Blueberry peach shortcake

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Robert St. John

Robert St. John

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about how certain senses are inherently connected to my memory. The strongest of those memories are from my childhood. Certain sights, sounds and smells are so deeply rooted in my early years that — even as a 57-year-old man — when I hear a song, taste a food or get a whiff of a certain scent, it immediately takes me back to my youth, and where I was when I first encountered that impression.

Now that summer has officially arrived and the daytime temperature at two in the afternoon is just a shade above eternal damnation, all of those memories from my youth bombard me in a beautiful way.  

The following is a Top 10 list of my favorite childhood summer sensory memories

10: The feel of my bare feet on pavement and grass — In those days, our summer school vacation lasted three full months. It seems as if my shoes came off on Memorial Day and didn’t go back on until after Labor Day. June feet were tender and sensitive to concrete driveways and hot pavement. August feet could run full speed down a gravel road.

I once read that walking barefoot on grass before bedtime helps one relax and sleep. I believe that. I go outside, on occasion, and let my bare feet connect to the lawn before I go to bed. 

9: The taste of cantaloupe — I used to spend the night with my grandmother in the summertime. She usually made pancakes for my breakfast, but she always ate a quarter of a cantaloupe. We would sit in her breakfast room, awash in natural morning light, and eat breakfast together with the constant hum of the window unit air conditioner in the background. Many times, I would eat a piece of cantaloupe after I finished my pancakes.

I never eat a piece of cantaloupe today that I don’t think about sitting in my grandmother’s breakfast room. That’s not a rhetorical statement. Seriously, I never eat a piece of cantaloupe without thinking of my grandmother. Ever. Period. That is how strongly my senses connect to my cerebral hard drive. And there’s no greater motivation to eat melon.

8: The smell of the atmosphere after an afternoon rain — An afternoon shower in the South Mississippi summer is as dependable as a country preacher, and even more punctual. The air is fresh and pristine after it rains in the South. The person who eventually bottles that scent will make a mint.

7. The sound of rain hitting a tin roof — We had a small fish camp just off of John’s Bayou in Vancleave, upstream from the headwaters of the Pascagoula River. The porch of the camp had a tin roof. The smell of the post-shower atmosphere was coming soon. But in the moment, the sound of the rain was gift enough. When I was in the hammock on that porch during an afternoon rain, all was right with my life, and — as Steinbeck said — “Once again the world was spinning in greased grooves.”

6. The taste of sweet corn — I used to go to the farmers’ market with my mother on Wednesdays and Saturdays. She called it the “curb market.” Everyone called it the curb market. I knew all of the farmers and suppliers. I can eat sweet corn straight off of the cob standing in a garden or walking around in the curb market

5. (tie) The smell of a window unit air-conditioner — Most people probably don’t think air conditioners emit an odor. Most people would be wrong. My childhood home and my grandmother’s home both had window unit air conditioners. I can remember getting out of the hot bathtub in the summertime and running through the house — still mostly wet — and going into the den and sitting directly in front of the window unit, wrapped in a damp bath towel, to watch Batman or The Green Hornet.

There is a certain metallic smell those window units produce. I love it. It is the smell of my youth, and one that I never encounter today.

5. (tie) The smell of freshly cut grass — I have worked steadily since I was 12 years old. My first jobs were mowing neighbors’ lawns. I hated it, but if I was going to have any spending money, it was all I was qualified to do and all the law would allow me to do.

As much as I despised the hot and humid work of pushing a heavy manual lawnmower through thick St. Augustine and centipede grass, I still love the smell of freshly cut grass. It is what my youth smelled like — summer jobs, hot work and two-a-day football practices — things I hated at the time, but still love the way they smelled.

4. The smell of chlorine on my skin— As a kid, I knew two people with swimming pools in their backyards. Pools were rare in those days, which made swimming at someone’s home unique and exotic. There is a certain smell when one gets out of a pool and goes into an air-conditioned house. It’s hard to describe, but it’s some type of mixture of chlorine, laundry detergent and Freon. I love that scent … I miss that scent.

3. The aroma of chicken frying in a skillet — On Sundays, we usually ate lunch at my grandmother’s house. She alternated the menu between leg of lamb, roast beef, roast turkey and fried chicken. My lifelong obsession with lamb started in the dining room of that house at 205 4th Ave. My lasting love affair with fried chicken started not in the dining room or kitchen, but in my grandmother’s backyard.

2. The sound of WXXX AM radio — Music might have the strongest connections to my memory banks. I love music. I have always loved music. These days, I listen to several styles and genres, though in my youth, there was AM radio, and only AM radio. Certain songs come on an oldies station today and I can peg it as a “pool song,” a “riding around song” or any number of youthful activities — and if it was released between 1965 and 1985, I can probably give you the artist and year with 90 percent accuracy.

1. The taste of fresh peaches — To me, nothing tastes more like summer than fresh peaches. Whether they are in freshly churned ice cream, atop cold breakfast cereal, in a bowl with sugar or just peeled and eaten like an apple. That is the flavor of the Southern summer. That is the flavor of my youth and for that, I am grateful.

Today we have central air-conditioning throughout our house. The units are overworked nine months out of the year. Though, I think I am going to go out and buy a window-unit air conditioner and slip it into a window in my bedroom, just so I can sit in front of it when I get out of the shower and to know when the fried chicken is ready.


Blueberry-Peach shortcake

 

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tbsp sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

1 tbsp baking powder

1/8 tsp salt

3/4 cup cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), diced

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup heavy cream, chilled

1/4 cup sour cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water or milk, for egg wash

1/4 cup sugar

4-5 ripe peaches, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 pint blueberries

• Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

• Sift the flour, two tablespoons sugar, the baking powder and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Blend in the butter at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is the size of peas. Combine the eggs, heavy cream, sour cream and vanilla extract and quickly add to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended. The dough will be sticky.

• Dump the dough out onto a well-floured surface. Flour your hands and pat the dough out 3/4-inch thick. You should see lumps of butter in the dough.

• Cut biscuits with a 2 3/4-inch cutter and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

• Brush the tops with the egg wash. Sprinkle with sugar and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the outsides are crisp and the insides are fully baked. Let cool on a wire rack.

• While the biscuits are baking, combine the 1/4 cup of sugar with the sliced peaches and lemon juice. Refrigerate until needed.

• Split each shortcake in half crosswise and place the bottom half on a plate. Place a small amount of the peach mixture atop each biscuit bottom. • Place one scoop of ice cream on the peaches and spoon the remaining peaches over the ice cream. Place the biscuit top over the filled bottom half and sprinkle each shortcake with 2-3 tablespoons of fresh blueberries, serve immediately.

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