It is always amazing to me how one bite can conjure a vivid memory. We all have these taste memories; specific flavors that, when we experience them, remind us of a time or a place or a person. Maybe it’s a hot dog that transports you to your first Little League game. Or the spicy whiff of gingerbread that takes you right back to a sledding-filled snow day. I have many of these taste-induced moments, but one of my favorites is the memory I associate with peaches and honey. I try to eat this combination as often as possible, like in the Honey Caramel Peach Pie I made for this month’s “American Idyll” menu. It’s delicious even without a great taste memory. But for you to imagine the way I experience it, I need to tell you a story.
My grandmother died when I was in my early teens. She was a full-time mother of seven children and, like many women of her time and calling, a consummate canner. Many years after she died, my grandfather’s pantry was still well stocked with the fruits of his garden, preserved by the fruits of her labor. Her jars of fruits and vegetables lasted so long not just because she was so prolific, but because of the increased sentimental value they gained after she was gone. The jars were rarely opened. They were too special.
At the time my food memory was forged, she had been gone for some years and I had been spending every summer with my grandfather, learning what he had to teach me about his beehives. But that’s not all I learned. I spent much of my youth chopping wood, planting and weeding gardens, and mowing lawns. I can mow a lawn with the best of them. My grandparent’s house sat on two pristinely mowed acres, mowed pristinely by me.
I mowed that lawn every week for years, but I actually only remember doing it once, in the breaking heat of July. As I finished the last steep bank, with my T-shirt sticking to my back and my face feeling crimson, the screen door to the kitchen swung open and my grandfather, Daniel, called me in for lunch. He had made me a sandwich of Lebanon bologna with iceberg lettuce on heavily buttered white bread. I was hungry, and it was good. I didn’t get white bread at home, and I remember liking the way it squished into gumminess as I chewed. The lettuce was cold and snapped under my bite. The bologna was sweet, and the butter was thick and summer-kitchen soft. I will always remember that sandwich, but it was the dessert that I never want to forget.
After I finished the sandwich, my grandfather handed me a bowl of peaches and said, “Mary made these.”
He always called her that, not Grandma, or Granny, but Mary. She had picked these peaches when they had been sun-kissed to perfection and preserved them in syrup made from Daniel’s honey. They tasted like the sun and the bees. They tasted like they’d been made by hands that had raised seven children. They tasted like summer and the sweetest parts of love and life and family.
I still don’t know why he chose that day to share the homegrown peaches with me. I could tell, even then, that it was special. I tried my best to make them last, but they were just too good. He offered me seconds, which I took. The fruit was so soft that it seemed to melt into me as I ate it, filling me with the love the old man had for the peaches. They meant so much to him. Now, 20-odd years later, I still feel the same way each time perfect peaches and honey hit my tongue. That love of summer, family, hard work, giving, cherishing, and sharing has been preserved in me. I am the jar.
Make this pie with local honey and the best peaches you can find. Close your eyes when you take the first bite. Feel those peaches melt into you.