The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful. -Harper Lee (Go Set a Watchman)
I can’t place it exactly, but it was one of those long summers in college, the kind that feel eternal and free. A close friend from college was visiting, and we were driving along I-70, a highway surrounded by large swaths of sprawling green farmland, windows down, some unremarkable song from the ‘90s blaring in our ears. Come to think of it, there may have been no music at all; I really can’t say. What I do remember, though, is that this friend, a lover of Romantic poetry and old, vintage-y things, remarked in the breathless way of hers that always makes me feel like I am somehow incapable of experiencing life on the same plane as her: “Oh, Katy, it’s so beautiful here! Look at all these barns; they’re so gorgeous!” I know I gave her a baffled look; I was, most certainly, surprised at her outpouring of admiration. I looked around trying to see what she, a cosmopolitan friend from India who had lived in several countries, saw, but to me, this was just home—boring old Pennsylvania, a place to escape from, not to rhapsodize over. We had plenty of dilapidated barns and livestock (admittedly cute), but nothing along like the lines of the wonders of New York, London, Los Angeles! I decided that she must have felt this way because everything was so new to her and, to indulge her fantasy of country charm, gave a halfhearted shrug. I admitted that, while I had never thought of it that way myself, that, yes, it might actually be pretty.
Flash-forward 12 years, and, though I myself find it hard to believe, on my recent visit home, I found myself staring out of the car window, enjoying the bucolic scene--grazing cows, rundown barns and nothing but green in between--much like Jean Louise, aka Scout, does when she finds herself back home in Alabama. It may be that this was all just a sight for sore eyes (I realized yesterday that last summer was the first time in years I hadn’t been back to Pennsylvania for my annual visit), but I suspect I’ve simply come to see that there’s something to be said for life outside of the loud throb and bright lights of “city living.” On the few mornings we spent in Pennsylvania, I would step outside barefoot and drink my coffee on the porch before the muggy heat set in, and in the early afternoon, I’d wander through the yard all the way to its edges, where black raspberries and blackberries start to appear as the summer heat slowly works its magic (this time we were too early to forage, but next summer all the berries will be mine!). This was summer as I had always known it: quiet, cozy and relaxed; hot, humid and with the looming threat of a thunderstorm that might strike at any moment. Even though my heart is still heavy at the thought of leaving California, for the first time since the move to Delaware became a reality, I understood that I would, with this move, be returning home. At least, in a matter of speaking.
Of course, the trip we just took was really just a taste, a preview, of what our lives will be like once we’re finally settled. On our way to the wedding, we stopped in picturesque Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to stretch our legs; it didn’t look like much at first, but after a few wrong turns and the triumphant victory of rumbling stomachs, we discovered it was the home of Dickinson College, charming alleys where children sell lemonade for 50 cents a cup, a fantastic bookstore and a surprisingly good creperie. I will happily return. The same can be said for Lancaster, which, with its Central Market (supposedly the country's oldest farmers' market), full of Amish-grown and Amish-made treats, and classic east coast red brick buildings, was one of our happiest discoveries and a place that I see us finding our way to every time we set off to visit my family.
Even as the promise of tiny Delaware with all of its beaches (in one afternoon, we traversed the whole state, from green New Castle County to the many beaches of Sussex County. The Greek, who had never had a trip to the beach interrupted by a thunderstorm in all of his life, is not at all impressed with the eastern seaboard’s offerings. A trip to DogfishHead’s brewpub, an establishment that can rival anything we can find in California, improved his mood immensely) beckoned, our time in New York for the beautiful wedding of our friends reminded us of all the friendships we are leaving behind. It's scary to feel like you're starting out fresh in a new place after nine years and several lifetimes in another, but the wedding, with its reunion of past and present Slavs, showed me that, even out in the world doing diverse things and living thousands of miles apart, there's still very much a community.
