Ahh, September: It's the best month in Maryland to be a happy eater

August 27, 2008|By rob.kasper | rob.kasper,rob.kasper@baltsun.com

What is the best month to chow down in Maryland?

I have spent too much time thinking about this question.

Lately, for example, while folks with bigger brains have been busy analyzing the nation's economy or deciphering our relationship with Russia, I have been worrying about what is happening with the local peach crop.

I am happy to report the peach crop will linger into September. The likelihood of having peach juice running down my chin next month is just one reason I concluded September was our best eating month. Lucky for us, it starts in a few days.

I considered other months. November, home of the luxuriant Thanksgiving repast with its roasted fowl, fat oysters and unending pies, mounted an impressive case for itself. But it also harbors the hated brussels sprouts.

May also was in contention. Soft crabs, one of the world's most delectable foods, usually show up in May, as do some local strawberries. The fact that May is the month of the mint julep helped its cause considerably. But the soft crabs and berries have an annoying tendency to be late. Some years they don't arrive until June. Nobody likes to keep waiting, especially for dinner.

September, by contrast, is consistent and bountiful. Its produce also has the best nicknames. The Maryland culinary trinity of sweet corn, peaches and cantaloupes or "lopes" is still around in September. So are the "maters," also known as tomatoes.

This year the local tomato crop, which normally casts its allegiance with August, has switched months, and will arrive hot and heavy in September.

Greg Flynn, an accomplished backyard tomato grower from Damascus, assured me that next month will be exceptionally bountiful. I spoke with him recently at the Mid-Atlantic Gardeners' Tomato Appreciation Gathering held in Baltimore County's Southwest Area Park. Usually this casual mid-August gathering of fans of the "love apple" draws about 80 different types of tomatoes in a competition for best-tasting tomato. This August it drew a mere 50. "This year we had a cool spring and everybody's tomatoes were late," said Cecilia Strakna, co-host of the event. Flynn, who won this year's taste competition with a Black Cherry tomato and snagged the award for largest tomato - a 31.7-ounce pink beefsteak called Emily - predicted that the tomato crop will arrive, with a vengeance, starting next week.

Another plus for September is that it is the month that marks the beginning of the serious apple harvest.

I know August does produce a few apples. On a recent Sunday at Baltimore Farmers' Market, Kathy Reid gave me a slice of Summer Sweet, an August apple grown on her family's orchard. It was a fine early apple, but nothing like the Honeycrisp, a September apple that packs an amazing mixture of sweetness and acid tang.

Besides abundant crops, September has other factors working in its favor. One would be the weather. September is cooler and therefore more baking-friendly than summer months. The average high temperature for September is 78.2 degrees, a level much more conducive to turning on the oven and baking a pie than the 87-degree average high of July.

On the beverage front, September is the host month for the most joyful beer celebration of the year, the poorly named Oktoberfest. Moreover, red wine always tastes better to me in September, perhaps because it is the month that many varieties of grapes are harvested.

My final reason September is the best eating month concerns steamed blue crabs.

They are heavier in September than in midsummer months. "In the fall, they are finished shedding and they fatten up as they get close to winter," Shawn Hartman, a former waterman and now proprietor of The Salty Dog, a seafood carryout in Dundalk, told me. "As the water cools, the crabs taste better," he added. Hartman said when customers wanting to plan a crab feast call him, he tries to steer them toward September.

Demand for steamed crabs drops slightly after Labor Day, in part because some households get "crabbed out," that is, grow tired of eating them. I have noticed prices often drop in September.

So in September, the crabs are heavy, the vegetables are abundant, the fruit is ripe, the oven is baking pie, and the beer is cold. I rest my case and head for the supper table.

Look for Rob Kasper's column Wednesdays in You.

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