I love summer and feel like I have barely had a chance to enjoy the season yet. I refuse to accept its end when a bunch of fourth graders hop on buses for the first day of school (which is now criminally early). Labor Day is a holiday of the summer, not a fall holiday. The start of football season marks the final weeks of summer, not the beginning of fall.
Hey! You kids! Get off of my lawn!
Now that that’s off my chest, I want to talk about food.
When the idea of “California Cuisine” was first hitting its stride in the ’70s, there was a celebrated event designed to introduce the West Coast concept to French chefs. One of the French luminaries reportedly sniffed, “That’s not cooking; that’s shopping.”
I love that story and he was right. This whole idea of farm to table and eating fresh and local is based on the availability of good ingredients and presenting them at their best, without the cook getting in the way too much.
I don’t cook at home nearly as much as I used to but today I wanted to see what I had on hand, knowing that my trips to the farmers’ markets have become less regular. I did make a quick trip to a family farm stand in Birmingham a couple of days ago and bought some nice small-sized okra. The first bag of okra I pulled out today, however, had gone bad and was smelly and gross. After a shocked moment, I realized that I had discovered a bag of okra bought a couple of weeks ago that had been forgotten. The okra from this past weekend was safe, crispy, and sound in the crisper bin and ready to cut, batter, and fry up.
“Food memory” is a sensation that has long intrigued me – how a smell or a taste can bring back a flood of memories. Proust’s “madeleine moment” resonates for me. A fresh cantaloupe was sitting near my okra; okra and cantaloupe always conjure up memories of midsummer lunches at my Grandmother Harbison’s kitchen table.
I don’t know if it was an intentional pairing on her part, but whenever I dig into a plate of fried okra with a slice of cantaloupe on the side, I remember childhood midweek meals at the Harbison table in Fairfield Highlands. We always sprinkled a bit of black pepper on cantaloupes. I’m not sure where that practice came from, or how widespread it is, but it always seems natural to me. Conversely, watermelon was always served with a shaker of salt standing by.
I had a couple of peaches left over from my most recent peach run. They were a little overripe so it seemed the best way to eat them was to grill them. I quartered the truly succulent peaches and grilled them as I finished up the breaded okra in the iron skillet. The meal didn’t take long at all to prepare but the plate of fried okra, sweet cantaloupe with a touch of pepper, and still juicy grilled peaches tasted like summer to me. It tasted like my childhood.
I didn’t take the time to make a cake of cornbread and I was fresh out of fresh tomatoes, but the plate of food – accompanied by a glass of iced tea with lemon – was more than enough to sustain me on a steamy midsummer day.
It won’t be fall for a while yet.