SO . . . WHERE DID SUMMER GO?
While the rest of the nation (nay, the world) suffered from incredible, unbearable, never before recorded heat and drought, here in Maine there has been almost no summer at all. Rain, rain, rain, and when it’s not raining it’s too foggy to see across the kitchen porch, while the temperature as I write this (six o’clock on Friday evening), hovers below a not-yet-normal 70 degrees. The tomatoes are ranged in pots along the edge of the porch to capture as much sun as they can, but they’re still small, hard and deep green. If we don’t get a frost, they might ripen by Thanksgiving.
And just like that, it’s autumn and summer never really happened apart from a day or two here and there.
Actually, I think of this as a tween season, summerfall, like the similar tween season between winter and spring. The light has changed and started to take on a luminous autumn gold, dawn comes later and the early morning birdsong is less intense, less complex. The leaves are just beginning to change—especially the swamp maples, always the first to turn a deep ruddy red—and the sumac blooms are almost ready to harvest. And school buses—beloved harbingers of fall—are out doing their practice runs.
Did you memorize that wonderful poem by Helen Hunt Jackson back in fourth grade? The goldenrod is yellow, the corn is turning brown? I did, and it all comes back to me as August moves toward September: In dusty pods the milkweed its hidden silk has spun. Not a great poem, perhaps, but a great memory.
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No one captures the season here in New England better than America’s greatest natural philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. Here is what he wrote in his diary:
“More wind and quite cold this morning, but very bright and sparkling, autumn-like air, reminding of frosts to be apprehended, also tempting abroad to adventure. . . . What is a New England landscape this sunny August day? A weather-painted house and barn, with an orchard by its side, . . . with a small blue lake on one side. A sympathy between the color of the weather-painted house and that of the lake and sky.” I do like that phrase “weather-painted house,” and so did Henry David for he used it twice in the same paragraph.
That was on August 26, 1856.
But a century and a half later, 2023 has been a difficult year. Warm weather toward the end of winter started buds to swell on the fruit trees, especially super-sensitive cherries, plums, and peaches. That was followed, almost predictably, by an intense cold snap, too prolonged for the trees to recover. As a consequence, all of these soft stone fruits were absent from our farmer’s markets, their places taken later on by strawberries and blueberries and soon to arrive apples.
Right now, though, despite the weather, summer on the coast of Maine is at its culinary peak, a high point even as the light diminishes, minute by minute, day by day. Markets are filled, and not just with sweet corn. (Just try to explain to a European, as I did recently, why corn is so seasonal, so delectable, so welcome a treat, and you may well come up against a stone wall of disbelief.)
Farmstands and backyard gardens are also flush with tomatoes, eggplants, and sweet peppers, which makes me think of the Mediterranean where those three fruits (or vegetables) are so prevalent. You can’t begin to envision the Mediterranean diet without those three. Surprisingly, perhaps, not one of them is actually native to the Inner Sea. Tomatoes and peppers, as we all know by now, came from the New World (new to Europeans, of course), while eggplant or aubergine, as it’s called in the UK, came by a long route from Southeast Asia where it seems to have originated. Food historian Charles Perry traced the eggplant back to that region, following the principle of the great Russian agronomist Nikolai Vavilov: where you find the most widespread evidence of wild varieties is where you find the origin. This, according to Vavilov, holds true right around the world.
Have I lost you yet?
A delightful book that was published last year in the UK but is now available in the US (and my thanks to Mitchell Davis whom you can find @kitchensense.substack.com for pointing this out to me), Jewish Flavours of Italy by Silvia Nacamulli (Green Bean Books), further traces the eggplant’s travels around the Mediterranean. There I found the answer to a question I had often asked: Why does Artusi refer to eggplant (melanzane in Italian) as a “Jewish” vegetable? (I am not going to tell you who Artusi was or is because this is getting far too esoteric. I’ll save Artusi for another time except to say that he is the Biblical authority on Italian food—i.e, not always right, but always provocative.)
In 1890, Artusi wrote: Forty years ago, one hardly saw eggplants or fennel in the markets of Florence; they were considered to be vile because they were foods eaten by Jews. As in other matters of greater moment, here again the Jews show how they have always had a better nose than the Christians.
People quote this as an example of the low regard Italians had for Jews. I would argue on the other hand that in Artusi’s words we hear an enormous respect for Jewish understanding of the world, in the kitchen and elsewhere.
In brief, Nacamulli says, the “Moors” (meaning Arabs from North Africa) brought eggplant to Sicily when they invaded and settled there in the 9th century. There was also a very large and active Jewish community throughout the island, going back historically to Roman times. It did not take long for eggplant to be adopted into the Jewish-Arab-Mediterranean tradition of sweet and sour flavors combined. And what did that lead to? Caponata! The most iconic dish of all Sicily.
But when Sicily came under Spanish control in the 15th century, the Inquisition came along as well. Jews (and Moslems) were expelled, just as they were from Spain itself, and many Jews moved north up the Italian peninsula, carrying their cuisine, including eggplant and caponata, with them. And so, caponata in Sicily, eggplant parmigiana in the rest of Italy.
But you see how difficult it is to cook if you don’t know your history, no matter how complicated it might be. It’s also difficult to do history if you don’t know your food.
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