobbled-together summer sandwich than this, but it won’t work. Okay, maybe if you use two slices of cheese. I’m reasonable.

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*That’s bad. Trust me on this one.

**You’re smacking your lips at that image, aren’t you? I shouldn’t tease so.

***Several turned up their noses; I almost bit his hand off.

***This just occurred to me: the friend I mention is one of three good friends who are first-generation kids (Filipino, Italian, and Japanese). I find in cases such as this there is a stronger connection to where food comes from, and less of a tendency to be afraid of it. Kind of fascinating.)

down to earth

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Dusty dirt at a nearby orchard and half-eaten buffet selection.

Last week I learned there are kids in the world who have never touched soil. I actually stopped typing to reread the sentence when I saw it. It was within notes for an article I was writing on a school garden in Chicago.

Of course it makes sense; city kids know from sidewalks, not soil. But I had never thought about it. The teachers at the school reported that they loved seeing the wonder and amazement in their little students’ faces when the kids first put their hands into fresh, fragrant soil.

I was struck by this. For all of us in our very small town in the ’70s and ’80s, dirt was our silent partner. Digging in it with my sister to uncover the first tulip shoots in the spring. Landing in it when I fell off my bike. I don’t even remember us brushing it off. And Lord knows we didn’t wash off honeysuckle flowers before slurping up the nectar inside. We lived by the old expression, ‘You eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ There weren’t really any boundaries between we kids and dirt; it was a part of us.

People who love to cook have a personal relationship with dirt, too. In the western part of New Jersey the earth is clay soil, which retains almost as much water as my ankles do every month, and needs additional work and ingredients to make it arable.* On the opposite side of the state, close to the ocean, we can’t dig more than a foot down without hitting a mysterious granular substance that looks like this:

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Three guesses.

Which is fine; lots of great stuff grows in it, and allows water to drain away, easily. And which also leads me to wonder, in the Doctor Who-tainted kind of way that I do, how much what’s below us influences us. Does the kind of soil we walk on have any bearing on who we turn out to be?

Coastal types are generally known to be a relaxed lot—maybe because food there has always grown fairly easily in the receptive soil. They also sometimes earn a rep for flakiness.**

Inland, where it takes more work to grow food because the soil is sticky and challenging, the rep is about stubbornness. And also generosity.***

Yes, there are exceptions to the above. I’m generalizing. But still: I can’t help but think an enormous part of what we’re made of is due to the nature of what’s under our feet.

Maybe if life is simpler due to soil that’s receptive to raising crops, it helps to foster relaxed, if sometimes complacent, people. And if life is tougher due to soil that requires more effort to raise crops, maybe it fosters stubborn but giving people, those who go by an implicit ‘we’re all in the sticky together, and we have to work together’ policy.

Then there’s the sidewalk crew, the kids who have limited or no access to soil. What are the losses and gains, how much does a concrete barrier factor into what they’re made of? Into what they become?

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Potato trying to look like a rock. Didn’t work. It was delicious.

Back down to earth.

I would bet the teachers at the inner-city school above would argue that soil affords kids the chance to learn that the world is bigger than they thought. And deeper. And messier.

I’d agree and add that we should get to know soil for the most basic of reasons: because it is always there, whether we can see it or whether it’s beneath the sidewalk, and therefore unifies us. Because it’s where all life starts, and grows, and ultimately ends. Soft, sticky, or hidden, it belongs to everyone. Kids should get the chance to wear it, like we did growing up. We should know where our food comes from. We should know where we come from.

What I wouldn’t give to have been there the day those kids stuck their hands into it, and got good and messy. I need to find an inner-city school and bring the kids some dirt.

*It’s also Fern’s last name from Charlotte’s Web and she, appropriately, was a farm girl. That E.B. White was a sly dude.

**Where are my keys?!

Kidding. But I couldn’t tell you my license plate number at gunpoint.

***All of the mid-westerners I have ever met have been unfailingly warm, giving, and unguarded. If I met a jerk who said he was from Ohio, I’d keep eating and request his birth certificate.

heirloom blueberries

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Quick little post today, recuperating as I am from running crew every night this past week, but wanted to tell you all about the blueberries I found on Saturday at the farmers market a few blocks away. They were on the edge of a folding table manned by two teenagers. I asked the kids if all of the produce they were selling was local, and they said everything was but the fruit. Then I saw this sign and asked again to double check. New Jersey grows a lot of blueberries, it’s high season, and something about that hand-scrawled sign made me wonder. Things that make you go hmmm.*

‘I think they’re from south Jersey,’ the girl said. Well, hot diggity—that’s where most of our blueberries are grown. And look at that cheapie price for a pint!

