It was the strangest thing.
We were driving along, deep in Nowhere, Ohio, somewhere due South of Circleville (home of The Nation's Biggest Festival Dedicated to the Pumpkin!). It was the early days of my mom's visit—she arrived just days after Maine, spent ten glorious days, and is now Seattle-side, again, which means, I suppose, that it's been awhile; hello!—and we were headed toward Hocking Hills. She'd never seen them. This was a shame.
Normally, Hocking Hills are a must-see for anyone spending a few days in the area. They are eerie and jewelled and awesome in that Percy Byshe Shelley, Mont Blanc sort of way. Massive rocks. Epic overhangs. Immense scale. Mushrooms and moss. It's a worthy daytrip. We take most visitors. Unless, of course, they come in December. Somehow, awesome just isn't all that when there's ice on the cliffs and the temps are sub-freezing.
Normally, Mamo comes for Christmas. This year, she braved Columbus in July. What a mother won't do for her child.
In return, we seized the opportunity to show her Ohio's summer side. Parks. Jeni's. Geologic gems. Air-conditioned interiors. Lots and lots of air-conditioned interiors. The car, foremost among them.
Which is how we found ourselves en route to the Hills, toodling along, when all at once, the pickup ahead of us drove through the most dazzling mudpuddle. Truly dazzling. To judge by the splash, the puddle was immense, light catching the spray in ten thousand-plus places. I watched, just a little mesmerized, the glitter. Like diamonds, I thought. Some puddle, I thought. So strange, I thought.
It's not even raining.
Hasn't rained in hours, come to think of it.
How does a puddle ...?
Why, all the sparkle...?
And what's up with that table mirage?
(This would be where my thoughts sloooow dowwwwn, and taffy-like, s-t-r-e-t-c-h o-u-t, as I try to make some scant sense of the strange. When in fact, timeandspacearehurtlinglikethis. Key finding: all that glitters is not water.)
Sometimes, you get lucky.
Following distance is just ample enough. Response mechanism finally kicks in. Brakes are adequately alert. The pickup driver does not slow down, does not actually so much as notice, that the unsecured, full-size, seats 6-8, iron-framed glass-topped patio table in his bed has just completed lift-off. And touchdown. At 60 m.p.h. And landed, rather spectacularly, all over the road. All's well that ends well.
A life, of course, is nothing but near misses, some known, most un-, until eventually, the near disappears, and a period appears in its place, end of sentence. There have been others. I hope for many more. Nevertheless, I stink at epiphanies. As we cleared the scene, I thought, of course, of The Summer Day, and Otherwise, and marvelled over the wild ways a heartbeat can swing, and the audiobook bit I'd missed in the excitement, and whether I'd packed sunscreen, and if we should have lunch before our hike, or after, and where. The tiny mundanes. The big questions. The usual.
And so, the subsequent days.
I pause, pleased we caught the last of the snap peas. The first of the green beans. The flood of the cucumbers. I cheer on the almost-there tomatoes, which shot up six feet, while we were in Maine. Curse the dandelions and purslane and clover, which enthusiastically did the same.
I play back that May day I indulgently spent good money on zinnias. Dollars, several, to buy starts. Because my attempts to self-seed have failed, three years running. Because I've actively missed their merry, each year. So frivolous, I thought all June. So wise, I've since decided.
I read aloud morning, noon and night, to laugh together, to share the same story. I bemoan messes morning, noon and night, because they're omnipresent, because we share the same space. Chop wood, carry water, weed the beds, read the books. Eat dessert first. Business as usual, flying table or no.
We make crisps all year long. They're like the polar fleece of desserts, not too heavy, not too light, somehow always right. In Spring, it's rhubarb and raspberries. In Fall, apple. In Summer, anything. A crisp is good like that, easygoing, ecumenical.
Mostly, I make crisp by feel, adjusting sugar and toppings to taste, to suit the fruit, to match the amounts. I've relied on this ample, excellent crumb for years. I cannot remember the last time I measured.
