Posts Tagged ‘Sandy Hook’

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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For a dozen years I had as a neighbor an Army veteran, borough fire chief (in the 1950s), a gardener who outlived two wives, and one of the last true outdoorsmen from the Greatest Generation. He loved canoeing as a kid in the 1930s and said he knew every stream and byway of Deal Lake. He taught kids how to fish on Sandy Hook when he was in his eighties. He showed me the secret patch of beach plums that he’d been visiting every year since childhood, at first with his mother, and then on his own, to get fruit for his favorite jam. He hunted wild turkey every Thanksgiving week, teaching me all about those very smart and very fast birds, and swearing they made the best soup in the world. He’d wave at me from his tiny front porch, pushing 90 years old, and call out, ‘Still here.’

When he went into the hospital for a couple of weeks, he told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the little 10×10′ garden he planted between his house and detached garage, and I loved pulling sweet baby carrots for dinner. When I’d bring him a piece of coffee cake I made with my wild mulberries, he was one of the very, very few people who wouldn’t look at me like I was a mental case. He’d devour it, then grin and tell me to keep practicing.

In front of his little house grows a lavender rhododendron bush. One day, when his second wife was still living, he showed me a straggly rose bush planted in front of it and told me he really wanted to pull it out, but didn’t because she liked it.

We lost him a few years ago. I rode my bike past the house today. The rhododendron is still there, healthy and enormous, and taking over the yard. But it took me sticking my bike-helmeted head under the branches, and looking around in the dim light for a quite a few minutes, to spot what I was looking for.

He was a widower for a good five years after she passed, and never lost his sharp mind. He didn’t forget to pull it out. He left it because of her, and I’m probably the only one who knows. But I guess all of you know now, too.

Saluting Mr. Cook this Memorial Day. Your rosebush is still here. So are you.

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Intelligent and Perceptive Reader: Wait, what? What happened to your early or mid-summer edible wild posts?

Me: Yeah. About that.

I was busy this summer. Most people claim work or childcare as their reasons for The Great Busy. Me, I crewed two shows back to back in July and spent August regrouping. Now here it is September, I’m late for my summer post, the honeysuckle is gone, I can’t wear white after Labor Day, and I’m irritated with myself. Next year I am doing a proper honeysuckle post with a recipe and everything. Syrup maybe. Just you wait.

In the meantime, here we are. Please keep in mind the advice I have given in previous edible wild posts:

1) Only eat a particular plant if you are 100% sure it’s the plant you’re after.

2) Don’t forage for plants off the side of the road because they’ve likely been blessed by household pets in a less than appetizing way.

3) Don’t forage for plants from neighbors’ yards unless you know they haven’t been sprayed and/or unless you are particular friends of the cops in your municipality.

In the picture above we have four lovely summer wild edibles common at the Jersey Shore and much of the Northeastern coastline. Clockwise from top left:

Beach plum (Prunus maritima)

I posted about this fruit a couple of summers ago in plum gig, and talked about my adventure foraging with my neighbor, Mr. Cook. He’s been picking these fruits all of his life (a solid 80 years or so, I am guessing). I gloated a little when I saw that one of Wikipedia’s shots was of beach plums on Sandy Hook, where he and I picked.

The plums are the size of red seedless grapes, and aren’t spectacular eaten out of hand. They’re best cooked with sugar to make jelly (Mr. Cook’s all-time favorite jelly) or in jam (what I like best).

Blackberry* (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberries are in the Rose family. Fruits begin jade green, then become red, then a shiny black. When they’re really ripe, only one delicate tug is needed to have them fall into your hand. Blackberry canes (the thick stems on which they grow) are notoriously thorny, so go easy when picking or wear gloves.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

I first read about this succulent invasive about ten years ago, but it’s only recently that it’s become a bit of a darling in the culinary world. It’s lemony, can be eaten in its entirety—leaves, flowers and stems—and offers a hefty dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Best of all, you don’t have to grow it. I mean it. It’s probably all over your property right now, in plant beds, in sidewalk cracks, everywhere. The sprig in the pic above? Found growing happy and lush in the crack between the curb and street in front of my house. Purslane plants are the Kardashians of the plant world; they just won’t go away. But despite being inanimate, they’re higher on the useful scale.

