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Posts Tagged ‘fall’

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.

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Salted-caramel vanilla and dark chocolate. It was a chocolate day.

I was back in Princeton last Sunday in order to eat ice cream. I say this without the faintest trace of shame. Apparently so were the 15 people ahead of me in line at the bent spoon. It was an eerie, balmy 64 degrees in late February. But the temperature matters not. Not when it comes to this place. More on that later.

For the past three years I’ve done prop design for the February show at my alma mater, which is near Princeton. And I arrange time to get ice cream as often as I can over the course of the contract, even though it’s around an hour to the school and another 20 beyond that to Nassau Street and the smarterati. I love the trip, I love the town, and I love that scream.

Ice cream is not much of a gamble; in my experience, at worst, it’s just okay. (Calling ‘just okay’ in this case ‘plain vanilla’ would be too gratuitous. Uh oh; I said it anyhow.) I have never had bad ice cream, with the exception of one place here at the Jersey Shore that touts its product as healthy, but quite resembles very cold malleable plastic. Melt down the clear plastic bins from Target that you use to store soccer cleats in your garage, pop them in the freezer overnight, and you’d have this. It’s test-tube ice cream. No milk, I don’t think. I doubt a cow was even consulted.

This ice cream place, the bent spoon, is the polar opposite. It goes beyond even good ice cream, the way some farms go beyond organic. It is a tiny, tiny place that somehow manages to offer a few dozen varieties of ice cream and sorbet every day (along with homemade hot chocolate, marshmallows, and baked goods), and they make a point to be seasonally and locally driven.

Princeton is blessed by location, and we patrons are the enormously lucky beneficiaries. The town is at the western end of the state, and borders farmland. It’s hard to overstate how proud the region is of its produce; nearly every food venue offers locally grown products and makes sure we know it.

The picture above is no example of local, I’ll admit. But the calendar has plenty to work with: strawberry and honeysuckle in spring, sweet corn in summer, apples and pumpkin in fall. The bent spoon owners want us to taste where we come from, and where we come from is the Garden State. Even in winter the place makes ice cream flavored with evergreen; it’s spicy and heady.

I’ve gotten two scoops on days that are 36 degrees, days where the bitter wind whips down the sidewalks of Palmer Square, but does devotion care for temperature? Does love follow rules?

We closed the show last weekend, and my trips to Princeton are benched for now. But I’ll be back with the honeysuckle.

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A few nights ago I made an apple cake with buttermilk and a good hit of my homemade apple vodka. I would have done it anyway; I love cake…it’s Fall…I love cake (this bears repeating).

But I wanted to try making a recipe with even less sugar than I normally use. In the past 10 or so years, I’ve been typically cutting back the sugar in recipes by half or more because sometimes I’ll have the cake for breakfast. Too much sugar in the morning grosses me out, and moreover sends me into a stupor. But my doctor told me I should be moderating my sugar even more, so I added just two heaping tablespoons of organic sugar to the batter along with something like a half cup of apple vodka, which contains sugar. So the cake is somewhat bland—I might have gone overboard—but I’ve been dressing it up with a blop of plain yogurt. The sour tang is surprising against the gentle sweetness and tender texture. So I’m proud that I made it work and that it works beautifully. Every day I’m looking forward to a piece of my apple cake.

*

Tonight I worked at a soup kitchen a few blocks away. It was a Thanksgiving feast for the needy in the community, a couple of days early. When I arrived I saw a young lady wearing a cocktail dress, with her hair in an upsweep, crouching and peering into a rolling cart of canned soft drinks. She asked if there were any iced teas that weren’t diet. (Can’t blame her.) We scanned the cart and said we were sorry, but didn’t see any.

The young lady sighed and frowned, thanked us, and turned to go. Then suddenly the event organizer said, ‘Wait!’ She reached into the back and pulled out some regular iced teas that had been hidden. I started laughing as the young lady started loading them under one arm, and she turned to me with a big grin and a question in her eyes.

‘It’s just—really wanting something, and then getting it,’ I said. She laughed with me and said, ‘Yeah.’

