summer’s slumps

oh, not to worry. our session here today is not one in which i recline, spread out, upon a couch, regale you with a long and sorry tale of summer woes.

there shall be no tears today.

mais, non. this here’s an upright exhortation. we’re gathered near the stove, my friends. pulling up our cooking stools to peer into that deep dark pot, the one gurgling on my ancient burner, the one where the flame comes, depending on the day and temperament, in fits and starts and sputters.

the slump of which i type, the one for which my tummy frankly growls is not one of climatological dippings, nor a moody one either. not a pinch of depression to it, only baking soda, and corn starch, and cardamom just ground.
it all started in the name of my day job, you know the one where newsprint stains my cuffs, as i run and gather all the news, lay it out in tidy columns, toil in vain to keep the world supplied with fishwrap.

in one of life’s ironic wrinkles, i–me, the girl who loves her broccoli steamed sans fat in any form, who downs her popcorn by the bowl not the handful, who doesn’t know a hamhock from a rutabaga (they do look as if they might be distant cousins, do they not, what with all the lumps and bumps and discolorations?)–yes, i, am now among the scribes who write the cooking stories.

oh my.

(pause here for gulping, all of you who know me well enough to gulp in unison.)

i suppose the thinking goes that in a life’s work where you might be parachuted into, say, tehran, and expected to get to the bottom of the troubles there, well then why not point a simple kitchen waif like me in the direction of the cookstove and expect that, somehow, i will find my way back to where the sun shines.

and besides, i’ve always dreamed of being a big bosomed mama who wears her apron well.

and so it is i came to stumble on the slump.

a slump, one of my cookery books tells me, (and this is alan davidson we are quoting here, he who penned “the penguin companion to food” (the paperback edition of “the oxford companion to food”), a tome i have because a cooking friend labeled it indispensable and i’ll not dispense with the indispensable) is–are you ready?–well, then:

“a culinary term immortalized by louisa may alcott [be still our hearts here], author of little women, who gave to her home in concord, massachusetts, the name Apple Slump and recorded a recipe for the dish. this is a dish of cooked fruit with pieces of raised dough dropped on top, the whole being then further cooked. the reason for the name is thought to be that the preparation has no recognizable form and ‘slumps’ on the plate. it is served with cream. for related items, see pandowdy, cobbler.”

no recognizable form? no wonder it’s my culinary wonder.

inspired by miss louisa may, then, i set upon my slumping.

page 66 was the place to which i turned, for my assignment of the day, to test-drive a hot-off-the-presses cookbook, make sure it had no lumps, not even for a fool like me (bibliographic details down below, we’re slumping now and shan’t be stalled).

“stone fruit slump,” the crisp page promised. and so–tickled mostly by the name, i tell you–i inhaled deeply and tilted toward that slump.

oh, if only i’d had an orchard.

alas, i plucked my stone fruits at the grocery store. peaches, fuzzy, garnet red, the way the produce man, from way down south, once taught me how to pick ’em.

the darker, the sweeter, he told me in his mississippi patois.

made my mind wander, that produce whisper did, consider whether the deep dark cloaking of the sweetest peaches means they’re hiding from the bees and birds, trying to make like they’re just peach-tree leaves. not bright yellow orbs, streaked with sunset orange and red, shouting, come get me, i’m yours.

oh, never mind my brain that dillies and dallies on the road to anywhere. back to slumping.

once home, once those fruits were sweet enough to smell when waltzing by, i set to slicing, and then the kitchen alchemy.

the whole experiment, i tell you, was one of mixing potions, and giving way to courage. and isn’t that, after all, the pulsing heart of all true cooking?

i was working from a book, “rustic fruit desserts,” by cory schreiber and julie richardson, two pastry chefs who know their way around the baking nook, and the farmer’s market, too.

cory, the book jacket tells me, is a james beard award winner–best chef, pacific northwest. he opened wildwood restaurant in portland, oregon, back in the late 1990s, and now teaches cooking up where it rains and rains.

julie, it seems, has a small-batch bakery up that way, too, called Baker & Spice, where the line twines out the door, rain or shine, with folks queued up for her pastries, pies, pandowdies, crisps, cobblers, crumbles. and slumps, of course.

julie’s first sentence in the book is this: “i am not a fussy baker,” and thus our undying kinship was begun, hers and mine. from there on in, whatever julie told me, i was with her, bosom to bosom.

she told me to do this with my sliced and juicy crimson peaches: “rub the sugar, cornstarch and salt together in a small bowl, then add to the fruit and gently toss to coat.”

now i’ve never done this rubbing thing, but julie said so. and so i rubbed.

the magic started shortly thereafter. instead of simply juice and peach parts, i had thick-and-syrupy juicy peaches. on its way toward stew, i tell you. but not all sloshy and misshapen. don’t picture peach mush in my pot. why, i had picture-perfect peaches bobbing in some shiny semi-liquids.

not long after (the peaches and their rub sat for 15 minutes, surrendering their succulence, then i simmered the whole lot for a mere two minutes), i began the best passage of all: i was on my way to louisa’s dumplings. soft and doughy pillows, yes, that under lidded steam just rose and rose. and rose some more.

but that’s missing a step or four, so i’ll retrace my way: i whisked my flours (ubiquitous all-purpose and refined cake); sugar; those baking twins, powder & soda; salt, cinnamon, and freshly-ground cardamom (the magic bullet, there it is). next came butter, cold and cut to pea-sized pearls. buttermilk was poured, and all of it mixed till moistened through and through.

atop the swimming peaches in their syrup pond, i plopped eight rounds blobs of future dumplings. i cranked my reluctant flames, just enough mind you, and put on the lid.

i stood in wonder, yes i did, as the kitchen elves took over and, so help me, sprinkled magic powder.

with not a whisper nor a flicker of my finger, that dough did rise, accompanied by the song of peaches simmering and swimming down below the dumplings’ bloating bellies.

given the feeble constitution of my flames, it took me nearly twice the time that julie promised. but two-thirds of an hour later, i was lifting the lid, poking in a toothpick, and declaring this a miracle of unheralded proportion.

i had slumped, by golly.

and so can you. for what finer pursuit might a slow summer’s afternoon bring upon us, than reason to slice, to simmer, and in the end, to slump.

there is, i’d say, a satisfaction deep and lasting in the art of turning store fruits into a pot that’s sweet and risen somehow.

i think i’ve grasped an inkling of why it is some folk can’t keep away from what the kitchen brings: it’s a chamber, isn’t it, for those who’ve not outgrown–never will, really–the lo-and-behold prestidigitation of that chemistry set that once astounded you.

you make solids out of liquids and liquids out of solids. you follow along, just like the teacher tells you, and in the end, you’ve something wholly charmed to carry to the hungry hearts of those you love the very most.

that’s what i discovered cooking in my summer kitchen.

i promise to put up the whole recipe, start to finish. but now i’ve got to run. today’s meander is nothing deeper than the 5-quart cookpot that beheld my slump. but that’s what summer’s for, isn’t it? some days are purely for delight. and that’s what the slump was all about. what delights have you discovered in your summer kitchen?
do tell….
oh, p.s. i had a little tale in the chicago tribune this week, one of those pull-up-a-chair sorts of pieces. only now i can’t pull meanders from here to run there, so i had to write it on a workday. it’s about a sparrow that sang outside our bedroom window. only the fellow i sleep beside didn’t think much of that ol’ morning song. if you’d like to take a peek, click
here, the only way i can share those stories now.