The whole trip, a whirlwind from Pennsylvania to New York, then to Delaware and home again, was a reminder of what life on the east coast entails. While there is the debilitating heat to contend with, sometimes so thick and heavy that it feels like a cinderblock wall, there are also things that, as I rediscovered, the west coast just can’t provide—namely good sweet corn, peaches that don’t taste like cardboard, restaurant workers that aren’t always singing the praises of micro greens or talking about how everything is made “in house,” seasons (this one is for better or for worse), the proximity to family, cute historical towns. These are, in short, things that I not only can live with, but that I will also welcome with open arms.
Speaking of quality produce, when we were at the Central Market in Lancaster, the Greek and I picked up a ridiculous amount of fresh food: apricots, plums (because, in addition to my cherry butter, I just had to make a batch of Luisa Weiss' spiced plum butter--making her plum recipes in the summer seems to be a thing with me--before getting on the plane and watching the rest of summer pass me by), corn so sweet that it rivaled the delicious corn we ate at the wedding (truly superlative corn), several bunches of Lacinato kale, heirloom tomatoes and peaches! We really did go to town, but it was worth it in every way.
On our last day and a half in Pennsylvania, we ate so well and so much, mainly thanks to the spoils of Lancaster: bacon sandwiches with slivers of heirloom tomatoes, apricots stuffed with mascarpone, cardamom and pistachios and drizzled with honey, my grandma's homemade pasta and, last but not least, an incredibly simple, but refreshing drink that I found in the Lee Brothers' Charleston Kitchen. This book is not new, but is new to me. A stunner of a cookbook that is part historical, part creative and brings Charleston, a place I would love to visit, to life, it jumped out at me one day with its promise of recipes for kumquat martinis and sparklers (in general, the book has a very fine chapter on drinks, a topic that is sometimes not given its due), sweet southern desserts and all kinds of seafood.
The Summer Peach Cooler, in particular, does not disappoint, even if you suspect that your peaches are not nearly as juicy and aromatic as those that the Lee Brothers can find in Charleston (recall the great peach rivalry of 2011, when the New York Times reported that South Carolina has long been producing more peaches than Georgia, the so-called land of peaches). It's a simple drink, made by blanching peaches, removing their skin and then blitzing them in the food processor with lime or lemon juice, some sugar and a little kosher salt. Once pureed, you fill a glass with ice, add seltzer water and stir in three tablespoons of the peach mixture. It's sweet, tart and utterly refreshing on a hot summer day. If you're feeling adventurous, it can be spiked with a little Peach Schnapps, Basil Eau de Vie or even some of Dogsfish Head's Festina Peche, but it's also good just as it is. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that it might work better with a simple syrup, one either infused with thyme or basil, rather than adding sugar directly to the peaches. These same herbs might make for a pretty garnish too, although summer laziness induced by the heat ultimately means that anything goes.
More peach inspiration: This past week Dogfish Head posted a recipe for a peach gazpacho that looked like the best of summer. Today in the Times, there was talk of peach doughnuts in "Recipes for Health."
Summer Peach Cooler
Slightly adapted from the Lee Brothers' Charleston Kitchen
Yields roughly 6 glasses
1 pound ripe peaches
1/4 cup lemon or lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste*
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6-7 ounces seltzer water
Fill a pot with water and set it on high heat to boil. In the meantime, wash the peaches and, using a sharp knife, score their bottoms with an X. Prepare an ice-water bath. When the water is boiling, add the peaches in batches for two to three minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in the ice-water bath for a few minutes to stop the cooking. Once cool to the touch, take the peaches from the water and, working your way from the bottom, remove their skin, using either your fingers or a paring knife. After peeling, quarter the peaches, remove their pits and place the peaches in the food processor or blender.
Add the lemon juice, sugar* and kosher salt to the food processor and pulse until smooth.
Fill glasses with ice cubes, add seltzer water and stir in 3 tablespoons of the peach puree. Add a little extra sugar to taste, garnish with a peach or herbs (basil, thyme), or drink as is. The peach mixture will keep in the refrigerator for at least 2-3 days.
*You could also make a batch of simple syrup (1 cup water to 1 cup sugar) and use this to sweeten the drink.