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Maybe 30 years ago I read Katherine Paterson’s brilliant Bridge To Terabithia*. There was a note at the end which said the illustrator drew the pictures while listening to the music of the Beatles. (To see one of Donna Diamond’s beautiful drawings from that book, click here.) Her work was so ephemeral and dreamy, and I was not surprised to learn of the particular musical influence. I’d bet you aren’t either.

In my Advanced Studio Art class in high school we always had the radio on, set to a local station, while we drew. My work was inevitably co-authored by Mister Mister, Heart, and Dream Academy. By college I’d graduated to Belinda Carlisle and MC Hammer.

lady speed stick

This is a Lady’s Speed Stick. Hammer would be proud.

Sometimes I listen to music while doing busy work like cutting and freezing produce. Once I wrote to Gourmet Magazine** and told them I spent the afternoon slicing organic strawberries while accompanied by Led Zeppelin. It was a solid choice, I thought. Gourmet agreed. They printed my letter.

But back to the vein of Donna Diamond, Bridge drawings, and the Beatles; and me, my drawings, and late ’80s power ballads: I think the music I’m listening to when I’m creating has a hand in the product. That includes cooking. This past few weeks I’ve needed some deep rest—soul-core rest. Aside from sleeping, that means comfort food; and in my case, making it.

First I went to my farm and bought some local, low-spray, ripe peaches. Then I sliced them and tucked them into a butter crust, latticed and sprinkled with demerara sugar. My co-author was The Carpenters. I felt like I was moving not through air but through Karen’s exquisite honey-colored contralto. That was a mellow-tasting pie, indeed (there it is above).

A couple of days ago I became oddly obsessed with a recipe I’ve had for years but have never made: blackberry brown-sugar cake. I took some liberties, since it was to be a breakfast or teatime cake for me, not a celebration cake for others. Omitted the buttercream and jam and half the sugar, swapped in some olive oil for part of the butter and whole-wheat pastry flour for some of the all-purpose. The recipe also called for ground walnuts and a little sugar at the base of the pan, but I didn’t have any walnuts, so I used hazelnuts instead. They were so heady and delicious that going forward I’ll never use walnuts. I topped the cake with tangy, organic plain yogurt and blackberries I’d just picked at the farm. The result was subtle and moody and surprising.

Nat ‘King’ Cole made this cake with me. You might not be able to tell by the photo, but you’d know for sure when you ate a slice.

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*The movie is rubbish.

**Requisite whimper that they’re gone. 😦

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Blackberries, Silverton Farms, Toms River.

I can’t speak for you, but for me, supermarket shopping for produce in February is onerous at best. It’s been months since the sun made a respectable appearance, local offerings are few, and the produce from Chile is a little too coiffed, like that slicky QVC-type hawker that Bridget Jones’s mum had an affair with.* It’s like they’re trying to pretend they’re not tiny, expensive and lacking in nutrition, which was sadly lost two weeks ago over the Atlantic. The supermarket tries to keep the dismal at bay with bright lights and piped-in music, but it just makes the setting feel more hollow.** Admittedly, the rest of the year it’s not much better. Even now, at the height of the growing season, to me it feels hollow. It might as well be February.

Produce shopping at a farmers market is much more satisfying. You can buy lacinato kale that was in the ground that morning. And it’s only traveled a few miles to get to you. Best of all, you get to meet the people who grew, or baked, or somehow else concocted what they’re selling. They aren’t wearing name tags or uniforms; usually they’re in old jeans. The female growers rarely wear makeup or do up their hair. There’s a sense of integrity, of pride of ownership—a quiet brashness of what you see is what you get, refreshing in today’s endlessly tidied up and sanitized world.

But for the best produce shopping experience of all, I choose pick your own. If you haven’t tried it and think you don’t want to, listen: it’s more enjoyable than you think. As long as you’re wearing shoes that can get dusty or a little muddy and you’re wearing sunblock and a decent hat to keep the sun at bay, you’re good.  A bottle of water wouldn’t hurt, either. And if you go to a small farm, even better; there’s a chance you’ll have the whole blackberry field to yourself.

Pick your own is a five-sense epicurian feast. Remember, farmers aren’t in it for the money. What you’re about to take part in is something ancient, something all at once enormous and humbling, something farmers—despite the labor and precarious nature of a life lived like this—treasure. The connection with the living things offering you their fruit, the gratitude, the simplicity, the peace that taps you gently on the shoulder—all are a big part of what makes this work worth it for them. And it can do the same for you, just for an hour or so one morning.

See the variety in shape and color and texture of what’s growing; the sparkle of dewdrops in streaks across the grass and across your feet (when was the last time your shoes were dampened with dew?); the sky with sun and scribbles of clouds; the geometry of the buildings, fences, plow and tractor tracks; moving, changing color in the leaves and the chickens that dot the yard; tight little immature red berries and fat glossy purple ones (to find the ripest, fattest berries, occasionally you need to lift the canes carefully and peek beneath them).

