“All the Light We Cannot See” Cardamom Peaches

by Cara Nicoletti on September 2, 2014

DSC02852

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.

DSC02845
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.

DSC02865

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.

DSC02863

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).

peach1

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.

DSC02896

Peaches in Cardamom Syrup
Ingredients:

2 pounds of ripe freestone peaches (about 6)
3 cups water
2 cups sugar
4 cardamom pods, crushed

Directions:
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.

DSC02880

Don't forget to follow along for updates:

If there’s a literary food scene you want to see come to life be sure to leave me a comment and let me know! Or take a peek in the Recipe Index.

Leave a Comment

Kelly September 2, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Beautifully written.

I’m sorry some people can be so senseless, rude, and ignorant.

Hugs.

Reply

Gemma September 2, 2014 at 4:54 pm

I am weeping, Cara. This is so beautiful and speaks to me so profoundly. Thank you. I needed this. I think a lot of people needed this.

Reply

Deb September 2, 2014 at 5:06 pm

I pray you will continue to wear your hebrew name necklace like a suit of armor. May it give you the strength, courage and resilience to walk with pride in the face of ignorance, cowardice and hatred. XOXOXO
p.s. this recipe for peaches looks dreamy! can i do it with apricots?

Reply

Cara Nicoletti September 7, 2014 at 10:18 pm

yes it would be absolutely delicious with apricots, too! xo

Reply

Susan Corson September 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

What a horrible experience! It is a very sad commentary indeed. Thank you for bringing the sunshine instead. Love will prevail.

Reply

Nicola Miller September 2, 2014 at 5:47 pm

I am so sorry and angry and sad that this happened to you. Yet you turned it into a passionate and thoughtful piece of writing.

Funnily enough I have had a bit of a peach thing going on today after spending an hour framing a print of Man Ray’s ‘Pechage’, my favourite (If I won the lottery I’d buy it kind of artwork) piece of art and something that is both lascivious and innocent.

We don’t get very good peaches or nectarines in the UK sadly- the ones in store are mean little cannonballs in texture with little well development in taste and juice. However cooking and preserving them brings a little something something more to the table.

Re literary recipes, have you thought of ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s’ Frikadellen?

Reply

Cara Nicoletti September 2, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Thank you for reading, Nicola! I think about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a lot, such wonderful scenes at the butcher, they’ve stuck in my mind all these years. It’s certainly on my list, I’ll give it another look. I bet this syrup would be good to preserve just about any fruit, including your cannonball peaches–if you give it a try let me know!
ps absolutely drool over Man Ray’s ‘Pechage’ too, maybe we can split it.

Reply

Nicola Miller September 15, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Yes, we’ll work out a timeshare for that Man Ray!

Reply

Julie September 2, 2014 at 6:27 pm

I am so sorry you had that hideous experience. You don’t feel it yet, but some day you will feel a profound sadness for the person who did that to you. He won nothing.
You, on the other hand, overcame your sadness to share wedges of wet sunlight with those of us who love your words. I think everyone agrees that this summer has been particularly awful. I for one am grateful for the creative people who are sharing food, words, art with us. I’m so grateful you decided that what you can do really does matter after all. Thank you so much.

Reply

Cara Nicoletti September 2, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Julie, this comment made me cry. Thank you so much for reading, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one feeling strange about this summer. I appreciate you more than you know.

Reply

Amina | PAPER/PLATES September 2, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Cara, I’m so sorry you had to suffer that man’s evil act. I hope one day you can forget it, or at least move on from it.

In the meantime, I’m glad you went with peaches. They’re what I used to write about this book too. It was such a good one.

Reply

Cara Nicoletti September 2, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Amina, I haven’t seen your post yet! I’m so behind on summer blog reading, going to look now! xo

Reply

marcy September 2, 2014 at 7:52 pm

I am so sorry that happened to you and I understand why you froze and were unable to react. What could you possibly say to someone that vile who is harboring so much misplaced hatred and anger? During this summer of sadness and confusion wearing my Hebrew name necklace and my Sh’ma bracelet seemed to help me to feel protected. I hope that you will continue to keep wearing your necklace with pride.
Today I bought peaches for the first and only time this whole summer!! I couldn’t believe it when I saw your beautiful but heartbreaking post. With a lump in my throat I will follow this recipe and taste a bit of summer sunshine.
??????? ????? ???? (God protects you)
Marcy

Reply

marcy September 2, 2014 at 7:52 pm

All those question marks were Hebrew letters that didn’t translate. Sorry for that!!
Marcy

Reply

Elizabeth Schaffer September 2, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Wear your necklace as the armor of G-d. I will pray for you. May you find courage and hope.

