Late-summer crops are always full of memories. Perhaps because I spent so much of my childhood summers in Louisiana with my grandparents, or perhaps just because summer cooking took over my grandmother’s life and filled her house with the steamy scents of roasting okra and frying catfish. Summer afternoons were spent among endless jars of pickled okra, cool, crisp watermelon, juicy, ripe tomatoes, and peach preserves. These are the taste memories that are strongest for me, and summer is the time I most often remember that I am a Southern girl, one who grew up on the sandy soil of Southwest Louisiana.
Not long ago, I discovered the lush and deeply evocative writing of Edna Lewis. Her classic, The Taste of Country Cooking, is a gorgeously written history (in the guise of a cookbook) of a vanished time and place. Lewis, the granddaughter of freed slaves who went on to become a hugely successful New York city chef, recounts growing up in Freetown, Virginia—a place and time captured for us in the gorgeous prose and dreamy amber of her memory. Her recipes and stories are divided into seasons, and she recounts the joys of the first asparagus in spring—the taste must have been so alive, so green after months of winter when the ground yielded nothing fresh to eat. She talks about catching shad—fish that came from the ocean to the inland waterways to spawn in the spring. That was the only fish they ever had, and it only appeared in the spring. It was such a treat that it was served for breakfast. Summer brought watermelon cooled in the spring, and hand-churned ice cream. Fall brought earthy root vegetables and game, while winter meant long evenings near the fire and long-simmered holiday dinners. Each season had its rhythms, its joys, its celebrations, and its inevitable losses as one season waned to make room for the joys of another, the pain of loss forever salved by the glorious recompense of nature.
I Read Edna Lewis and remember that, for all its miserable heat, summer is a season to be celebrated too. As enchanted as I often am with the cuisines and dishes of far-off places (and even though this week’s recipe borrows heavily from those far-off places), and while many writers assert that the United States has no food traditions or culture of its own, I am truly grateful to Miss Lewis for reminding me that I am from a place that has deep roots and taste memories, a place I am forever glad to call home.
Melon & Cucumber Salad with Crispy Shallots, Peanuts and Thai Vinaigrette
Shamelessly adapted from Olivia Restaurant
3 c. large chunks red watermelon
3 c. large chunks ripe canteloupe
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and sliced
2 large shallots, cut into thin rings and fried til crisp
1/4 c. roasted peanuts, chopped
1/4 c. fresh mint, chopped
1/4 c. thai basil, chopped
1/4 c. thai fish sauce
juice of 1 lime
pinch red pepper flakes
2-4 tsp. sugar, to taste
Combine fish sauce, lime, pepper flakes and sugar. Whisk until sugar is dissolved. Taste and adjust flavors as desired. Combine melon chunks, cucumber, and herbs, add vinaigrette and toss to coat. Place in serving bowl or on platter and top with peanuts and crispy shallots. Garnish with additional herbs if desired.