Saturday, August 10, 2013

August Harvest and Family

(Originally posted 8/28/10)

The final days of summer often make us think of our childhood.  We recall trying to cram as much fun as possible into the last hours of freedom before the inevitable return to school once again imposes structure and moderation.  It seems a fitting coincidence, then, that this is also the time that vegetable harvest is in full swing.  There’s a kind of euphoric desperation as we try to find ways to use up never-ending baskets of tomatoes, buy more ears of corn than we can possibly eat, and pick pail after pail of berries.  The overabundance of produce is like that wild end-of-summer frenzy, as good fortune cries out to be used to its fullest before it’s gone.

 Last week, I traveled to my childhood hometown of Paxton, Massachusetts to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday.  My sister Anne and her family now live in the house my father built, and my mother, widowed for 20 years, lives in a small and neat two-bedroom ranch about a mile away.  My kids and I love and look forward to these visits.  Not surprisingly, there is always a heavy emphasis on eating and cooking together, and the explosion of the Northeast harvest ensured that this time was no exception.

  My mother, a no-nonsense New Englander, refused to let us make a big fuss over her birthday.  Salmon, her long-time favorite, was the requested entrée, accompanied by a colorful sauté of local veggies.  She allowed only one guest:  Aunt Pauline.  Excellent choice, as Pauline (the widow of my father’s brother) is one of the finest cooks and bakers I’ve ever met.  Her meat pie, a Christmas-eve staple, is legendary.  Her seafood chowder could bring tears to your eyes.  And she never, ever accepts a dinner invitation without insisting on bringing the dessert.  For this occasion, Pauline produced an angel food cake with a filling of mixed berries in a berry gelatin.  It was light, fresh, and tasted just like summer.  And, just so we wouldn’t starve to death before breakfast, she baked a dozen gigantic blueberry muffins, crusted with sugar and heavy with fruit she’d picked herself.  As if that weren’t enough, she bestowed on us, as she always does, gifts of freshly canned treats:  strawberry, raspberry and apricot preserves, as well as mint jelly (made from her own mint leaves, of course) and her fabulous zucchini relish, with bits of sweet red pepper.  My sister and I have each admitted a secret desire to be reborn in the next life as a man, in order to seek out and marry Aunt Pauline.

     No summertime visit to Paxton would be complete without a trip (or several) to Cournoyer’s, the local farm stand.  The Cournoyer family has farmed their land for several generations, and the business is now run by Larry and his wife Louise.  How well I remember, though, the older Mrs. Cournoyer, who was the ever-present fixture at the farm when I was a kid.  She stood about four feet ten inches tall, was rather broad in the beam, and sported a bow-legged gait that bespoke a lifetime of hard work done with pride.  In her house dress and apron, support hose and sensible shoes, gray-streaked hair tied back in a bun, she’d greet customers with that distinctive central-Massachusetts-by-way-of-French-Canadian accent.  She had a preternatural ability to take one glance at the purchases a customer laid on the counter and instantaneously figure a sum in her head.  I once asked my mother what the lady’s first name was, and Mom replied, without a hint of irony or sarcasm, “Missus.”  (Years later, I learned it was actually Antoinette.)
 These days, people come from many miles away to shop at Cournoyer’s, and for good reason.  The produce is just insanely delicious.  From peppers to new potatoes, squash to beans, fresh herbs to a cacophony of colorful fruit, everything seems somehow infused with an extra jolt of its own flavor, so that you really believe that you’ve never tasted a more tomatoey tomato in your life.  It is all displayed in a small clapboard building with a cement floor and sturdy wooden tables, situated between the family’s farmhouse and the vast fields of crops.  When I was a kid, most summer meals included a side dish of sliced Cournoyer’s cucumbers and tomatoes, adorned only with a bit of salt. 
Occasionally, my mother would sprinkle sugar on the tomatoes, “to bring out their natural sweetness” and satisfy her own mad sweet tooth.  (This is, after all, the woman who taught me that the best use for leftover rice was as breakfast the next morning, doused with a healthy pour of pure maple syrup.) 

The Cournoyer Farm Stand - Paxton, Massachusetts

      The crowning glory of the Cournoyer farm is the corn.  People look forward to its first harvesting with a blend of excitement and reverence generally reserved for religious occasions.  Most in demand is the “butter and sugar” variety (bi-colored), which is without question just plain spectacular.  My sister swears that she could be blindfolded and pick Cournoyer’s corn out of a line-up without error.  “It’s the Paxton soil,” she emphasizes as butter drips daintily off her chin.  My mother, whose corn consumption has not decreased despite the need to cut if off the cob, raises her wiry white eyebrows and mutters conspiratorially, “They’ve got their own seed.  Mrs. Cournoyer developed it 50 years ago.  It’s a secret, and they’ve never shared it with anyone else.  That’s why their corn is different.”  And it’s true that I remember hearing this story as a child.  But maybe that’s just the corn talking. 

     After several days of cooking and eating with my family in Massachusetts, I found myself again (as always) musing over what it is about food that makes us feel so good.  Sometimes it’s adventure and excitement, as when we try a new exotic restaurant or recipe.  Sometimes it’s the delight of discovering a combination of flavors that come together to create something entirely new and unexpected.  In this case, however, I am grateful for the feeling of connectedness that is conveyed more potently through food than any other medium:  connection to a particular place or time; connection to family and a set of traditions; connection to people you know as well as you know the taste of the most ordinary food, but who can still surprise you.  There is a
Cut zinnea flowers at Cournoyer's
unique and powerful pleasure in tasting something utterly commonplace, something you’ve known intimately since childhood, only to find that you’ve forgotten just how good it really is.  The simple joy of a late-summer family reunion, like the abundant harvest, reminds us that we are often most nourished and nurtured by that which is closest to our hearts.

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