Week by week, the various summer crops are showing up at my local supermarket. I didn't grow up on a farm, but I always get a twinge of nostalgia around late July when the apricot harvest comes in. I remember spending some of the hottest afternoons of my childhood perched precariously on a ladder in the backyard, filling bucket after bucket with the bounty of my family's apricot tree. The best specimens were twice the size of golf balls, soft and juicy, effortlessly transformed into the makings of a meal when sliced in half and served on a bed of lettuce leaves with a dollop of cottage cheese.
The irony of this is that I never liked fresh fruit as a child. Apples and bananas were acceptable, but I preferred canned pears in heavy syrup, capped off with a tasty pair of Hostess Twinkies. Friends are astonished that my parents didn't enforce more rigorous dietary standards, but being the youngest child gave me some culinary flexibility.
I did, however, consume significant quantities of apricots in the form of homemade jam. During harvest time, the kitchen became a chaotic production area crowded with bags of sugar, boxes of paraffin, and cauldrons of boiling water for sterilizing jars. Despite my mother's best efforts, there was always plenty of fruit that could not be consumed within the household. Relatives and neighbors took some of the excess, but a significant portion of the crop inevitably ripened, fell to the ground, and decomposed during the dog days of August. Overproduction is the Achilles heel of every orchardist, large or small.
Our apricot tree seemed indestructible. One spring, the weight of all the new buds caused the trunk to split neatly down the middle. My mother looked out a window and yelled in dismay when she saw half of her favorite apricot supplier lying on the ground. Amazingly, my dad was able to lift the fallen section back in place, wire the pieces together, and save the crop.
The property I now own has a thriving plant population. Except for the basil, none of it is edible, which makes me vaguely uneasy. Every citizen should aspire to some level of self-sufficiency, no matter how inadequate it may be. A supply of homegrown food might conceivably tip the scales of survival in my favor if some natural or economic disaster strikes without warning. Pesto does not cut it.
What to raise is not a simple decision. For such a long-term commitment, the product must be guaranteed to bring enjoyment with every mouthful for years to come. When I think about all the great agricultural advancements made during the past 50 years, I wonder why no one has come up with a way to make Twinkies grow on trees.
* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, grows basil in Portland, Ore.