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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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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.

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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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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.

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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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Feather down of a sea gull in early evening light.

I get razzed a lot for being a detail-oriented person, always by friends; and often enough, amusingly enough, by the friends who hire me to be detail-oriented (editing, prop design, you get the picture). I can’t help myself; it’s just that there’s so much to experience in the tiny, unobtrusive stuff.

Good example: I love the seasons, all of them, because each offers both big and infinitesimally small imprints, changes, shifts, gifts, little breaths of the universe that say I was here. It’s all fascinating to me. I want to see it, get into the same space with it. That’s me in the corner, that’s me kneeling in the dirt with my nose up against an inchworm on a strawberry saying coooool.

So.

This is a semi-comprehensive chronicle of my favorite details, late spring into summer. There’s a lot of food, but you expected that.

What’s on your warm-weather list?

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Peanut Butter Moose Tracks cone, Days, Ocean Grove, NJ.

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Sycamore leaf, early evening.

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Fresh Bing cherries in heavy cream.

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Quail eggshell.

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Surfer’s wet and supremely happy mongrel.

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Fresh peach custard pie made with local peaches.

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Bread-and-butter pickles made from a 100+ year-old recipe from a farm wife.

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Turkey burger with homemade hot green-chili harissa.

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Little two-year-old feet in Jellies.

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Bocce ball in intense early evening light.

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A Shirley Temple after a hot day.

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Empty beer mug, lonely and forlorn.

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Fuzzy apricots in more early-evening light. I have a thing with this light, obviously.

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Signs I’m home 🙂 This is what’s on local shelves.

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I believe in truth in materials—I’ve argued for it over and over again here on eve’s apple and in my work collecting props in the theatre industry. Truth yes, authenticity yes, perfection no. Very, very no. My theatre friends often accuse me—with affection—of being hyper-detailed, but that’s not the same thing as perfection. I’ll argue against perfection until my voice, or fingers in this case, give out. Then I’ll Throat-Coat my vocal chords and Ben-Gay my hands until I can argue against it again. Stay tuned.

The reason is this: It’s impossible to hit perfection. Also this: perfection is bloody boring. It doesn’t taste like anything.

For years I’ve noticed that the orchard fruit I pick tastes the sweetest if it’s scarred. That sounds like a cliche, except it’s true. A peach or apple that’s been poked by its branches, pressed up against its brothers so tightly that it’s lopsided, partially striped by its own leaves, hanging from a cracked and windfallen tree—these are your best choices, I’m telling you. No way would an average retailer try to sell them to the average American consumer, because they’re not perfect, and the average American consumer demands perfect. But now you have it on my good word what and where real is: at local farms, farmers markets, orchards, abandoned fields.

And you know where Little Miss English Major is going with this, and we’re already waist-deep in a metaphor. So let’s dunk.

My own scars are what make me—well, let’s call it unique.* For sure there are some I would mail back to the universe third-class if I could, and settle for being somewhat less unique. I could live with that. But other scars are cool by me. For everyone who has been scarred—and by that I mean everyone—we’ve earned flavor.

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Here then, the formula for peaches, apples, and humans to live a scarred and flavorful life:

1) Take a living creature.

2) Expose it to sun, gentle breezes, and blue skies.

3) Expose it to sleet, snow, hail, lightning, and damaging winds.

4) Let other creatures gnaw on it, with teeth or with harsh words.

5) Deprive it, from time to time, of rain, so it has to send roots more deeply into the earth to find water.

6) Deprive it, from time to time, of sun, so it has to make the most of the nourishment it has stored.

7) On sunny days, let it soak it in with especial gratitude.

8) On rainy days, let every drop feel like a baptism.

9) On days in which other creatures nestle in it or beneath it, let it be charmed.

10) When it’s finally ripe, let it look around at—or look inside at—its scars, and know it tastes good.

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*Today I went to see the Lego movie with a friend just because I wanted to see it. Then I went to a party store to see if they had ‘screaming balloons’, because I need to find a fart noise for the Moliere farce I am working on. The afternoon was spent sewing burlap into bags that will hold costumes. My lunch was a half a raspberry Chocolove candy bar, and my dinner was a salad full of tofu, and I loved both. And this was an average day. You can’t buy this kind of uniqueness.