Beach rose (Rosa rugosa)

These hardy plants grow in the dunes along the shoreline. Like all roses, the petals and the hips (coming in my fall post! To a WordPress account near you!) are edible. They’re thorny, like all of their rosy siblings and their cousin the blackberry. I’ve read that many beach roses smell wonderful. These didn’t have much of a scent, and the flavor was mild, like Bibb lettuce.

*”This article is about the fruit. For the smartphone and its manufacturer, see BlackBerry and BlackBerry (company).” –Wikipedia again. They’re so helpful.

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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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I first went to pick beach plums with my neighbor, Mr. Cook, two summers ago. I anticipated the experience through Martha-Vision: there would be a soft wind off the water on Sandy Hook, the early morning sun splashing across the landscape in shades of honey. The reality was a 10-minutes-after-crack-of-dawn trip that included rampant boot-level cacti and mosquitoes that swooped like bombadiers over 1945 Dresden. The picking was good, but those wretched creatures—their constant humming in my ears as they got me in their cross-hairs—stung me through jeans, a jacket, the bandanna on my head, and copious amounts of Deep Woods Off. Mr. Cook, an octogenarian and lifelong outdoorsman who shoots his Thanksgiving turkey every year, didn’t notice.

Sandy Hook is a narrow slice of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River, just a few miles south of Manhattan. Mr. Cook has been picking beach plums there, from the same clearing, for as long as he can remember. The plums grow on bushes on a landscape that looks very much like the American Southwest, within scrubby vegetation that’s tough enough to grow in sand and endure both scalding sun and occasional flooding. They look just like regular plums, but are as small as cherries. Every year Mr. Cook picks a 1950s enamelware-potful and brings them to a woman in a nearby town, where she converts them into his all-time favorite jelly. Me, I like jam, so that’s what I made. It was tart and sweet, but quite unlike ordinary plums. Intriguing.

When Mr. Cook was growing up in the early part of the last century, only certain people were allowed to pick beach plums on Sandy Hook. When I asked how his family came to be among them, he said they had a friend who had a permit allowing her to go. I did a little research and learned that when the Lenni Lenape sold the parcel of land to the new settlers, a stipulation was added to the contract that allowed the native people to come back and pick beach plums every summer. So it could be that his family friend was among the few who could go.

The spot remains a popular if hush-hush place for picking beach plums. I’m not sure if the old permits stand, but I do know the state Parks System, which operates on the place, doesn’t like people picking there. Which is why Mr. Cook and I showed up with fishing poles in the back of the truck. He handed me an old cap like his to wear, and we smiled all pretty pretty at the rangers at the check-in gate. This year I went after 4pm, when the Park doesn’t charge admission, and bypassed the rangers entirely.

Before heading out I tried a folk recipe for keeping mosquitoes away. My sister found it online. You drink 2 teaspoons of cider vinegar in 8 ounces of water. It’s like slugging Hidden Valley house dressing straight from the bottle. But the critters laughed at Deep Woods Off, as you recall. This was my recourse.

Apparently there are beach plum bushes all over Sandy Hook, but I only know of one patch. It’s a right and a left, by car. In other words, not hard to get to. But I couldn’t find the street. I tried five times—yeah—and just when I started wondering if dementia or basic early senility was setting in, it dawned on me that maybe the government had decided to try to pull the old wool over my eyes and turn what was once a street into a bike path.

Ha. I am SO on to them.

The patch.

Sharp buggers.

