Jessica Harris

by Jessica B. Harris

Jessica Harris

Courtesy, Chronicle Books

Martha’s Vineyard is simply a part of me.

I know it deeply and profoundly and own it as I do the marrow of my bones. In my over 50 years of summering on the Vineyard, it only recently occurred to me that even the Island’s name is connected to the pleasures of the table. This is not without irony, for it seems that I can classify most of my Vineyard memories around the foods that I was eating and the beverages that I was imbibing. From childhood, it would seem, my Vineyard has always been one of culinary delights.

From my earliest years here, I vividly remember picking wild blueberries on roadsides, clamming, and pulling bearded mussels from the pilings at the pier in Menemsha in those less-regulated days. There were more formal parties with my parents, certainly, but even then, the delights of foraged and fresh were always uppermost. I remember the joy of catching my first fish—a respectable sized fluke at that. I later watched squeamishly as my uncle skinned an eel. In one tentative taste I discovered just how sweet and delicious that meat is. Butterfish were house, and we’d fry up a “mess” of them for a special breakfast treat. As an urban child, I was fortunate; my Island summers were a time of returning to something more basic and more tied to the land.

As the years turn, my Vineyard has morphed; patches of wild blueberries have been transformed into subdivisions, and I am constantly astonished to find paved streets where I used to wander on dirt roads. But, despite the inevitable changes brought by progress, the past was indeed prologue. My summers are still marked by a return to the pleasures of the soil. I continue to enjoy freshly picked blueberries and tiny greens. These days, my foraging is often accompanied by the slam of my screen door as I head out to pick from my backyard garden. I’m a non-driver, but my wonderful friend gives me a lift each week so that I can haunt the Farmers’ Market with the assiduity of a pitbull. I return from each trip with Island-grown treats like clusters of tangy radishes freshly pulled from the soil. I serve them French-style with unsalted butter and fresh bread, along with a small cup or two of minuscule blackberries still wet with dew. I dote on the Asian greens, loading up on them weekly at the markets as their sassy zip works well with fresh corn, and they’re a perfect counterpoint to summer-ripe tomatoes.

My Vineyard summers continue to be punctuated by rounds of dinners and potluck suppers. My guests, whether bankers or beach bums, film makers or professors, all love the magic of the table and fall under the communal spell of sharing a good meal. Invariably when we gather, we share secrets: a cheese maker that no one knows, a farmer selling eggs and chickens, a singular patch of beach plums. Then we get on to recipes. Zucchini bread from a bumper crop, a syrup of Island mint for an intense addition to a killer mojito, all celebrating the bounty of “our Island.”

A summer trilogy of sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, and blueberries forms the basis for many a meal, and then there are the special treats like lamb from Allen Farm or an omelet from local eggs. I keep a list of the Island farms in my shopping basket so that when I’m lucky enough to cadge a ride, I can tell my friends exactly where to stop for greens or the mushrooms or bread that is essential to my meal.

Summer passes only too quickly, and the tender shoots of early July turn into the autumnal bounty of mid-September. Soon it is all over. The arrival of pumpkins augurs my departure, and I always buy a large one to bring back to my other home in New York, where it sits in the doorway into early Spring reminding me that my Vineyard summer and Vineyard victuals are only a few months away.