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It’s high summer, so last week I jumped at the chance to make faithful reader Katerina’s beautiful jam recipes from her native Athens, Greece. With its average summer temperatures in the low 90s (F) and very little rainfall, local fruit has the chance to go all Greta Garbo on the vine or tree and just get sweeter by the day. People who are used to such luxuries know how best to enjoy them, so like a good girl I followed Katerina’s recipes to the letter.

First one, and here’s Katerina:

Melon Jam

I made this recipe because I found myself with lots of melons. I have done many attempts to find the best way of treating the fruits. Please have in mind that the taste of the jam depends on the variety of the fruit.

Melons (I use the ones of August – they have the best taste and aroma)*

Granulated sugar (depending on taste)

I do not give exact quantity of sugar since the fruits can be very sweet. The best approach I have found is to melt the fruits in a food processor and add sugar in small quantities, let it dissolve and taste the result. When satisfied, put the mixture of fruits and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and let it boil at medium temperature, stirring occasionally. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice per pint of jam. When thick, it is ready. Put it in sterilized jars, turn them upside down in order for them to be sealed, and during the winter you’ll have a taste of summer.

*

Me again. It’s true that you won’t know what the jam needs until you taste the fruit, and it can vary pretty widely. Melons are desert natives. Here in temperate NJ, if the summers are sunny and dry and Gobi-like, our local melons are better than a candy store. But if we get too much rain, they’ll taste like their cucumber cousins and depress the crap out of your peanut butter sandwich.

I used a really ripe, local, organic cantaloupe. If you can do the same, I heartily endorse it. Unless your supermarket carries local melons (and read the fine print on what they consider local; it still might be from 1,892 miles away), they just aren’t going to have the sweetness and character of fruits that were grown close by and allowed to ripen on the vine. Mine needed only a bit of sugar. I added some fresh grated nutmeg, too.** It cooked down to a luminous orange and tasted remarkably of pumpkin (another cousin). But it’s a more cheerful version of pumpkin, as pumpkin would taste after getting the top car on a Ferris Wheel and swinging it back and forth, much to the consternation of its little sister.

The next jam is even yummier. I make peach goo*** every summer, but loved the idea of adding stuff that hadn’t occurred to me.

Peach Jam with Ginger

700g. (about 1.5 lbs) peaches

500g. (about 1 cup)  granulated sugar

50g. (about 1.5 ounces) fresh ginger root

2 cinnamon sticks

1/2 tsp cloves

Juice of 1 small lemon

Wash fruit. Cut peaches into small pieces and crush them lightly with a fork. Peel and then grate the ginger on a coarse grater. Put the peaches and ginger in a saucepan with a thick bottom and sprinkle with sugar. Allow to soak in the juice until sugar is completely dissolved. Place the pot over high heat and add the spices and lemon juice. Allow to boil 5 minutes, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon and removing the foam from the surface. Lower heat and let boil for 3-4 minutes more. Remove the foam and cinnamon sticks and fill sterilized jars with the hot jam. Shut tight and push up the lids. Turn the jars upside down till the jam reaches room temperature.

*

At the tippy top of the post are the peaches I used. They’re local, ‘light spray’ (it’s hard to find an organic peach in NJ), and look the way peaches look when the farmer doesn’t fuss over them. Russeting and some marring is good. In my many years of picking and eating peaches, I can say with some authority that the ones that are a little rough around the edges will be sweeter. The difference in flavor is striking enough that last year I blogged about it here.

The peaches cook down to an mellow-tasting amber mixture, and the spicy hit of fresh ginger, then cloves and cinnamon, is surprisingly fun. I’ve been eating this stuff out of a Tupperware for the past week.

Both recipes are good on sandwiches, on toast, or on the fantastic bagels brought by your summer visitors from the city.  Bonus: They can be made after a day of fun at the beach, or dreariness at the office, or vice versa, allowing you to go all Greta Garbo—a perfectly acceptable way to be this time of year.

Thanks to Katerina Papaspiliopoulou 🙂

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Melon (cantaloupe) at top; peach ginger at bottom.

*Absolutely true, and in NJ,  September melons can be even better.

**Angie Wink, that one’s for you.

***Sometimes jam, sometimes compote, we had this discussion.

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