This summer, I’ve been equal part enamored with this region in which I live and incredibly nostalgic. More than ever before, I’m overwhelmed with all of the memories I have of my childhood summers in Michigan. These were the months when I ran around the front yard in the pleasant rain of the sprinkler, played an elaborate game of clothespin dolls with my sister and next-door neighbor in the length of lawn between our houses, watched my dad get as excited as I was for vacation, spent most of my time barefoot. We’d go to the farmers market each Saturday, from which I’d emerge with a child’s reward of a honey stick. I’d later sit with my mom on the front steps to shuck the cobs of corn we’d brought home. The silky strings stuck to my bare feet when I stood, but the sweet, golden corn we’d soon be eating made the mess worthwhile. We picked strawberries, then blueberries, and we grew a smattering of things ourselves in our backyard garden. My mom baked delicious crisps and cobblers from fresh Michigan blueberries and peaches, which we’d top with generous scoops of ice cream for the culmination of long, lingering dinners on the deck behind our house. I remember when we discovered bruschetta, promptly crowned the glorious king of simple summer eating. We ate well in the summertime, as it so often goes.
I’m astounded, these days, by how good I had it. It was easy to be happy, with a family like that and summer’s glory on top. Ben teases me about our many rituals and routines, but if anything, my family knows how to celebrate and to revel and to do it all with intention. It’s something I’m proud of, and glad to carry on.
Summer’s also when I think most about my extended family back in South Dakota and the long trips we took to visit each and every summer. My parents’ hometown of Rapid City was so different from the one we inhabited, with its hills and dry heat and men boasting huge belt buckles and cowboy hats. We would take the long drive across the country, a trip my sister and I loved. We’d usually stop to see my mom’s brother and his family in Chicago, catching fireflies at dusk with my cousin and having some kind of wonderful adventure in the city. We’d continue through to stay with my great aunt in the very tiny town of Howard, South Dakota. She’d show us the ceramics she was working on in the basement, make hearty meals and wake at dawn, banging around in the kitchen as though she wanted us to hurry out of bed to greet the day and join her. She had a bathtub, no shower, and crocheted blankets everywhere. Her little town wooed me with its cozy charm and strangers waving from their pickup trucks.
Once we reached our destination, Rapid City, we’d stay with my grandparents in the tiny house where they had raised seven children, my dad among them. My sister and I slept in the bedroom in the back of the house, decorated with my grandmother’s quilts and Precious Moments. We’d crack the sliding door open at night to let in the breeze and the sound of the wind chimes on the back porch, then curl up in the big bed, a sleepover every night. My dad’s family would descend upon his parents’ home most evenings, filling the house with laughter and noise and chaos. My grandma would make pies—always plural—and plenty of delicious food. On one late morning, we’d drive up to visit my mother’s aunt, at her house with its view of the hills. Max would make cookies and lemonade, and we’d sit and talk with her and her husband, Harry, for hours. When my grandfather, Max’s brother, was gone, I felt on every visit that she was sweeping me under her wing.
Traipsing around the city, we’d beg for stories of my parents’ childhood and teenage years as we drove past their old haunts. We’d play cards with our uncles and make friendship bracelets with our cousins and play video games with my grandpa and look at old photos and read books curled up on the couch. We would take a trip up into the hills, where we’d circle Custer State Park to admire the buffalo and antelope and prairie dogs, the hills and the big, beautiful pines. We made chains from wildflowers, walked for miles, built fires to brighten the dark nights. The Black Hills got into my bones, and I can still hear the rustle of the aspen leaves as the wind blows through them, rustling as though they’re cheering, like a million tiny pairs of hands clapping just for you.
I know I’m forming now the same sorts of memories, and I can already look back on the two years Ben and I have been married, and here, with some of the same nostalgia. We moved to Oakland at the end of the summer of 2012, freshly married. We settled in with tomato galette and heaps of salad eaten fashionably on paper plates as we sat on the floor before our dishes and furniture arrived. That summer, we gaped at the abundance of the farmers market, ate our way through as much of the Bay Area as we could afford, dreamed about our future as newlyweds do, felt overwhelmed by the newness of what was suddenly our life. These two summers since have boasted plenty of homemade ice cream, dozens of visitors, bike rides through Oakland, splurges on good cheese to pair with juicy heirloom tomatoes and plump figs, visits to wine country, cocktails with friends and big bowls of strawberry crisp to follow. We’re young and hopeful—this is the kind of thing that one looks back on with fondness, is it not?
For whatever reason, summer is a time for making memories. And all I hope is that I can keep on living a life that evokes this kind of nostalgia in later days, that I’ll look back and find that I created a beautiful, thoughtful life, as my parents did, with an open home and kitchen and heart like the loved ones I admire, adventuring through with this sweet man by my side.
Eggplant Rounds with Summer Toppings
Eggplant preparation adapted from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food II
This dish is an great appetizer or party snack, easy to prepare ahead of time, still delicious at room temperature and gluten free. I wrote it without measurements or quantities so that you can make however much you like, with one topping or a whole host of them depending on the crowd and your mood. I’ve given two ideas for the toppings, but the possibilities are endless! Finally, note that Japanese and Chinese eggplants make small, evenly sized rounds ideal for the party route, which the squatter Italian eggplant or the oval Calliope will give you a variety of sizes of circles, perhaps including some larger ones for hungry eaters.
FOR THE EGGPLANTS
Several medium eggplants
Olive oil, for brushing
Fine sea salt
TOPPING OPTION 1
Sheep’s milk ricotta
Juice and zest of a lemon
Red pepper flakes
Good olive oil, for drizzling
Micro greens or sprouts
Flaky sea salt (I like Maldon best)
Freshly cracked black pepper
TOPPING OPTION 2
Basil or another bright-tasting herb
Good olive oil
Flaky sea salt (I like Maldon best)
Freshly cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Slice the eggplant into 1/2-inch rounds and arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheet. Brush both sides generously with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tops are lightly browned. Flip the rounds over and continue roasting for about 5 minutes more. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the eggplant to cool on the pan.
For the ricotta topping, whisk the ricotta with a bit of lemon juice and zest, a pinch of red pepper flakes and a dash of sea salt until smooth and well combined. Top eggplant rounds with a spoonful of ricotta, then drizzle with olive oil. Finish with micro greens, flaky sea salt and freshly cracked pepper.
For the tomato and nectarine topping, begin by chopping the tomatoes and nectarines into a small dice. Chiffonade the basil. Mix together the tomato, nectarine and most of the basil, then add generous splashes of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the mixture onto the eggplant rounds and finish with the reserved basil.