In late July, my friend Lise gave me a large bag of wild blueberries that she and her boyfriend had picked. Picking wild blueberries, which taste unlike any of the cultivated varieties, is backbreaking and tedious. In exchange for the wild blueberries, I gave Lise a couple of jars of my homemade elderflower jelly.
Also by bartering, this summer I obtained other fresh local produce, including some horseradish I needed for pickling beets, and a load of peppers when my entire crop failed. I received all these bounties in exchange for my homemade jams, jellies and pickles.
In our time, bartering like this is not so much a necessity as it is fun, and exchanges don’t always have to be weighed, tit for tat. For me it’s all about reciprocity and appreciation.
My friend Alice, a retired dietitian, is my go-to for all food-related questions. She was an invaluable help figuring out the food chemistry issues while I wrote my German regional cookbook, Spoonfuls of Germany. I was pulling my hair out over American substitutions for typical German ingredients, unavailable in the US. I continue to call Alice, sometimes late at night, when something is going wrong in my kitchen.
Alice does not have a garden. When I have extra produce, I drop it off at her house. A couple of years ago, she presented me with a homemade quilt for Christmas. I don’t know how long it took her to make this, but every stitch on that quilt is like a seed I put in the soil of my garden. Needless to say, the quilt is one of my most cherished possessions, truly a friendship quilt.People’s sense of reciprocity and appreciation is often mirrored in their hospitality – or, unfortunately, the lack of reciprocity and appreciation. As someone who strongly believes that there is no better way to connect with each other than over food, I have opened our house and table to many people – with minimal return, sometimes not even a thank-you or an attempt to stay in touch afterwards, let alone a return invitation.
I inherited a strong hospitality gene both from my German mother and my Tunisian father. Comparing notes with friends, in America and elsewhere, it seems that hospitable people attract each other. The complaint of my friends is the same everywhere: that it’s always up to them to reach out to others and gather them at their table. Sometimes people don’t even bother to RSVP, or they don’t show up. The easier and quicker it becomes to communicate with mobile devices from everywhere and any time, the poorer social interactions are getting.Now I recognize that not everybody is as crazy about gardening, cooking and canning as me. And not everybody has a home large enough to host but lots of people do have the ability and still don’t reciprocate. It’s a matter of civility and values.
Over the years, I have become stingier with my hospitality, time, and homemade goodies. When I feel that it’s a one-way street, I retract. I have a “1-year rule” for giving away my homemade jams, jellies and preserves. If I spot one of my jars unopened and collecting dust in someone’s pantry a year after I gave it to them, I scratch them from my list of recipients. My view is that if you don’t open a jar within a year, you don’t appreciate its contents.
But there is, happily, some counterbalance to report. In the past year and a half, something unexpected has happened. Something I had basically given up on: After 18 years in the neighborhood, I made a few new friends locally. After the 2016 elections circles of like-minded people have opened up and new alliances and relationships are forming around me.
Some of these new friends have even invited us to their homes. This summer my husband and I attended our first local pool party, and our first barbecue.
I cannot help but thinking of the sign at the Women’s March in Washington last January that read “Thank you Trump, for bringing us together.”
I don’t like raw onion or raw green peppers so I am adding watermelon to my gazpacho, which adds a hint of sweetness and makes it very refreshing.
1 cup (150 g) chopped sweet onion
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 ¼ pounds (1 kg) fresh ripe juicy tomatoes, to make 3 cups (750 g) tomato juice
3 cups (450 g) diced seedless watermelon
1 cup (150 g) diced cucumber
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 mildly hot green pepper, seeds removed and chopped (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a small bowl, marinate the onion with the vinegar for at least 30 minutes.
2. Chop the tomatoes. Place them in a large bowl and crush with a potato masher, or work with your hands to soften them. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill, extracting every bit of pulp. You should have about 3 cups.
3. Add the marinated onion with vinegar, tomato juice and the remaining ingredients to a blender and puree until smooth. You might want to puree it in two batches to prevent it from overflowing. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate. Serve chilled.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Photos by Ted Rosen