I know you know what it’s like to miss something and not even know you’re missing it until something happens that triggers that little spot in your brain that comes awake and says, “Hey, I miss that.”
That’s the worst opening line ever. But bear with me.
I walked into the Super Value the other day. I was thinking about pork chops. I had supper on my mind and not much else.
I held the door for a lady who looked like she was in more of a hurry than I was. She had grabbed a buggy from outside and was pushing it toward the door with determination. I’d like to say I was being a gentleman, but it was either hold the door or get run over, the way I saw it.
The cashier spoke up, “Hey, howya’ doing?” She doesn’t know my name, but she recognizes me as a regular.
I grab a tote basket from the stack next to the end of her register. I only need a few things. Usually, I blow right past the first set of shelves facing the front door, but something caught my eye, and I stopped to look things over.
There, at eye level, was a row of pickled peaches. Golden peach halves swimming inside a glass jar that reminded me of the ones my mama used to make. That little spot in my brain went off like fireworks and I thought, “Man, I sure miss Mama’s pickled peaches.”
If you don’t know it already, pickled peaches require the work of a skilled artisan in the kitchen. You can’t just throw a few peaches in vinegar and expect to send somebody’s taste buds to heaven. It takes years of canning experience to perfect the art of pickling. I have tried and failed miserably, which has made me miss these peaches all the more.
There comes a time in life when we try to recreate the past because the past speaks to us. Different things from our childhood creep up on us in unexpected moments, and each one paints a mental picture of how lucky we were. There are certain tastes and certain smells and certain sounds, like the creaking of the spring on a screened door, that remind us of who we are and where we’ve come from.
Pickled peaches do that for me. I can see Mama in her apron standing in front of the stove. The pressure cooker holding a batch of carefully sterilized mason jars. Each one filled with fresh peach halves. Each jar gently lifted by tongs over into the pot. The sweet smell of vinegar in the air. A warm early summer day on the outside. The taste of hope in my belly.
I’ve been standing long enough in front of these jars on the shelf that the cashier asks me if I’m okay. I must have been lost in a trance. But I’m also hesitant because I know that big corporate food distributors know absolutely nothing about honest-to-goodness pickled peaches.
I pick up a jar and hold it in my hand. The label reads, “Amish Farms, Millersburg, Ohio.”
Believe it or not, I’ve been to Millersburg, Ohio. I’ve driven my truck among the flow of horse-drawn buggies with the orange slow-moving-vehicle signs on the back. The same triangular signs which, in this part of the country, are usually on the back of a tractor pulling a harrow or a hay rake down the road.
Ivan Yoder was from Millersburg. He was a carpenter I met in another life. Straw hat and a groomed white beard with a clean upper lip. Black pants and a plain shirt with suspenders. Buttons. No zippers. His son, who had stepped into the contemporary world, drove Ivan around in his truck to look at work among the English. His farm with no electricity and no modern conveniences was a far piece from anyplace.
I asked Ivan, “Can you build this for me?”
In his best Dutch/German dialect, he said, “Yah, vee con doo dat for yoo.”
I immediately fell in love with the man.
During our time in Ohio, we often drove down into Amish country. The restaurants in places like Walnut Creek and Berlin and Millersburg would put a grown man in a food comma for three days. Long tables with benches for seats. We’d often eat at a table with strangers who became not strangers by the time the meal was over.
They served family style. Big bowls of fried chicken and pot roast and mashed potatoes with gravy passed around the table. Wooden spoons the size of your hand lifting a helping of perfection to your plate.
You holler down the table, “You mind passing the biscuits back up this way?” And a bucket brigade of hands would work the plate back up the table. It was like eating with the Waltons.
And here’s the kicker. They always had pickled peaches on the table. And because these women wear aprons and are generational artisans of the mysteries of canning and pickling, their flawless peaches could make you weep with joy.
I’m remembering this as I stare at the label on the jar. I thought, “I’m gonna take a chance here.” And I put a jar in my basket.
The pork chops were good that night, but let me tell you, the pickled peaches were to die for. The texture was right. The aroma was right. I cut a bite with my fork, stabbed it, and shoveled it into my mouth.
The taste made me close my eyes. You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but in that moment I could see and smell and taste another time in my life. It was like I had lifted the pieces of my past out of that jar.
I miss the smell and feel of a well-oiled baseball glove. The pop of the ball when it hits the pocket just right. The feel of the grass on a freshly mowed field.
I miss a house with screen doors in the springtime. The heavy wooden doors pushed back against the wall. A Sears Roebuck catalogue to hold them open. Fresh air moving through each room and bringing with it the smell of clover.
I miss the sound of beagle hounds in the pen at feeding time. The long baritone howls of the chase up the edge of the swamp. The restrained eagerness of a good hunting dog.
I miss the feel of being out of school for the summer. Turning in your books on that last day of class. Feeling like you were growing up. Like you had nothing but lazy days and adventures in front of you.
I still have the baseball glove. It sits up on a shelf at home. But I don’t have a screen door on the porch. I don’t own any hunting dogs. And I haven’t had a lazy summer off in 50 years.
But what I do have is pickled peaches; some of the best you’ve ever put in your mouth.
Next trip by the store I’m gonna buy a whole case of memories in a jar. I wouldn’t want to run out.