Summer's Cornucopia

July 16, 1993

You don't have to look at the thermometer to know that we've been in the midst of a heat wave. The fruits and vegetables at the numerous local farmers' markets are dead giveaways that temperatures have been hot and will stay that way for many weeks.

Gone from the produce stands along the roadside are the bunches of asparagus, spinach and lettuce -- plants that flourish in the cool temperatures of late spring. Those tender sprouts that pop out of the ground are much too fragile to take the bright, searing heat of mid-July.

Memories are also all that remain of large, lush strawberries and sweet black raspberries that burst forth about the time the community pools open and you are forced to turn on the air conditioning to cool down the house and remove some of the bothersome humidity.

A mere two weeks ago, stands in the markets were full of plastic baskets overflowing with succulent fresh cherries. Now the cherries are looking dried and past their prime. They have made way for blueberries, red raspberries and cantaloupes that push their way onto our plates as the sun begins its descent from the heights of the summer solstice.

When the skies are heavy with haze and heat waves shimmer off the roads, tomatoes -- those flashy and sensuous members of the berry family that masquerade as vegetables -- make their first appearances. The compact early varieties, with their firm flesh, sit primly in their green cardboard containers. In a few weeks their ruddy, overweight cousins with the burly names -- Big Boy, Bigger Boy and Beefsteak -- will be piled up in disorganized mounds.

Corn -- tomatoes' summer consort -- is starting to reach its peak in volume and sweetness in Maryland. Piles of freshly harvested ears laden with juicy white kernels indicate the Independence Day celebrations are over for another year. Every stand now offers bushel baskets of just-picked green beans, mounds of summer squash and zucchini and plenty of long, firm cucumbers. If you stand close enough to the early white peaches, with their delicately rouged cheeks, you can inhale their delicious aroma.

The produce at the market may not tell us the precise temperature in degrees, but our eyes, noses and taste buds tell us the air is hot and humid and we have weeks to go before we can bite into the crisp apples of fall.

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