But several times this summer, now, I've made an altogether different crisp, and I think I'm officially smitten. The topping hails from the inimitable Catherine Newman, who trotted it out over strawberries in June. The bulk of the thing is all nuts and oats, well-buttered, nicely-sugared, gluten-free, f.y.i. I've taken liberties with Catherine's original, because I am a) lazy, and b) greedy. The result is a quick blitz of nuts and oats into a fine, toasty meal, with butter and sugar and spice worked in after, and whole oats added at the end, for tooth. Lots of all of it. See (b), above. Take note. The topping's a keeper.
But I'm here as much to talk up the insides, which began on a whim, and wound up an addiction. I had an excess of fresh apricots, and handfuls of fresh blueberries, and a hankering for dessert, and so, the first time, tossed them together in the pan, fruit and hunger, fingers crossed. In went a whisper of cornstarch for thickening, a guess of sugar, a huge tip of cardamom, all under a blanket of Catherine's crisp. I burned that first batch terribly. I ate it all, still. Because—and how did I not know this already?—blueberries and apricots, baked until bubbly, do amazing things.
The apricots work this great bait and switch, posing as intact vivid islands, which melt at so much as the mention of spoon. Meanwhile, the blueberries go molten and jammy, merging into one outrageous magenta sea. The frank sweet of the berries foils the apricots' pucker, and vice versa, and then add the crisp, also laced with cardamom, and light and nutty and laden with crunch and all told, well. It's quite a trifecta. Quite a quartet, once whipped cream's figured in.
As is the way with summer, and life, experiment, play, observe, devour. Leave half the nuts merely chopped, in the topping, or all the oats whole; neither; both. All are good. Swap out nutmeg for cardamom. Substitute raspberries. Try peaches. Report back.
There is, of course, the school that suggests had we only stayed home, we'd have missed the table's flightpath. Correct, strictly speaking, but so terribly circumscribed, so cautious. "I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.” (Oliver, again.) The old crisp was, and is, wonderful. But however can you get lucky, if you don't first go forth?
Apricot Blueberry Cardamom Crisp (gluten free)
adapted from the lovely Catherine Newman
Adjust the fruit ratios to suit: more blueberries, fewer apricots; peaches plus plums; all stone fruits; all berries; you get the picture. Roughly 4-5 cups of fruit overall, with everything else, TBD. Similarly, when preparing the crisp, half the nuts can be set aside and hand chopped, then added with the whole oats for added tooth. Cardamom and I are old, fast friends; I use the higher quantity, in both departments. Your call.
for the fruit:
10 fresh apricots, halved
1 1/2 cups blueberries
1 Tbs cornstarch + 1 Tbs water
1-2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
for the topping:
1 1/2 cups oats, divided (gluten free, if desired)
1 cup pecans or walnuts
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1-2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup cold, salted butter, sliced
freshly whipped cream or ice cream, to top
Preheat oven to 350°.
Prepare filling directly in your baking pan: In a medium pan (mine is, oddly, 7 x 10"; a large cast-iron skillet, or 8"x8" square, would all work nicely), scatter your apricots and blueberries. In a small bowl, stir cornstarch and water into a slurry, then pour over the fruit. Sprinkle brown sugar and cardamom over all, and with clean hands, toss everything together gently, just to combine.
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, pour 3/4 cup oats, nuts, cardamom, and salt, and grind to gritty. Add sliced butter, and pulse 10-12 times, or until just coming together. Empty topping into a medium bowl, add remaining 3/4 cup oats, and work them in briefly with fingers, until just combined. Pinch small handfuls and scatter, clump-ishly, over fruit.
Bake in a preheated 350° oven 30-40 minutes, or until filling is bubbling, kitchen boozy with fruit, and topping golden and crisp. Remove, and allow to cool at least 15 minutes. Eat warm, with freshly whipped cream or ice cream, alongside.