The world is a spinning top—it always has been, if we’re going to be honest. There will always be things we want and don’t get, and we need the strength and tenacity to keep moving forward when that happens.

But I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t get tiring when, over and over, we don’t get what we want, or have it and lose it. And this year has been a doozy. I’m wishing you your regular iced tea, at the very least one, whatever that is to you…more even, as many as you can carry.

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Natsukashii (Japanese): A sense of loss inherent in transience; bittersweetness, nostalgia tinged with longing

Sycamore trees have fallen out of favor for landscaping for decades, it seems. I’ve heard them called messy; they do shed their bark more liberally than other trees, it’s true. You can always tell a town, at least here in New Jersey, that was settled 100 years back or more: The streets are lined with sycamores. People weren’t fazed by excess bark back then, I’m guessing. In the area where I grew up and still live, the sycamores tower several stories high and come together in the middle of the street. If it started raining while we were on our bikes, we kids would dash to the narrower streets, where the thick canopy of branches would keep us pretty dry until the rain let up. On dry days we used to love snapping the bark’s roughness into pieces as we sat on the curb and talked. And in mid-August, the leaves started changing from green to pale ochre. Katydids chirping away at night is the first sign that fall is nearby. The second sign is the change in the color of the sycamore leaves. Fall is not yet on the doorstep, but it’s tiptoeing closer.

Years ago I read a story about a hero named Milarepa who fought and defeated monster after monster, each one bigger and scarier than the last. Then he came across the worst and spookiest monster of all. But all of his usual kill moves didn’t work, and he grew more and more desperate. Finally he did the only thing he could think of: He climbed into the monster’s mouth. As he was swallowed, the monster dissolved. And along with getting to live, Milarepa achieved enlightenment.

This time of year we dig in our heels and hang onto summer, and that’s natural. But there comes a point at which we have to climb into the monster’s mouth. And it’s not all bad, change. Loss isn’t all bad, either. There’s something to be said for allowing ourselves to be swallowed, to go with it, to change our colors along with the sycamores. And I’ve found that the closer I am to nature, the easier the shift is.

Tonight I made a peach-bourbon upside-down cake with the last of the peaches. It’s still hot and needs unmolding, or I’d post a picture. I’ll enjoy every bite—never you worry about that. But then later this week I’m picking elderberries and crab apples so I can make jam. I’m going from green to ochre as I do every year, letting the monster dissolve. I’ll let you know if enlightenment bonks me over the head. In the meantime, I’m kind of digging it.

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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Fruit collected in my secondhand bread-rising bowl.

Today I foraged in a graveyard under a canopy of old, old trees in full autumn fire.

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Marker nearby. Lambs and little angels usually guard children’s graves.

I picked wild persimmons from two little trees that my friend Lauren spotted last year when picnicking with her children.

Harvesting anything has always been a Zen thing for me, and it’s something I like to do alone. I love people—I’m no loner—but I always decline company when I’m picking. It’s a communion with the earth, and I can’t look and listen as well when I’m distracted by chatter.*

In this particular location, I’m utterly surrounded by company, but they’re the quiet sort.

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Persimmon tree in the foreground and graves in the back. American flags are abundant when persimmons are ripe; Veteran’s Day was last week.

I often think of ecology and climate change on excursions like this, on days when I get dirt, bits of twigs, and leaves in my boots. I think of how detached most of us are from the earth. (How can we see the connection between ourselves and the earth when we buy most of our food in fluorescent-lit stores hundreds or thousands of miles from the dirt where it grew? Why would we fight for that dirt when we never see it? We might as well fight for the planet Neptune.)

Years ago I read a quote from a new florist who said the flowers were teaching her what to do. When it’s just me and the trees, it’s very much the same. You get to know a plant when you visit it spring after summer after fall.

