Eating August's rewards

July 31, 1996|By ROB KASPER

IT IS EASY to be anti-August, the month that begins tomorrow.

August weather can be mercilessly hot and humid. There can be hurricanes. The bugs seem to get bigger in August. And the mood of the populace, if measured at 3 o'clock on an August afternoon, is likely to fall somewhere between somnolence and stultification.

Yet I come not to rip August but to praise it. It is a month of excess, when gardens groan with too much of everything. It is a time for food rituals, the malted milk at the roadside ice cream shop, the ripe tomato ravaged in the garden, the ears of sweet corn piled high at the table, and the bowl of fresh peaches swimming in cold cream.

Most of these rituals seem to end with rivulets of juice running down my chin, and pleasant memories being imprinted on my brain. I am so enamored of August that recently, in the waning days of July, I tried to jump the calendar and eat as if the joys of August had already begun.

First I went to the garden to pick tomatoes. I found a few ripe ones that looked like they might qualify as August tomatoes. A legitimate August tomato is a big fellow, as heavy as Maryland humidity, its juice almost as sweet as sugar.

On late summer evenings there is a pleasant ceremonial pause you take as you work in the tomato patch. You turn on the garden hose and with bursts of cold water, you cool off your neck and wash off a soft ripe tomato.

Then you eat it, right in the middle of the garden. Cool water is rolling down your neck, fresh tomato juice is running down your chin. It is a primal pleasure, an August kind of thing.

I tried to replicate the custom last weekend. I found a few ripe tomatoes in my garden. One was so ripe it was almost rotten. I turned the hose on myself and the tomato. I chomped away. Liquids dripped everywhere. It was a pleasant enough experience, but something was lacking.

What was missing was the sense of excess. I looked around me in the garden. Instead of a swelling sea of luscious, red tomatoes common in August, I saw mountains of hard green tomatoes. It wasn't prime tomato time quite yet.

A few days later I had better luck when I tried another ritual, stopping for a malted milk at a roadside ice cream store. I stopped at Bair's Market in Taneytown, a place with wooden floors, hand-dipped ice cream and a friendly country-store atmosphere. The malt, made with ice cream, whole milk and several tablespoons of malted milk powder, was cold, delicious, and nostalgically satisfying. The flavor reminded me of the malted milks of my youth.

The stop for ice cream at Bair's is a regular part of my annual drive from Baltimore to Emmitsburg, where I take my older son and his buddy to a basketball camp at Mount St. Mary's College. Each time I make the trip I make note of how things have changed in 12 months. This year I noticed that the growing boys, 15 and 14 years old, require much more leg room in the car than they did a year ago.

And I noticed that this year the corn fields I saw along Route 140 were gorgeous. They were verdant, as lush as an impressionist painting. The corn stalks were as tall and swaggering as a gym full of high school basketball stars.

I bought half a dozen ears of corn at Sewell's Produce truck parked in Taneytown. It was a corn called 75-W, a sweet white. I had two ears for supper. When I ate the first ear, I shook with pleasure. This was the best sweet corn I had eaten this summer.

The second ear had good flavor, but the rows of kernels were irregular and small, as if they had not enjoyed enough days basking in the sunshine. I consoled myself with the thought that in August, traditionally a hot and sunny month, the cobs will be fatter, the corn even better.

On my drive I also bought some peaches at Baugher's Market outside Westminster. I was thrilled to find white peaches, my favorite color of peach flesh. That night, at home, I took one of the peaches and a big napkin up to the family room. I put the recliner in the maximum pleasure position, put the napkin on my stomach and went to work on the peach.

The peach was juicy and appropriately soft. But the flavor was uneven. Some spots on the peach offered terrific tidal pools of sweetness. But other spots were bland, and mealy.

It was a good first peach, in other words, but it wasn't August.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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