Each Peach Pare Plum
by Carol Hulak-Ward
Image courtesy of the Zeifert Family
Growing up, none of the kids in my Long Island neighborhood ever wanted to come to my house for dinner. It was the 1950s, and, on my
half-block alone, we were a UN of families—Czech, German, Irish, Austrian, Norwegian, Greek, and Italian, all first or second generation, all still cooking the foods of our homelands. My parents, both raised in central Europe, laid an omnivore’s table decades before the phrase had been invented. My mother grew up in Prague, but had travelled widely throughout Europe and brought to her marriage her knowledge of food from the coffee houses of Vienna and the fine restaurants of Paris. My father was raised in a small town in the Germany between the two World Wars, and his family was, of necessity, frugal. The two influences forged a very particular culinary combination.
So, we ate weird things: cheeses that smelled funny and ran; seedy bread that was definitely not white and squishy; dishes with funny, unpronounceable names perhaps better left untrans- lated; and the occasional organ meat. Fruit dumplings sounded okay, but even some of the fruits and vegetables that my parents served were odd. My friends operated under the presumption that it was usually better to be safe and just say “no, thank you.” But, at least as far as fruit dumplings went, those kids totally missed out.
When my mother was growing up in Prague at the turn of the century, the small, dusky, purple plums were prolific in the summer. Then, come September, they turned up everywhere: in tarts and kuchens, pickled and stewed, preserved in wine or brandy, and finally, born of desperation, turned into slivovic, that clear, combustible eau de vie so popular in Eastern Europe. But, before all of that, plum dumplings were a temptingly light summer dinner. My mother told me of days spent picking plums and cherries from her family’s trees to be cooked into those rich, delicious meals, and her memories read like fairytales to me.
My parents and I lived just far enough outside of New York City’s bounty that we didn’t have access to the markets where plums might be found.
But by great good fortune, our then-neighbor had a heavily bearing peach tree, a cherry tree, and himself a generous heart. When summer nights became oppressively hot, conveniently around the time that the cherries and peaches perfumed the humid air with their sweet-ripe aroma, my mother would ask that I take myself next door and gather some of the low-hanging fruit for a dinner of peach or cherry dumplings.
I remember hot, late August nights, heavy with the threat of thunderstorms, when my mother would take the sun-warm fruit, cover it with the tender dough, and drop the dumplings gently, one by one, into the boiling water, stirring as she went. The stirring eventually became my job, but my first task was to wash the fruit under the outdoor spigot. Later, I learned how to cut the stretchy dough, and finally I earned the coveted job of covering the fruit— which, once I learned, turned out to be no great feat after all.
Like most kids, my interest in helping my mother waned once I was old enough to actually be a help, and, by the time I headed off to college, I had long forgotten much of what I had learned.
My first solo attempt at making dumplings was notable for how little of the dough actually covered the fruit, and how much of it had somehow adhered to every surface of my tiny New York apartment. You could trace the sequence of events just by following the dough blobs around the studio: towel rack, telephone, intercom, doorknob. But the next time was better, and, little by little, grating the cold, cooked potato; blending it with the egg; and adding just enough flour to bind it became as much second nature to me as it had been to my mom.
Fast-forward 15 years to summer on Martha’s Vineyard: I’m in my kitchen, and the weather is hot and humid. My daughter stands next to me on a box so she can reach the sink and counter. She is wiping the peaches that she has just washed, and I pass her an oversized piece of dough. She handles the two like a puzzle, sticking the ends together and sealing the seams. Suddenly, as if by magic, the fruit disappears into the dough.
Soon, we’ll sit down to dinner and the dumplings, decked out in cheese, butter and cinnamon, will disappear just as magically from our plates.