I took them home, washed and stemmed half of them, and ate them for lunch with low-fat Stonyfield vanilla yogurt stirred in. They’re tiny and spicy and remind me of the low-bush blueberries that hail from New England, but the oracle of Google tells me they’re high-bush, the kind New Jersey grows.

That’s it. They were great. :) Happy week!

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I’m a dork; I accidentally took a video of this sign instead of a photo. So I cheated and shot a picture of it right on my PC screen. Nice arrow, huh?

*Apologies to those too young to remember the 1991 hit by C+C Music Factory. You aren’t really missing anything.

sinking in to summer

Midsummer, and we’re all starting to ooze into the fabric of our beach chairs (but today temps hit 90 again, so full disclosure: I’m oozing into my sofa as I write this).

A hazy, dreamy list of the not-to-be-missed—summer delights,`a la me.

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Beach rose in early evening light.

1. Go to the beach between 4 and 6p. The shadows are long, the sand has a golden glow, and the crowds have cleared. It’s the most beautiful time of day.

2. Or go to the beach between 7 and 9a when the ocean is sparkling in the morning sun. It’s the other most beautiful time of day. Dive in. You’re swimming in a big splashy tub of glitter.

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3. Eat locally grown fruit, picked perfectly ripe. To get the full flavor, resist refrigerating it. Trust me on this one.

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Sticky ripe plum.

4. Don’t put fresh basil in the fridge, either. Treat it like the plant it is: Trim the ends and stick the bunch in a jar filled with water. Use as needed. If flowers start to emerge, pinch them off to keep the leaves from getting bitter.

5. Go barefoot. Feel the differences between the textures of this or that sand, or this or that grass. Don’t freak over rough patches forming on your feet; they’re giving you the power to explore the summer world further.*

6. Make a pie. Any sensible pie crust comes together in the Cuisinart in 10 minutes, I promise, zip zip zip, and it won’t have any weird stuff in it. Then you can add anything summer gives you—blueberries, blackberries, late-season cherries. Doll them up or leave them alone.

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Peach custard pie.

7. Find a funnel cake and dive into that, too. Any will do, but I like ’em puff-tastic.

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From the very nearby Asbury Park, NJ boardwalk. I’m not 300 lbs., and it’s miraculous.

8. Slurp up an heirloom tomato—and go local on this one as well, too, for best flavor and price. All other tomatoes will seem like the soggy tube socks they are. Slurp at room temperature. A ripe uncut tomato will live happily on your kitchen table for a few days, if you can restrain yourself longer than I can.

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9. Ride your bike. It’s just as you remember—like flying.

10. Go to a playground and swing on the swings. Go at night. Even better.

11. Find an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and order something retro. The one near me, in business since 1901, offers a really sweet, really kaleidoscopically colored soda called a cherry-lime rickey. Or go back just as far as the boomers, who order butter pecan, black raspberry, and cherry vanilla.

12. Collect wildflowers and let them brighten your counter or night stand. Tiger-lilies, false Queen Anne’s lace, and many others grow in profusion in meadows and along roadsides. If you pull the latter up fully, smell the roots; they smell like carrots (a cousin). Cool, right?

13. Buy a melon from a farm stand. Be sure it’s local for best ripeness. You can eat it in slices or chop it up and make a smoothie or an agua fresca out of it. Use a knife; a melon baller wastes too much fruit.

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I inserted a sharp knife one half-inch into this Sugar Baby and it cracked itself right open. That’s ripe, my dear friends. That’s how melon should be, and taste.

14. Sleep with the windows open. Falling asleep and waking up to a breeze is beauteous.

15. Find something yummy growing somewhere wild and have a little snack. Then tell me about it. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.

*Gabrielle Reece, pro beach volleyball player, has said she isn’t ashamed of her weight—she is grateful for it, because she needs every pound to play with the force she wants. I feel the same about callouses on my feet; I’m proud of every one because I need every one.

 

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