Patti Bess: The new Victory Gardens
We are stardust
We are golden
We are billion year old carbon,
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
— Joni Mitchell
And COVID-19 sent many Americans back to their gardens. In April grocery shelves were empty and people had time on their hands. If this virus was going to be around for a while, folks all over the country decided to plant gardens. Last spring here in Nevada County and throughout the country, there were no flower or vegetable seeds to be found anywhere. The sale of tomato starts was more than 300% higher. Nurseries were seeing profits they hadn’t experienced in years.
It made sense, cents, and maybe one less trip to the grocery store. Not only did a garden put a little more food on the table, but it gave folks a way to be outdoors with their families and get some exercise. Gardens also have a way of harvesting a certain peace of mind in these troubled times. Americans were back in their gardens in droves, and CBS news called it the new Victory Garden movement.
Back in 1917 the U.S. government called on people to grow “war gardens” to free up food for soldiers fighting overseas in World War I. And by the 1940s, same idea, different name: the “Victory Garden.” Today maybe we’re planting gardens to win the war on the pandemic and keep ourselves mentally active.
Gardens go way back in my family history. Growing up in the Midwest, my parents had three peach trees in our side yard. My sisters and I looked forward to canning day with great anticipation. Early in the morning my father would pick and stack boxes of peaches on the back porch. I can still close my eyes and smell those peaches warming in the summer heat. Then, just as my Irish grandmother pulled up in her “57” Chevy, my dad disappeared into the bowels of his garage. Only the scent of cigar smoke would give away his location for the next three hours.
My sisters and I hid under the dinette table to watch as my mother and grandmother washed and sliced, simmered their sugar syrup, and filled their jars. We adored my grandmother — she was ornery and often let us get away with a forbidden activity or slipped us extra treats. Our mother, always serious and conscientious about her work, would scowl at her own mother when grandma let a swear word slip. Then my sisters and I dissolved into giggles until we were finally sent outside. The day always ended with a “peachy” treat.
That memory brings me to my own garden. The Gardener’s Bill of Rights permits bragging here. We have a few tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash each year, but it is the peach tree I treasure the most. There is just nothing comparable to picking the first peach from your own back yard. There’s a vibrancy, a vitality, a something that’s hard to put into words that comes when something was harvested just moments ago. I look forward to eating the first peach every year, and set aside time to savor it until the juices run down my chin. Life just doesn’t get much better than that.
I should add a note here that growing peach trees is a little complicated in Nevada County. With the weather changes in the last few years, we often get more late spring freezes just as the trees are covered in delicate blossoms. My husband and I have been lucky because we do not live in a cold valley. Our property is at the 3,000 foot level on a south facing slope. Most years, we don’t get as hard of freezes as other people who live at lower elevations.
Our Farmers’ Markets are loaded with peaches and other summer fruit this time of year. Blackberries in this recipe are a delicious option but definitely not required. Just add more peaches if you choose. Enjoy!
Peach and Blackberry Upside-Down Cake
Five tablespoons butter, divided
One third cup brown sugar
Two tablespoons orange or lemon juice
Five large peaches
Three handfuls of washed blackberries (optional)
One cup whole wheat pastry flour
One and a quarter teaspoons baking powder
One quarter teaspoon salt
One egg plus 2 egg whites
One third cup sugar
Melt three tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan. In a 9 or 10—inch ovenproof skillet or glass baking dish, add the butter and brown sugar; stir until the sugar dissolves to form a syrup. Remove and set aside.
Thickly slice the peaches and blackberries and pack them across the melted butter/sugar mixture in the pan. Set aside.
In a medium-size bowl, add the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
Separate the eggs, breaking the whites into a large bowl and one yolk in a small bowl. Melt the remaining tablespoon of butter in a small skillet and allow to cool for a couple minutes. Add the butter and orange/lemon juice to the egg yolk. Whisk to combine.
Beat the egg whites with an electric beater or a whisk until they form firm peaks. Do not overbeat. Fold the remaining sugar into the egg whites, small amount at a time. Fold in the egg yolk mixture; then fold into the flour.
Pour the batter over the peaches and spread with a spatula to cover. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean—about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove and let stand at least ten minutes before unmolding.
To unmold, run a knife around the edges of the cake, then place a large plate over the top of the pan. Hold the plate and the baking pan tightly together and flip them over so that the baking pan is on top. The cake will fall onto the plate. Serve warm.
Patti Bess is a cookbook author and freelance writer who lives in Grass Valley. Over the years her writing and recipe development has appeared in more than 25 magazines.
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