For this cook, seasonal gifts are the soul of the Island she discovered in 1959.
by Jean Stewart Wexler
When my eleven-year-old son and I moved from Washington, D.C., to Martha’s Vineyard way back in 1959, it didn’t take us long to start investigating our exciting new environment. Weekdays, he attended school and I worked in Vineyard Haven as a legal secretary. Weekends, though, were ours to spend as we pleased, and along with our two-year-old black poodle, we explored every paved road, dirt lane, meadow, woodland, pond, and beach we could.
It was early September, so very few summer people were still around, and we seldom encountered anyone on our excursions. And what wonderful discoveries we made! Not only did we learn how beautiful our new home was as we drove up, down, and across the Island, but also how many interesting, unusual, and even edible things there were to collect as we prowled around on foot. There were very few locked gates or “no trespassing” signs around in those days.
An edible find was especially welcome, because it was both free and delicious and nutritious. All we had to do was pick it, catch it, dig it out of the sand, or detach it from what it was attached to. We discovered how and where to locate both soft and hard-shell clams (or quahogs, as they’re called by Vineyarders). The quahog—well, that was one thing we had to be shown how to open. I’m still not too good at that, though I’ve since learned an easy way. Freeze the clam, let it thaw out a bit, and slide a knife between the shells, cutting right through the flesh to the hinge on the other side. We sliced many a finger separating clusters of oysters from their friends and relations, and got many a painful pinch from the big, slow-moving crabs that drifted along the murky borders of the Great Ponds. Slow until they sensed our motive. Then they whizzed away into the shadows. We investigated mussels—a new seafood that we soon developed a taste for. And a baited hook on a short line hung from a fishing pole was all we needed to snag enough small, boney, but delectable fish for a meal or two.
Fruits were another source of free food. Though this first year we were a little late for blackberries and blueberries, by the next summer we knew right where to go for the biggest and the sweetest. We found an ancient, half-dead quince tree on a deserted farmstead and made some delectable puddings from an old recipe I discovered. From the same source, hard-skinned winter pears were brought home and ripened until they could be stewed with a little sugar and nutmeg. Dozens of insect-damaged but salvageable apples lay rotting under old, forgotten trees, and along certain dirt roads (Indian Hill was one of them) we crawled into thickets of grapevines to pull off clusters of what the natives called fox grapes that we munched. They were small, had thick skins, lots of seeds and weren’t exactly gourmet quality, but we liked them because they were free and edible.
Since then, Martha’s Vineyard has been discovered and cruelly plundered. Huge plots of land have been ruthlessly denuded by heavy machinery. Fields, hillsides, and beachfronts have been disfigured by what we refer to these days as “McMansions.” The beautiful ponds are now polluted by sewage that destroys native shellfish. Roads have been widened and paved, lanes barred by locked gates. Even the air is often polluted by emissions from trucks, tour buses, and cars by the hundreds. Black, starlit night skies glow on the horizon, lit up by all-night lighting in the towns. (We see the lights of Vineyard Haven, eight miles away, all too well from our house in North Tisbury.)
Well, I have meandered away from what I set out to write about. Obviously, during the span of five decades, both I and the Vineyard have changed enormously. I now consider myself a Vineyarder, and am, along with countless others, saddened by many things that have happened to our beloved Island.
But I am also heartened by the determination and courage of younger generations who have settled here and are establishing a way of life that respects the resources of the land and the fragility of the environment now that it is threatened, both here and in many other sections of our country. New small farms offer families a sustainable living through farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Island eggs are available in groceries, as are various Island-grown meats and poultry. Breads and other baked goods show up on grocery shelves and at stands alongside the roads. And how good it all is! By fall, provident homemakers often have put up or frozen pints if not quarts of earlier delights such as strawberries, blackberries, rhubarb, and peas.
But now it’s time to enjoy the specialties of high summer and early fall. Generally, perhaps to balance things out, our weather makes up for a wretched spring like the one we had this year—endless gloomy, grey, drizzly, chilly, windy days—by rewarding us with glorious golden days right through October. Warm, clear sunshine, water still warm enough to swim in, bright, beautiful evenings to spend on the deck or patio.
And abundant harvests from our vegetable gardens and our own fruit trees and vines. The peaches may be nearly gone (I had a peach tree that had to have 2 x 4 planks placed under its branches so the fruit wouldn’t snap them off). But still to come are the apples and pears, and grapes, and a big fall crop of raspberries if you plant the ever-bearing varieties. You may still even have access to some of the late-bearing blueberry bushes around the Island, so don’t forget to make one last Blueberry Crisp. The recipe I’ve included here made it through to the fourth edition of The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook, so it must be a good one.
Right now, fresh corn is king. Pause alongside a field of ripening corn and study it. Five-to-six foot stalks, row after row, long, dangling leaves rustling as the wind meanders among them, tassels still gold-dusted with pollen, ears snug and tight against their sturdy supports. Surely this is a noble sight. And what can compete with fresh corn prepared in the simplest way straight from garden to a pot of boiling water. (Of course you have to shuck it first.) Scrumptious corn! Good enough to be served every night. For a week or so. Maybe ten days. Two weeks if you’re a real corn devotee. But then comes the night when the bowl holding corn goes around the table and nobody takes anything out of it. Don’t lose heart, you cooks. Wait a few days, then serve your corn another way. You have to do something with all those ripening ears still out in the garden, or still catching your eye at the farm stand. You can shave an ear or two and stir it into pancake batter for lunch. Get some fresh lima beans and make a bowl of succotash, adding a little chopped red pepper for color. Make corn chowder on a chilly night, or corn salad for lunch on a hot day. Stew some with okra and tomatoes. Make a sweet-sour relish and can it for winter use. Use your imagination, use your favorite cookbook, or use your grandmother’s recipe—just cook. There’s only one Vineyard summer, at least until next year.