When it comes to food, a human brain operates a lot like the recipe search section of the Epicurious website. You know the one, where you just enter a couple of keywords, like "eggplant" or "chicken," and with the click of a mouse you get pages of recipes, complete with photographs, reviews, comments and sometimes even nostalgic, feel-good stories written by enthusiastic foodie types. I think most people, at the mention of a particular food or ingredient, can dip into a well of memories, and get transported back in time. We can recall, sometimes viscerally, every detail of our younger selves, like sensory snapshots. Food is good for that. Its mere mention helps us remember who we were once, and what life was like a time ago. So when I toss the terms "fruit" and "cocktail" into the search engine of my mind, and add "August," out comes a truly memorable recipe from the summer I was 21.
I've shared this with many, but will recommend it to no one.
It was 1990, and I was working at a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop on Cape Cod. It was the summer before my senior year in college, the first summer I was legal, and, I remember clearly thinking, the very last summer of my youth. I was perched on the precipice of adulthood. I would graduate from my prestigious Boston area university the following May, childhood behind me and my professional life ahead. In my mind, this summer was all about having fun on the sandy beaches of the Cape, making a little money, and taking full advantage of my brand-new legality. Which is exactly what I did, with a boyfriend who wasn't quite right for me and with reckless abandon. We were quite the pair, he and I. We didn't even smell right together (he worked at a nearby fish market). But he was a boyfriend, and having one made my world feel steadier.
As summer's end drew closer, so did my need to be ready -- for my senior year of college, for my final season of NCAA soccer (I was the captain of the team), for being someone. For life. These needs seemed like deadlines looming larger by the day. It felt scary. And so Boyfriend and I continued to cash in on our legal age, drinking to dull those deadlines. We kept this up right up until the night before I was to return to campus. That night we drank what could have been called fruit cocktails. They were made, I think, with some sort of fruit juice, mixed with some brand of cheap, clear liquor. We thought they were festive, like something that went perfectly with a grand finale. We partied into the wee hours of the night, until finally, while skinny dipping in a fresh water pond made just a bit too shallow by that dry August, I dove off a dock and felt my head hit its sandy bottom.
I broke my neck.
I would return to campus eventually, but not to play soccer. Doctors would say that I was lucky, that if the crack in my vertebra had been a millimeter longer, I would have been paralyzed. Or worse. I was grateful to have feeling, and I felt lots of things: fortunate, embarrassed and, above all, confused. In trying to find myself, I nearly did myself in.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of my fateful dive and that pivotal summer. My 41-year-old body reminds me often of that warm August evening on the Cape, with persistent little aches and a sound like gravel when I turn my head. I certainly don't indulge in the drink the way I did in 1990. But today, I feel grateful for the aches, and for the burn in my legs, and the wind on my face as I ride my bike the 10 or so hilly miles to the farm, where I'll pick up the makings for tonight's fruit cocktail. I wanted to create something from ingredients that are local and abundant, something more nourishing than intoxicating. Something that tastes authentic and real. I guess I've learned to appreciate those things.
Heirloom tomato bloody marys
- 1 ½ pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes
- 1 leek, white and light green parts only, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
- 1 teaspoon tamari soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons bottled horseradish
- 1 teaspoon hot red chili pepper, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 4 ounces vodka
- Garnish: large stalk celery
- Purée tomatoes, leeks, cilantro and tamari in a blender until smooth. If you prefer less "texture" in your drink, you can remove tomato seeds and solids in a sieve or food mill at this point; otherwise, add horseradish, hot pepper, lemon juice and vodka, and stir well. Pour into two glasses, add ice cubes. Garnish with celery, and relish completely.