Hear those chickens scolding each other; the wind rustling leaves in the maple trees a few yards off and several more yards up; the whirring of bees busy doing their thing (and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them); cicadas singing over and over again to a crescendo before dropping the note; cardinals calling to each other; the rustle of tall grass as you make your way down the path.

Smell the green of the blackberry leaves (yes, you can, especially on hot days); the sweet pungency of fruit that’s fermenting into schnapps after the rain dropped it to the ground Tuesday evening; the richness of the soil that crumbles like devil’s food cake; the freshness of the wind.

Feel the dew on leaves growing in the shade; the basket handle under your arm; the prickly canes (being careful of the thorns; much like bees, respect is warranted); the difference between berries that are ripe versus almost ripe (you want fruit that is firm but not too firm; it should be a bit yielding, dropping fairly easily into your fingers when tugged); your blood pressure slowing down to mellow yellow.

Taste the sweet blackberries, flesh and juice…as well as the gift of this morning.

* Okay, he was Portuguese, but the point still stands.

**Whole Foods is a notable exception.

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My neighbor, Mr. Cook, is to me an example of how to live.

That’s his flag above, which he puts out at dawn, and takes in at dusk, every single day of the year.

Mr. Cook tells me he’s lived in his house since the 1950s, when he was our tiny town’s fire chief. In those days, many of the houses along my street were home to firemen. When the bell sounded from the fire house across the street, the men would hear it and run to gear up and go. To this day, when he sees activity there, he slowly heads over to get in on it. And our fearless boys, young enough to be his kids and grandkids, treat him like a returning hero.

Retired for many years now, Mr. Cook keeps active in dozens of ways. Dancing is his favorite pastime. Every spring he drives to a handful of different town halls up and down the shoreline and picks up a copy of their summer events schedule. Then he goes home, sits on his little porch in one of those white plastic stackable chairs you can buy outside the Home Depot, and details where and when all of the senior dances will be held. He never misses one, and let me tell you—as a single, mobile gentleman in his 80s, his dance card gets filled. Each morning he tells me how it went. Music, socializing? Not a big deal. To him, it’s pretty much a numbers game: ‘I danced with eight ladies last night!’ he’ll say. I think ten is his personal best.

Mr. Cook also travels annually to visit the surviving members of his company from his days as a World War II soldier. (That’s not a typo. He still keeps in touch with his comrades—over sixty years later.) He had a bonus a few years back when he went to the southwest for an army reunion and danced with, as he put it, ‘lots of cowgirls.’

He makes pancakes for himself every Sunday morning without fail. (You’re getting a sense of what kind of man this is, right?) I like to bring a piece of whatever it is I bake to him. Later I’ll ask how he liked it. He always has the same response: an eye twinkle and a ‘Keep practicing.’

And Mr. Cook is the only one I know who doesn’t blink when I say my coffee cake contains wild mulberries that I picked myself. I really think he’s one of the last great outdoorsmen, so to him there’s nothing strange about picking fruit off a tree. He grew up in nearby Asbury Park, NJ, a seaside city flanked by Deal Lake on its north and west ends. A natural lake that once flowed from the ocean, its expansive arteries and narrow, shady fingers stretching further west must have thoroughly enchanted adventurous boys in the 1920s and 30s, with no electronics or malls to distract them. He tells me he canoed every inch of that lake.

A fisherman to this day, when he was in his early 80s he regularly trekked out to Sandy Hook, about 1/2 an hour north, to teach kids how to fish. He still goes in September to pick beach plums, which he collects in a plastic grocery bag and presents to a friend who cooks them down into his very favorite kind of jelly.

He also likes to bag his own turkey for Thanksgiving. The rest of us go to Shop-Rite; Mr. Cook goes to Pennsylvania. He bundles up, packs a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sits down in the woods, and waits. And waits. I asked why it takes so long to get a turkey, and he said, ‘It’s because they’re smart, and very fast. You move just an inch, and they all fly up into the trees.’ We think of turkeys as being slow—in the head and otherwise—because if we have any association with them at all, it’s of farm turkeys. They’ve had all the brains bred out of them, and to add insult to injury, they can no longer fly, either. But wild birds, now—everything is intact. Sharp vision, sharp minds, and they can fly up to 55 mph.

I asked Mr. Cook if wild turkeys make good eating and his eyes lit up. ‘OH, yes,’ he says. ‘They make the best soup you ever had.’

Well, those are the times when he’s able to catch one. He says his Thanksgiving meal is always a 50/50 toss-up. Many’s the Thanksgiving when I’d call out to him, ‘So what’s for dinner?’ and he’d sigh and smirk and say: ‘Franks and beans.’

Independent, adventurous, happy with the little things in life. That’s him all over.

But my favorite image of Mr. Cook is one I have of him on the Fourth of July, in the evening, a few years ago. Just after dark, Asbury’s fireworks were visible over the trees south of us. I climbed out onto my roof just as they started and caught a glimpse of him on his tiny porch, on one of his white plastic chairs, watching and eating a dish of plain vanilla ice cream from Carvel.

Happy Fourth, everybody.

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