It seemed like the peaches were exceptionally sweet this summer—did anyone else notice that? The figs were bland, the tomatoes mealy, the cherries gone before I could make a judgment, but the peaches were perfectly juicy and sweet—a small consolation prize for a summer that was fast and rainy and shrouded in pre-apocalyptic news. There was (is) Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine, Christians being chased from Mosul, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Syria in general, Ebola in Africa, race riots in Ferguson, 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, plane crashes, bombs, volcanoes, floods. Not that you needed any reminding.
There has been a heaviness in my heart these past few months, one that made me feel not-quite-right about posting here, one that nagged at me and said “this does not matter.” But I’m here because this is normalcy, a safe place that I need, a distraction that maybe we all do.
Rather than giving my agita a break with my summer reading choices, one of the books I put high on my list was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. The book tells the story of two children from vastly different circumstances; Marie-Laure LeBlance, a young blind girl from Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan whose aptitude for building electrical circuits leads him to become a valued member of the Hitler youth. Their lives intertwine during the Nazi occupation of France, the details of which are hard to stomach, even despite Doerr’s beautiful writing.
Because there is often so little, food figures heavily in the book. For Werner, who lives in a crowded orphanage and often goes hungry, it is a cake cascading with powdered sugar and piled with forbidden cream, fed to him by a Nazi Corporal, that lures him into the Hitler Youth. Marie-Laure’s blindness sharpens her sense of taste and smell, which makes for some incredible eating scenes. After trekking for days on foot in order to escape the occupation in Paris, Marie-Laure and her father finally find refuge at his uncle’s house in Saint-Malo. Once there, the housekeeper, Madame Manec, fixes them a supper of omelets and canned peaches. It’s a beautifully humble meal, but after days without food it feels to Marie-Laure like the most luxurious feast she has ever had.
Eggs crack. Butter pops in a hot pan. Soon all of Marie-Laure’s attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese. An omelette arrives. The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold. Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later she is eating wedges of wet sunlight.
It took Doerr ten years to write All the Light We Cannot See, which isn’t surprising considering its breadth and depth. It felt like a fever-dream to be reading it while a new rash of anti-semitism erupted all over the world this summer, particularly in France, where synagogues and Jewish businesses were targeted in a violent riots hauntingly similar to Kristallnacht.
A couple of weeks ago I was riding the Subway home from Penn Station after a visit home to Massachusetts for my grandfather’s 85th birthday. I was tired and sad in my bones over having to leave my family to return to Brooklyn. I was doing nothing but thinking of them when an older man got very close to me, pointed to my Hebrew name necklace, and told me I “should be ashamed to wear it,” before summoning a loogie from the depths of his throat and spitting it onto my chest.
What surprised me more than the event itself was the fact that the handful of people sharing my subway car did nothing, said nothing. In my ten years living in New York I have been on hundreds of train rides where I’ve see people come to blows over nothing more than the brush of a shoulder, the blocking of a door, the stealing of a seat. What surprised me most was that I too said nothing, did nothing. When I got off the train I was shaken and called my mom, but for some reason I could only bring myself to tell her that a man had given my necklace a funny look. I said nothing to my boyfriend who was waiting for me at home, and only told one of my closest friends almost a week later, while feeling vulnerable after a few too many glasses of wine. I threw the t-shirt away and I bit my nails to stubs and I kept my mouth shut. (Family, Juddy, I’m sorry you’re learning about this here).
What is striking about All the Light We Cannot See is the great and heavy silence that pervades it, full pages of textless white. People are afraid and confused, they say nothing and do nothing in the face of unspeakable evil. They choose what and whom to be outraged at and they get it all wrong.
I thought long and hard about a recipe for this book. I made a fluffy almond cake and piled it with powdered sugar and cream, I made a cheese and spinach omelet, and briefly considered a fish stew with green tomatoes, but in the end it was the wedges of wet sunlight that won out. Summer is waning and things feel dark and we need to store away as much sunlight as we can.
Peaches in Cardamom Syrup
2 pounds of ripe freestone peaches (about 6)
3 cups water
2 cups sugar
4 cardamom pods, crushed
Bring a medium pot of water to a rolling boil. Lower peaches into the water and boil for 40 seconds. Remove them gently with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a baking sheet. Once they have cooled enough to handle, gently slip the skins off. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits.
In a medium saucepan, whisk together water, sugar and cardamom pods. Simmer over medium heat, whisking until sugar dissolves.
Carefully lower the peeled peaches into 4 1-pint canning jars and pour the syrup over them. Try to get 1 cardamom pod in each jar. Process the jars per their instructions. Peaches will keep all winter long. Serve with a mound of unsweetened whipped cream.