CHANGE COMES FREQUENTLY, sometimes with unmistakable, irreversible authority—think of life’s extremes: birth, death, and the rites of passage in between. More often than not, however, change appears in subtler, everyday ways; the trick is to see and appreciate the significance.
A couple of weeks ago, my life changed with the deceptively simple appearance of fuzzy-skinned peaches.
I should tell you that for the past two years, I have walked almost daily through a gritty patch of city behind my apartment complex. To take my son to school, I weave between a Housing Authority project, Bellevue Hospital, a Department of Health office, and some buildings abutting or belonging to the VA Medical Center. The East 27th Street pedestrian promenade between Mount Carmel Place (just east of 2nd Avenue) and 1st Avenue is usually filled with down-and-out people who need all manner of assistance (shelter, food, addiction-recovery programs). You can probably picture the sights and smells without my having to describe them.
On Friday, July 9th, I was traipsing along in my usual morning fog, taking my son to his school-based camp, when it happened. I was jerked out of the ordinary by the sudden sight of tents and tables piled high with farm-fresh produce. The Harvest Home Bellevue Farmer’s Market had opened for business.
I stopped at the first table—nothing but blushing, bearded peaches, piled in high pyramids—and asked if this was a one-time gig. I didn’t dare hope that I could have the blessing of a greenmarket right behind my apartment, something this uplifting in an otherwise depressing “backyard.” But hope was vindicated, and it turns out that the greenmarket will continue on to November.
For the arrival of the market, thanks are due to the Bellevue Hospital Center and the Bellevue Community Advisory Board (CAB). In case you don’t know, CABs are part of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation—organized boards that serve to connect hospital facilities, patients and their families, and the hospital’s neighborhood community.
CAB meetings are open to the public, so if you live near a hospital, you might want to check this list to see if a board exists for your community. If the Bellevue CAB was able to bring a greenmarket to East 27th Street, who knows what good might be accomplished in other medical-center neighborhoods. Just imagine if everyone were liberated from the misery of the hospital cafeteria and vending-machine cycle—if families, doctors, and nurses throughout the city could cross the street for a bit of air and the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables: a bit of earth’s healing to enjoy and bring back to a room filled with machines. It could be a small dose of just the right medicine in many cases.
But back to those peaches.
I haven’t written much lately about my Southern American roots. The appearance of peaches at this greenmarket reminds me, though: my paternal grandparents, before crossing state lines into Alabama to raise their sons, were Georgians through and through. I don’t have to tell you that in Georgia, they know a thing or two about peaches. Well, it turns out they also know about peaches in West Virginia.
That first day at the Bellevue market, standing behind the aforementioned pyramid of peaches, I met Mark McDonald of Ashton Farms. Every Friday, Mark drives four hours from Berkeley County, West Virginia, up to New York City to do what I hope is turning out to be a brisk business at the market. Ashton Farms, a second-generation family-run farm, may not exactly be local to our city, but its produce is nonetheless seasonal, fresh, and truly superb. Worth every cent.
As my son and I stood frozen in our tracks, late for camp and awestruck, Mark invited us to sample the yellow peaches. They were ripe, incredibly juicy, stand-at-the-sink peaches that brought back memories of my grandmother’s kitchen. I could’ve eaten a bushel of them right then and there. My son, however, not so much. He likes his peaches baked in a pie. All right, I told him, it’ll be a fresh peach pie day, the first one I’d make this year. I promised Mark I’d be back and rushed off to camp.
There is something wonderful about baking a pie you never expected to make. A serendipitous pie full of the warmth of summer sun beating down on country orchards. Sweet without the sugar—or not so much of it. If my son had asked me for a pie the day before, I probably would have balked. It was a busy week, and the idea of another trip to the market or grocery for necessary ingredients, the heat in the kitchen, the time consumed . . . yes, I’m pretty sure I’d have deferred the pleasure until later. But somehow the act of walking through the greenmarket—the unexpectedness of it right there, on my way—convinced me immediately, like a stone-fruit muse, that I could find the time if I wanted to. And I desperately wanted to.
Eight peaches came home with me. I should have bought extra, just for snacking, because I needed all eight for the pie I decided to make (I was actually one short according to the recipe). I set a cutting board, paring knife, and a large bowl on the dining table and began to work away at the skins.
It had been a long time since I’d prepped peaches for a pie. The slicing, pitting, and peeling settled into a comfortable rhythm. I could have spent the whole afternoon that way, sticky juice trickling down my wrists, luxuriating in thoughts of family and farms, contemplating what it means to nurture growing things.
Have you ever had peaches so good that you’d eat the ragged scraps of eight of them? The Ashton Farms peaches were that good. I couldn’t bear to waste the tiniest sliver.
About an hour later, a vinegar pie crust having been rolled and filled, covered and vented with a star-shaped cutter, the pie was out of the oven. Hot and jammy, thickened juice oozing, it smelled lightly of spice but mostly just of quintessential peach. My urban kitchen took on the aroma I associate most with Southern hospitality, and I knew that this pie would demand sharing—once I tasted it to be sure of the quality, that is. (My only regret was being unable to share a slice, warm and à la mode, with my father, who was away in Tennessee.)
I filled some to-go containers with slices of pie: one for my son’s camp director, a couple I’d take with me to Connecticut later that afternoon for a visit with my mom, one set aside for my son to enjoy as an afternoon treat, and the rest for folks at the market, including Mark—they were his peaches, after all.
The vote was unanimous: this was the best peach pie any of us had tasted. I will share a link to the Fresh Peach Pie—this recipe is not my own, but comes from a charming book by Mollie Cox Bryan, called Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies (Ten Speed Press, 2009). The one thing I did differently was to cut the sugar in half, as the peaches were so spectacular on their own, it would’ve been a crime to mask their natural sweetness.
Of course the recipe is good, but I also want to stress that without great peaches, a peach pie can only ever be mediocre at best. This is one reason I couldn’t be happier about discovering Ashton Farms—indeed, the entire Bellevue Farmer’s Market—just down the road from me each week.
Though a small market, Bellevue is fast my favorite, and I plan to be there every week. Not only because of the quality of the produce or the friendliness of the farmers selling there, and not only because it’s steps away from where I live. Even if I only went there once, that first Friday of the market was the best (and tastiest) reminder that I can and should allow myself to experience the small, good changes as moments of expansive joy.
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A final note about the ripeness of peaches: the fruit I got at the market was already quite ripe. If you have peaches that are not yet ripe enough, you can try to coax them along by closing them up in a brown paper bag and leaving them on your kitchen counter for a day or so. This often works quite well. If your peaches still refuse to ripen, you might want to forget about a pie and take my friend and colleague Renee Schettler Rossi’s advice, making a lovely slaw instead.