Over the 4th of July weekend, I traveled from Boston to western New York to see my uncle and many of my cousins. I’d been there before but couldn’t recall the route from memory, so I quickly printed the directions from a website, never thinking that there could be two different ways to get there when one route is so obviously superior. I hopped into my car and set off.
About an hour after I passed a turn-off for Albany, I thought to myself, “These rolling hills and grazing cows look different.” Then I told myself that I was being absurd and that there was no way that a city mouse like myself could tell one set of rolling hills and grazing cows from another, but in fact I was right. These weren’t my beautiful rolling hills, these weren’t my beautiful grazing cows. My inner GPS told me that I was on a much more southerly route, and my choice of CD, the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Way Round,” suddenly seemed painfully apt.
Soon I came to a sign that read “Entering the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.” I was stunned. I thought that I had a pretty good handle on the bodies of water in New York and Pennsylvania, having lived in and studied both areas. I’ve even schlepped all over godforsaken portions of Pennsylvania for three long days and nights looking for fossils and various forms of schist as part of my Bryn Mawr Geology 101 class’s infamous Geo Field Trip (why aren’t there bumperstickers that say “schist happens?”), but I had no idea that the Susquehanna River had its headwaters in New York state. It was a stark reminder that everything is interconnected and that there is no such place as “away.”
Indeed, this area had been badly flooded just a few weeks earlier and there were still cornfields that looked like rice paddies. Part of Route 88 was closed because it had buckled. I took a detour through a small town, the very last town in America without a Starbucks, before being routed onto the highway again.
Pretty soon I was pulling into my cousins’ hometown, and as I rounded the corner I saw a front porch stuffed to the rafters with dozens and dozens of relatives. They were taking a family photo. They waved to me to join in, and as we stood there on the porch all the cars that passed by honked their horns. It made the act of taking a family photo suddenly seem like performance art.
We reacquainted ourselves, ate hot dogs and hamburgers, sang happy birthday to a set of twins, admired a new puppy, and generally lolled about licking various forms of ketchup and BBQ sauce off of our fingers for hours. Afternoon turned to evening, evening turned to night, and night found several of us sitting outside around a fire (an intentional, contained, well-monitored fire) swapping family stories.
The next morning several of us had breakfast at a local diner where I witnessed one of the oddest yet most practical behaviors I have ever seen. We have all reached an age at which our eyesight is declining rapidly, so one person held a menu up across the table so that the person on the other side could read it, his arms not being long enough to hold it sufficiently far from his eyes. It looked nutty but worked perfectly. If you don’t mind making a spectacle of yourself (no pun intended), I recommend this technique whole-heartedly.
Later I visited my uncle and he and I went over some old Civil War era family photo albums. Our family is Irish Catholic, so in amongst the photos were religious cards depicting Jesus and Mary. My uncle and I had fun asking our other relatives, “Hey! Do you recognize this fellow?” and then turning the page to reveal a picture of the crucifixion. There were also photos of Civil War celebrities that one could buy at the time. These were slipped into photograph albums cheek by jowl with pictures of the family, so the order went something like aunt, uncle, Jesus, aunt, Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Mary, Booth, aunt, uncle, Jesus again, aunt. There was even a photo labeled “Mrs. General Grant.”
My uncle and I talked about his parents and what it was like growing up with his four brothers. They lived in a small town in upstate New York and raised some of their own food, as many families did. They had a large garden and a cow and a chicken coop. (My father always told me when I was growing up that I wasn’t allowed to use the word “shit” until I had cleaned a chicken coop, which was one of his jobs.) My grandmother, who grew up in Baltimore, left school at an early age to support her family and consequently she had never learned to cook, so when she married my grandfather, a widower with four young boys (my father soon came along, he was boy No. 5), she learned how to cook from her bed-ridden and blind mother-in-law who would call out directions to her. Over time my grandmother turned into a pretty good cook. I have some of her recipes for maple mousse and maple parfait, and my uncle said that she made a great lemon cake as well.
When I was growing up my dad and I used to make my grandmother’s lemon ice cream every once in a while. I have modified the recipe somewhat, and invented a warm blackberry sauce to go over the ice cream, creating creamy, warm, bruise-colored lemon puddles.
If lemon ice cream doesn’t sound appealing to you right off the bat, try it anyway. The fresh, bright flavor of the lemon contrasted with the luxurious, creamy texture of the cream is really something to behold. (Or betaste?)
As I drove back home I thought about how odd it was that my grandmother’s life would have taken her from the shores of the Chesapeake to the New York headwaters of the Susquehanna. Everything really is interconnected.
Lemon Ice Cream with Warm Blackberry Sauce
I changed this recipe a bit from my grandmother’s original version. I lowered the amount of fresh lemon juice and added some natural lemon extract. (You can get natural and/or organic lemon extract at most natural foods stores.) The extract has strong lemony flavor, but without the sharp, sour taste of the juice from the lemons.
I’ve always made this in a hand-crank machine, not because I am some maniacal kind of purist, but because that’s what I happen to have. The only (out of season) advice I can give to people who want to hand crank their ice cream is to buy enough rock salt in the winter when it’s easily available to last the entire year. You can buy it on the web, but then you have to wait for it to be delivered, so it’s nice to have some set aside.
Lemon Ice Cream
1 qt. milk
1 qt. cream
juice of 2 lemons, strained
juice of 2 oranges, strained
5 cups sugar
1 tsp. best quality natural vanilla extract
1 tsp. best quality natural lemon extract
Combine ingredients in a bowl and chill. Follow ice cream maker manufacturer’s directions for churning. Makes approximately one gallon (16 one-cup servings).
(Also fabulous on pancakes and biscuits!)
1 and 1/2 cups blackberries (a 10 oz bag of frozen blackberries is fine)
3/4 cup sugar or more to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 tsp. best quality natural vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Combine berries, sugar, and lemon juice and heat in a pot on the stove or in a microwave-safe covered bowl in the microwave until the berries are soft and mushy and they have given off a lot of juice. (Four to five minutes on high power in the microwave if using frozen berries.) Stir in vanilla extract and cinnamon. Taste and add more sugar if you like. Force berry mixture through a fine sieve. If you want a smoother sauce, put it through the blender before straining it through the sieve. Makes approximately 1 and 1/2 cups. Serve warm.