It was slim pickins this year—I think I was maybe a week too late and someone else got to them first. (It wasn’t Mr. Cook. I checked.) But I picked a good amount, and I hit up one more really random place in Long Branch where I knew of a single bush, and picked enough to make a bit of jam.

I admit I don’t use a real recipe to make beach plum jam, or any other kind of jam, for that matter. Many years ago I read a woman’s account of her first time jamming, and I’ve followed her example ever since. She was amazed at how easy it was: You put fruit and sugar and water in a pot and boil the hell out of it, she said. With some fruit, you need to add pectin, which helps the jam to set. Don’t worry about it here. (Adding a good amount of sugar helps to set it, too. I don’t like too much sugar, though, so I tolerate jam that’s on the runny side. No worries.) Keep in mind that a ripening, pinkish-red beach plum contains more pectin than a fully-ripe, deep-purple one, so mix in about 25% ripening plums with the others. It’ll add a counter-tartness as well. Balance is good.

Here’s how I make beach plum jam. Play with my recipe if you’re an experienced jammer or if you’re feeling all devil-may-care. I always thought this jam would be great with a pinch of cardamom, or with brown sugar instead of white. Local honey is a great stand-in for sugar.

Wash the plums. They’re wild, so you don’t have to worry about pesticides. How nice is that? De-leaf them and de-stem them. Remove the pits with a cherry pitter, if you have one. If not, a sharp paring knife on a cutting board will work. It just takes longer.

Put them in a deep pot and add enough water to cover them. Add maybe 1 cup of sugar for every cup of plums. Add more if you want to have it on toast or stirred into yogurt; add less if you want to serve it as a sauce alongside poultry or game. Now boil (the hell out of it). Your goal is to let the water cook off and soften the fruit into yummy purple goo. Stir the mixture often with a wooden spoon and don’t let it cook down too much or the sugar will burn.

Ta dah. You just made jam. Take it off the heat and let it cool a bit, then store in your fridge. Eat it up within a week or so. Won’t be a problem.

P.S. I got one mosquito bite while picking. Revenge was mine, though—I probably tasted like vinegar.

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you don’t go to the sea gulls’ nest on sandy hook for the food. let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat. the place is situated high up on an idyllic spot between two sparkling bodies of water and has a 360-degree view of said sparkles, said water, and, on clear days, manhattan. so it’s not about the food. it’s about this:

or so I was told. and as long as we’re being honest, the menu does read like a wikipedia page of beach bar food. no surprises here (except for the lack of desserts); you’re offered exactly what you think you will be.

but stalwart optimist that I am, I did a little snooping and learned this iconic perch features something as delicious as the view: grilled mahi. and not frozen, either, which would have been a dealbreaker.

the mahi’s available two ways: within a caesar salad or on a sandwich. I’m a sandwich person. it arrived in good time, despite the busy saturday night crowd, and came in a clamshell takeout box with with a leaf of romaine, a thick slice of tomato, cajun mayonnaise, a bag of chips and cole slaw.


Worth a click for a closer look. Go ahead. I'll wait.

what I would have liked: a toasted bun. 1) that’s easy to do 2) offers a crunchy textural counterpoint to the tender fish and 3) rhetoric aside, it helps keep the sandwich from falling apart in your hands (guilty). spicier mayo would have been great, too, but I get that the general american public doesn’t usually go for more than a little bite.

what they did right: the fish itself. I enjoyed mahi many times on the islands that dot the pacific, where it’s called mahi-mahi. and truly, this was prepared as well at the sea gulls’ nest as it was in its own hometown.

sizzling hot, firm, flaky, with mellow flavor that got into a stimulating argument with the kick of the cajun mayo (it didn’t come to blows, but that’s okay; see above).

so factor in the sea gulls’ nest’s perfectly-cooked mahi with the cool, salty breeze, the tunes, and the view, and you have a contender for a good place to relax after a beach day, and oh yeah, to eat—and eat well.

I’m going back and asking for a toasted bun.

just gave away my position, didn’t I?


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