The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.
Our apricots are getting ripe. In the baking-hot days of midsummer, they form plump clusters along the lower branches of the tree. They are beautiful.
Some varieties of apricot are bright orange, a bold colour, a little brassy. Ours are pale, the pure, true, apricot shade sought by makers of silk garments and women's cosmetics. Indeed, with their dusty, warm surface aglow in the sunlight and an occasional rosy accent, our apricots might be said to blush.
Each year we are surprised, and overwhelmed, by the generosity of the crop. It's an old tree – it was old when we moved here more than 30 years ago, and we think it cannot last much longer. We think that every year. But come summer, those ancient limbs, laden with fruit, arc perilously toward the ground; they form a canopy under which to sit, and provide more bounty than we know what to do with.
The fruit is small, about the size of a walnut, with a sweet, pungent flavour and a texture that passes all too quickly from tender perfection to unpleasant slipperiness. Whatever we're going to do with them, it has to be done fast.
Over the years, I have explored many ways to preserve the production of this tree. Like a good housewife, I can't bear to waste the food; and like a romantic, I dream I can capture these dazzling summer days and hold their fragrance and flavour to leaven iron-grey November.
I have dried apricots, canned them, jammed them. Baked them into pies and cobblers. Even frozen them. None of this was successful. Drying yielded tiny black discs, tasteless and with the texture of sheet metal; canning produced orange slop, and the jam was similar, just sweeter. Perhaps apricot pie is an acquired taste – but not by anyone in this household. Cobblers, too, proved a disappointment – the apricots solidified in a dense base of suspicious appearance and an alarmingly meaty flavour. The frozen apricots were a modest success – they could be made into a clear glaze for pastries or cakes. But unless you run an Austrian bakery, how much glaze can you use?
So it's something of a traumatic time, this season of ripening apricots: The pleasure of two or three perfect, tiny apricots in a blue ceramic bowl with my morning toast balanced against the anxiety of waste. To say nothing of the mess: Fishing fallen apricots out of the birdbath, collecting them from the lawn – ideally before stepping on them.
I come by this anxious relationship with my fruit tree honestly. I inherited it from my parents. Moving into their first home, they planted wildly: a big vegetable garden, four peach trees, a nectarine and even a pomegranate. A towering plum already flourished in the backyard. In truth, my parents managed all this agriculture pretty well; the garden fed us all summer, and my mother filled rows of shining jars with tomatoes and peaches. Only two things defeated her: The plum tree and the Babcock peach. Even with those, she didn't go down easily.
In spring, the damson plum was a bower in itself. Limber stems covered in fragrant white blossoms shot 15 feet into the air, then bent gracefully toward earth. The fruit that followed was small, dark purple and, sad to say, not particularly useful. At least not to us. We ate – well, my parents ate – a few fresh plums, but not enough to make a dent. I didn't like plums then, and I still find them to be untrustworthy – beautiful colour, a quick hit of sweet just under the skin, then sour betrayal.
My mother tried all the preserving strategies, but no one would eat canned plums and my brother and I wouldn't eat plum jam. We didn't like the skins, so Mother tried jelly. I can still see the grisly wad of plum pulp in cheesecloth suspended by a noose from the knob of a kitchen cupboard. One year, the string broke. The blob crashed, splashing plum juice everywhere – counter, floor, sink, ceiling – for years, we found remnant dollops of plum juice.
One year, in desperation, Mother tried a plum cake. She used a spice-cake mix and layered plum halves in the middle. What came out of the oven was impressive. The usual brown-speckled hue of the spice cake had a ruddy overlay – which gave it a kind of liverish look. Worse, however, the plums had congealed, dark and shiny, into a pit in the centre of the cake. Mother said it looked like afterbirth; she took it outside and buried it in the backyard. Even the dog wouldn't eat it.
The Babcock peach was my favourite tree, though not, I think, my mother's. It bore an abundance of small, rosy-skinned, white-fleshed peaches. Babcocks are never sold commercially – they are too soft. Indeed, they could hardly make it from our yard to the kitchen without bruising. They weren't good cookers or canners, either. My mother, more persistent than wise, tried everything – jars, jams, pies. But Babcocks, tender and juicy when fresh, melt into something brown, insubstantial and sticky when cooked in any fashion.
My own childish approach was more successful. On warm afternoons, I would climb the Babcock with my book and settle where the three main branches made a comfortable notch. I could reach out and pick a peach without losing my place in the latest Nancy Drew. The soft skin of the Babcock pulled away from the stem hole, and by pinching the bottom of the fruit I could slip the peach out of its skin and – whole, sweet and sun-warmed – into my mouth. No peach ever tasted as good as that.
I think there might be a lesson there.