When it comes to wild persimmons, I’ve learned they’re smaller than the variety you see this time of year in stores, just about the size of a cherry tomato. They’re not ready to pick until they’re soft and black-burnished and somewhat shriveled. Once the leaves are gone and there’s nothing left on the tree but fruit, they’re usually ripe. But—if I tug on a fruit that’s not quite ripe, if it’s still too smooth and firm, it will resist. Not yet, it tells me. No. Wait.

Any stage actor worth the pantaloons he’s in will tell you there is no power in his performance until there’s an audience, that every breath, gesture, word he puts out there needs a human to tell it to. Acting is not just talking; not even a monologue is just talking. It is always a dialogue between the actor and the audience. It’s another communion. Each needs the other. Each feeds the other.**

This is how it is when I harvest: it’s a dialogue between the plant and me, far more immediate and powerful than if I were to choose that same plant from a store. It teaches me without a word, feeds me, and reinforces the connection between this human and the earth.

Harvesting in a graveyard might be the truest communion with the earth there is; it’s the full life cycle in 360-vision. We pick the food from the earth, one day we will be put in the earth, more food grows and is picked, and the cycle continues.

This is my second and last year harvesting at this beautiful spot, though; the church chaplain gave me permission to pick, but gives me the stink-eye when I do. I will miss these trees, but picking that way mars the experience. She doesn’t know that I thank the trees (I’m a goof, but I really do), nor that I always say hello to the folks that surround them (which I’d do anyway, even if I hadn’t just reread Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I had). She doesn’t know that this is sacred to me. I conveyed my enthusiasm, but it didn’t help.

I’ll keep looking until I find more persimmon trees. And in the meantime, I’m making a pie.

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*I’ll give you one exception: my elderly neighbor brought me along on maybe his 70th year foraging for beach plums, and my first year. He was the pensive type, a hunter, and he went off to one thicket and I went off to another. He got it. The communion thing.

Oh…and this is probably why I never went in for religion. Nothing against it for others, but for me, communion with a great Something is too important to be cluttered up with rules, doctrine, pageantry, and a heap of other people reciting in unison. I need quiet.

**When you see a performance that moves you, please applaud, gasp, laugh, sigh, whatever. For 20 years I’ve stood backstage with anxious actors, and you have no idea how much that feeds them. They thrive on your reactions—honest.

 

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I’m one of those irritating tree-huggers who loves every season (at least at the beginning), but Fall and I go way back. Birthday and all. Piles of apples and squash at the farm. There will be cooking, my friends. Lots of it. This is how I get ready.

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On the wall rack:

Saigon cinnamon (there is no other), allspice, nutmeg (the whole little guys), cloves, ground ginger, hot red pepper flakes, cardamom, almond extract.

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I posted this last year on Facebook with a caption: ‘My pumpkin is going under the knife today. Please keep it in your prayers at this difficult time.’ For all of you who did, thank you. It was delicious.

In the fridge:

Local apples, grains, all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flours, Grade B pure maple syrup, almonds, walnuts, crab apple schnapps, bottle of vodka containing vanilla beans at mid-steep (in a couple of months it will be a killer, and far less expensive, extract than the teeny Foodtown bottles).

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Long-cooking tomato sauce from local, organic plum tomatoes. You can see it has cooked down by an inch—getting richer than Scrooge McDuck.

In the freezer:

Bread, whatever I baked for breakfast this week, preserves (right now mulberry, on the horizon crab apple), chicken stock, butter, tomato sauce, quince syrup, yeast, bread crumb bag (all of the crusts I don’t eat, blitzed for toppings), Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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Red quinoa, drying at the farm.

On top of the fridge:

Sugars (granulated, confectioner’s, dark brown).

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Quinces from a super-secret tree I found last year.

In the bottom of the armoire that I keep in my kitchen because doesn’t everyone:

Onions, garlic, potatoes. I keep them in a three-divided wooden unit that I found at the antiques shop downtown.

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Garlic.

In the closet I call ‘the garage’:

This is the coolest spot in my place. It houses winter squash. All kinds. Cheese, Luna, butternut, Cinderella. I line them up on the floor.

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Cinderella and cheese pumpkins, fantastic for pie.

Equinox, I’m ready.

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