The Joys of July

As a young school aged child, I didn’t bother much with a calendar. That was left to the grownups in my life. Months for me were merely punctuated by one main event, for example: Santa came in December, school started in September, and my birthday was in June. But there was one month, July, that was peppered with exciting events. By July 4th, sweet corn on the cob lathered with creamy butter was in season, and fireworks would be enjoyed from Cousin Louise’s dock with root beer in hand. Mid-July I would be picking yellow crookneck squash from the garden, which my mother cooked with butter and onions – delightful. Late July would bring a flood of tomatoes and the first of our ambrosia cantaloupes. The very end of July would mean it was time to attend the annual Parson’s family reunion where we would feast on steamed crabs, fried chicken, fresh corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, and Miss Louise’s onion sandwiches. All the little cousins like me would go hunting for bubble gum in Mrs. McCord’s back lawn by the pine trees, eat her grapes off the vine, swim in her pool and pluck tart choke cherries off the trees.

Lookin’ for fish in the Tred Avon, July 1972.

It wouldn’t be July if I didn’t catch crabs off my cousin’s dock, bring them home for mother to cook and accidentally drop them on the kitchen floor. Always barefooted, a shuffle and a scream were part of the experience. After steaming the blue crabs in vinegar and Old Bay, they were dumped onto a newspaper coated picnic table and the search would begin for the perfect crab. I soon learned that wasn’t necessarily the largest crab, but the heaviest one, and the sooks were always sweeter. Many July afternoons were spent fishing or swimming – if we were lucky, rain would keep the jellyfish away. When the hardheads came up the river, the Bellevue dock was just a ferry or Jon boat ride away. The croaking sounds they made when we hooked them were sounds of success, they were sounds of summer.

Garden produce would bleed into August, but the firsts of the summer garden happen in July. Subsequently, to me, July felt like a party all month long. When the dog days of July set in, walks to my father’s garden were slow and hot. On my return, the wheelbarrow grew heavy and I might stop and linger under the shade of the giant willow that grew nearby or gaze over a neighbor’s fence at a lonely persimmon tree that just set fruit. If I went to the garden in the afternoon, I would witness plants wilting in the intense heat. If I returned in the morning, I would be witness to the recovery. This undeniable strength of the summer garden, its ability to rejuvenate overnight or after a harsh summer squall was a reliable comfort to me. In July, the garden was the strongest it would be.

If I picked a squash, another baby would appear soon after. Beets were the most fun to pluck from the ground. Dirt held tightly onto the roots, but after a long bouncy wheelbarrow ride home, most of the dirt had fallen off and they were set for a rinse in the sink. My mother would then cook them in a pressure cooker, and I would go to the far end of the house to hide from the sounds it made. That pressure cooker sound – when the steam was released – frightened me, but not enough to stop me from enjoying the cooked beets. It became another sound I associate with July.

By late July, I would test my entrepreneurial spirit with a lemonade and cantaloupe stand on Morris Street. Fifty cents for lemonade and one dollar for a fresh homegrown cantaloupe was an easy sell to the dehydrated boaters that walked by. Selling 30 cantaloupes in one afternoon was my record, and I don’t believe anyone has challenged it. Added to the lemonade sales, $40 was an immense amount of money for a 10-year-old in 1980. I blew it all at Bringman’s store buying ice cream cones and candy.

All these stories I have shared have one central theme – they all revolve around food. Forty years later here I am writing about food. Coincidence? I think not. These childhood food experiences were just that – experiences! The food in my childhood had a story behind it, and these food happenings solidified my love for connecting with what I was eating. The joyful feelings food adventures stirred up settled deep inside of me and became a part of my adult constitution.

Present day, I am still excited about the month of July. I am celebratory when my garden provides – it feels like a moment in time to mark. Armed with technology, I am able to share my first tomato with my brother on the other side of Maryland. We each strive to be first and whomever is second will undoubtably boast flavor over timeliness; the competition is real. My first cantaloupe is paraded around the yard, shown to the family, then put into the refrigerator – cooled melon tastes best. As the melons ripen one by one, the family will discuss if the first was sweeter than the next and so on. At first bite of a melon, everyone will undoubtedly ask the taster – is it a good one?

If you are feeling disconnected from the food you eat, July is the perfect month to remedy that. Here are a few possibilities for you to consider:

Go fishing or crabbing and eat what you catch; fish stories are the best.

Plant a small garden. If you think it’s too late in the season to plant a garden, think again. Maryland has a long season, and you can still plant short crops like squash and green beans in July. Sunflowers come up fast in July also.

If you aren’t a gardener, farmers’ markets are at their peak and there are so many wonderful local foods that farmers and watermen have to offer.

Maybe you have a neighbor or a friend that is a gardener … start the conversation and work out a trade.

Challenge yourself to make a meal that is 100% local. The abundance of food available on the Eastern Shore in July is truly amazing!

As a child, July did not come wrapped in plastic or in a shiny box, but it was better than a Christmas present. July was messy and sweaty, my hands and feet were dirty, my skin was sunburned and my hair windswept and knotty. July could not be bought, but it was served to me on a plate, and it was Oxford, Maryland at its best. It was raw, it was real, it was a joy.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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