Reply

carolyn halliday September 2, 2014 at 11:58 pm

you move me beyond my most hopeful expectations with every entry. your penchant for beauty, your understanding of language, your connection with the soul that exists in truly good food—-all this and so much more brings me a smile, or a catch of breath, or an urge to get to the kitchen. Thank you for this treasure of a blog.

Reply

Elizabeth Aquino September 3, 2014 at 12:08 am

Oh, Cara. This post makes me want to say,”Oh Cara Mia” — it’s so very beautiful and a perfect accompaniment to these days we are living, saturated by “the news,” yet frighteningly dissociated from it. I have always found in my reading life that the perfect books are read when they should be read. It sounds to me as if this has happened to you. I think there’s something nearly synchronus with your experience on the train and the book. And that you’ve chosen to highlight the wedges of wet sunlight speaks to your own integrity and voice — your raised voice and testament telling us your experience, what happened to you. I’m reading Doerr’s book and am so grateful for this post — your words will sit inside me as I continue to read. And then I’ll make your peaches, too.

Reply

Andrea September 3, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Cara
Perhaps this piece will all get us thinking about our own silence in the face of things that we know to be wrong. Thank you for your always honest writing and for sharing this painful experience with us all. While I am so sorry this happened to you I am also weirdly grateful- because it gets us talking and facing in our own hearts what we believe is right. May love and goodness prevail over ignorance and hate. These peaches look like heavenly sweet slices of sunshine indeed. Love you:.

Reply

Whitney September 4, 2014 at 9:15 pm

I read this post late last night while I lay in bed. Deliriously tired but unable to fall asleep, I prayed to see God’s peace and imagined a cardamom peach alongside some vanilla ice cream. I re-read this post aloud to my husband this evening and ended up with tears. Your words are rich and beautiful. The thoughts you share and the food you create is stunning. I’m looking forward to your book.

Reply

Joanie September 5, 2014 at 3:03 pm

This is wonderful. Thank you, Cara, for reminding us of what does matter – resilience and hope.

Reply

Becky September 6, 2014 at 10:59 am

My husband always tells me to take the high road, and it is always good advice, but I have not had to deal with this kind of personal attack, so I don’t know how I would react. It sounds as though you reacted well. Any type of overt reaction would not have accomplished much, and you have given yourself time to process and move beyond it as much as possible. This summer has been horrific, but I don’t think the world is worse than it has always been, we just are told of every instance of man’s inhumanity to man. Please continue to take the high road. Your posts are little rays of light. I am so sorry that you had this happen to you. Some people want everyone to be as miserable as they are, and it is true that the best revenge is living well. Continue to do so! Thank you so much for processing this into a lovely recipe for all of us to enjoy!

Reply

kristie @ birchandwild.com September 7, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Beautifully written. Your honesty is very inspiring. The story of the man who spit on you is sad, and I am often shocked when It dawns on me that some attitudes will never change. Thank you for sharing your story.

Reply

Mickele Bragg September 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm

In the words of Florence and the Machine, “the only solution was to stand and fight.”

A single act can be so mean. It’s hard to understand why he needed to do it and what it is supposed to mean to you. Put it out of your mind, dear friend. Let the spot where that spittle landed sprout an undying flower of compassion and send love to all beings who have felt that unkindness. It’s the only thing that will heal.

Reply

carolyn halliday November 18, 2014 at 11:56 pm

You move me beyond my most optimistic expectations. Every blog is a sensual gift. Thank you.

Reply

Stephanie August 26, 2015 at 1:56 am

A.S. Byatt’s Possession has a great description of dinner being prepared. I can still smell it!

Reply

sally September 16, 2015 at 2:02 pm

This PM will have fresh peaches with cream and cardomon
1

Inspired by your recipe!

Reply

Flannery September 30, 2015 at 10:56 pm

Cara,

Hi! I love your blog, BTW. I own your cookbook, too-I love it!

God, that is one harrowing experience to go through- Are you part Jewish? Seems like it.

To lighten it up, could you please do something on a Neil Simon play like “Brighton Beach Memoirs”? I think that you could draw inspiration from the book’s setting and stuff for food ideas.

I have read “The Scarlett Letter” for my school, and I want you to know- could you please do something from there or “The Crucible”? I mean, it was a fascinating time back then… I would not like to live in that world, though. Just the thought of living in a restrictive world like that with a kid (like Pearl) makes me cringe. And also, is it me, or are there blatantant parallels to 9/11 in “The Crucible”? Seems like it to me.

Reply

Flannery September 30, 2015 at 10:58 pm

And also, those cardamom peaches, mmm… that would be great with a slice of vanilla ice cream, am I right?

Reply

Previous post:

Next post: