There is something so touching about watching a child play outside on a warm summer’s evening—damp hair, pajamas, getting ready to say goodnight to the day. I found myself almost moved to tears a few weeks ago when my niece, taking her last tour of the backyard before bedtime stories, became captivated by what seemed like swarms of fireflies lighting her way back to the house. And then there was this magical moment when she shrieked, “I caught one!” Her beaming face washed away the distant memories of any crankiness that had popped up during our day and all I could do was marvel at what she had just experienced. She let the firefly go (she is more respectful of living creatures than anyone I know—gently carrying a spider outside to be with his mommy, watching an inchworm inch on by, carefully introducing her little sister to a guinea pig) but following the elation of having had a new nature experience she drifted off to sleep with a smile. Watching this entire scenario unfold I couldn’t get Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” to stop repeating over and over in my head (except I replaced “dragonfly” with “firefly”). If you don't remember the words, listen here.
This may all sound a little treacly and frankly, hearing stories about the children who are important to other people and not to you is really boring, I know. My friends used to, unwittingly, punish me with tales of their own nieces’ and nephews’ adorableness and I just didn’t get it. “Um, he’s not your kid,” I’d find myself silently saying in a less than generous snit. And like so many things, you don’t get it until you get it and now I do. I am not one to say things like, “I love kids!” Not because I have anything against children but because I feel they are people and who likes every person they meet? I like the kids I like just like I like the adults I like. My point is really more about the effect nature has on all of us: as children it is wondrous and as adults it just kind of puts us in our place, if we’re paying enough attention.
It might be surprising that I, a born and bred city mouse, am waxing on about nature but as a child I spent summers in “the country.” Those of you whose addresses include a Rural Route can feel free to mock me because my idea of “the country” was a house in a Connecticut town close enough to the city we had escaped for my father to commute back to that same city on a daily basis. But for my sister and me it was where we caught frogs in the pond, collected slugs, picked up eggs from the old lady with the chicken coops on the other side of the road, swung on a swing tied to a tree, and ran around outside in our nightgowns trying to catch fireflies of our own. I credit those summers with giving me a thick skin when it comes to creepy crawlies. I have never been freaked out by bugs, not even the stray, inevitable city cockroach and more than once have stopped myself mid-swat in order to catch a moth in a Kleenex and release it out of my open bathroom window.
Back in Connecticut, we also grew a little garden. Plucking our own perfectly red, bursting tomatoes was so exciting and when my mother added them to our dinner salad I couldn’t have been more proud. That was until I had to eat that salad and realized my six-year old palate had yet to fully appreciate the taste of off-the-vine deliciousness. So, every time Mom turned around I spit the tomato into my napkin and then surreptitiously emptied it under the kitchen table—because of course she’d never notice red dollops of seeds and skin dotting the white linoleum floor. Needless to say, she was not amused and monitored my consumption of the rest of the salad. The experience put me off tomatoes for years.
Despite this home-grown goodness, summer was a time when we had different food rules. For three months we were allowed Wise Potato Chips, Yodels and Count Chocula cereal. On rainy days you could find us in Danbury at Burger King for lunch or sipping root beer floats at A&W. I associate those things with the country as much as climbing trees, feeding carrots to the neighbor’s horse or learning to swim. How is it we decide that certain foods are “country” foods? In her first cookbook everyone’s favorite Hampton-ite, the Barefoot Contessa, suggests creating a “country dessert platter” made up of artfully arranged slices of pound cake, lemon squares, chocolate chip cookies, pecan squares, brownies, strawberries and figs. Sure, I suppose you could call those treats “home-y” or something but I don’t think they’re so specific to “the country.” I make them in my city kitchen all the time and feel no compunction to serve them with a bunch of wildflowers or nestled in a gingham lined basket.
These days summer is not about Yodels (which I don’t really like in any season), if I want a potato chip I prefer the darker, Cape Cod Robust Russet variety, and, as tempting as this act of rebellion may be, I do my best not to spit food I don’t like onto the kitchen floor. I’m thrilled that the markets are over-flowing with tomatoes and especially happy that peaches and nectarines are joining them. This weekend I made my favorite “country” dessert, a peach and nectarine cobbler. I love the biscuit topping of a cobbler, as compared to the more sugary, oaty, nutty topping of a crisp or a crumble, and I do think it qualifies as a “country” dessert—it is so easy (not to imply country folk are stupid) and fast you’ll be able to make it and still have time to catch fireflies. Just be sure to let them go.The Country Peach Nectarine Cobbler
Adapted from Bon Appetit, July 1995
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4 pounds nectarines or peaches or a mix of both, cut into 1/2" wedges
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
6 Tablespoons sugar (divided)
1 tablespoon baking power
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg, beaten to blend
3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons chilled buttermilk (or 3/4 cup yogurt thinned with 2 Tablespoons of milk)
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Toss all ingredients together in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Bake 15 minutes.
While filling bakes, prepare topping:
Mix flour, 4 Tablespoons sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Using fingertips, rub in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal.
In a measuring cup, add egg to buttermilk and stir to blend. Pour mixture into dry ingredients until batter forms. It will be stiff.
Remove fruit from oven. Drop 12 mounds of batter over hot filling, spacing evenly (four mounds down the long side, three mounds across the short side). Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar.
Bake until juices thicken and topping is golden, about 30 minutes. Cool on rack at least 15 minutes.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, frozen yogurt or just on its own.
Yield: 12 servings