New York in September
This article is an excerpt from Marie Viljoen's book 66 Square Feet- A Delicious Life published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
A clarity of light and air arrives. One morning, in the acute perspective that September gives to every building, roof, and tree, we know that summer is over. It is a relief.
The sky is an unrivalled blue. Every skyline is sharpened and defined. Streets are long and deep shadows are explicit. Colors are vibrant. Each exquisite silver scallop of the Chrysler Building is visible for miles as the dry, dense air that precedes cold weather penetrates the city and brings it into focus.
Summer’s heat has brought a premature carpet of dry leaves to the bluestone sidewalks so that we crush them underfoot and smell a memory half extinct, barely accessible and long ago. We are scenting fall.
For the first time since June we walk outside without breaking into a sweat. At night the air has an edge that makes us think about what sweaters are for, and we discover moth holes in our favorite pullovers. Coats remain a distant memory, and hang like a threat in the closet. At the farmers’ markets a never-ending glut of tomatoes and late summer eggplants and corn still piles high on tables and is picked over fretfully by the same shoppers who pined for them all the long winter. Fickle, we are impatient for change. Early Seckel pears fill wooden crates. Round mountains of plums give me ideas. Concord grapes are ripe at last, in dark purple and green bloom. Honeybees hover over the musky syrup that oozes from spoiled and sampled bunches. I start to eat my grapes before I have reached the subway platform, the loose skins slipping onto my tongue and swallowed after the soft pulp. Walking in the labyrinth of tiled tunnels under Union Square, ducking lower into the retained heat that recalls soaking summer, this single mouthful puts me immediately beneath the Van Heerdens’ grape arbor behind their house on Marquard Crescent in Bloemfontein, where as a little girl I first tasted the musk of Catawbas, a close Concord relative, and unusual in South Africa.
On a blue weekend we ride the A train, skimming the surface of Jamaica Bay where the tracks cross it on their way to the Far Rockaways. We disembark on the island of Broad Channel. It is a community of modest beach houses, low chain-link fences, clean streets, cemented front yards, beware of dog signs guarding chipped garden gnomes who preside over gardens of gravel and fake flowers. Every wooden utility pole flies an American flag. You can hear a pin drop. On the wide Crossbay Boulevard we take a right, and hike for another ten minutes down one of the worst-maintained and weed-sprouting sidewalks in the city and on to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, whose two parts straddle the boulevard. We turn sharply east, past the sign warning of deer ticks, into the shade through a tunnel of white birch trees. The city disappears. At Big John’s Pond, a family of black-crowned night-herons dozes on a fallen branch tilting toward the water. A giant egret is frozen in fishing position above the lily pads.
On the East Pond, scores of white swans float in front of a palisade of trees beginning to tint orange and studded with roosting egrets. The ascending thunder of the jets across the water at JFK starts to feel like part of the weather. On a Sunday afternoon there is no one else in sight.
Here is goldenrod, the harbinger of fall, tilting above the last transparent flowers of purple false foxgloves. Nearby in the rain-fed grass are the low stems of nodding ladies’ tresses, a clear white orchid. This is New York City. The Refuge on the other side of the boulevard is another country—the wide open west. The air is a constant salted breeze off the bay. Small waves lap the beach where smooth cordgrass is a supple ruffle on the shoreline. At low tide the beach broadens and a walk around its damp skirt reveals clam shells, horseshoe crab skeletons as fortified as medieval body armor, emerald pieces of sea lettuce, and the ugly flotsam and jetsam of a city. An osprey sails overhead. A black skimmer flies just above the water, its long red toucan beak leaving a slim and precise trail on the surface.
The resin of bayberry bruises the air when I crush a leaf in my fingers. The shrubs’ branches are crowded with waxy blue berries. Tart autumn olives are ripe, bright scarlet skins flecked with silver. Spangled in their fretwork of slim leaves, small white asters are beginning to bloom. The ivy that twines up the dry reeds is turning crimson. The season tilts.
We take a day’s break beyond the borders of the city and drive out to the beautiful North Fork, as far from Brooklyn as we can get while remaining on Long Island. The blue lasts as far as we can see, transparent blue water meeting clear blue sky. One hundred miles northeast of home it is cooler by several degrees, the season a week or two ahead, lapped by the Atlantic breeze. We have driven through fields of late Queen Anne’s lace, yellow streamers of solidago, and white mounds of starry asters in the fields and roadsides. Waves break cleanly onto sand cobbled with pebbles and transparently washed shells. Our picnic spread on the beach tastes better than a story—cucumbers and salt, thin ham and a baguette, and local North Fork wine. There is longing in my husband’s green eyes, and I know that the sea is calling him. He lived for a decade in it. We drive back, our approach to the city slowing as traffic increases and the silhouettes of the mass of stalled cars ahead begin to halo in the bright, sinking sun. In the dusk of midweek Brooklyn, we sit on the grassy hill at Pier 1 and look far out toward the Statue of Liberty and the Staten Island ferries that cross the harbor every thirty minutes in their rush hour. We sip cold riesling that turns golden in the glasses as the sun loses its grip on the skyline, throwing us into the cold shadow of skyscrapers.
We shiver. And that feels good.
Concord Grape Granita
Concords are grapes with personality. Here the musky essence of the fruit is captured in a simple, crackling glassful of scented ice.
MAKES 3 CUPS (720 ML)
6 cups (900 g) Concord grapes
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Crush the fruit lightly and heat with 1/3 cup (80 g) of water in a covered saucepan. Simmer gently for 10 minutes until the grapes have exuded much of their juice. Strain the liquid through a sieve into a bowl, mashing the grapes lightly to extract as much juice as possible. You should have about 2 cups (480 ml).
Add the lemon juice. Transfer the juice to a bowl and freeze. Check on it after 2 hours. As soon as it begins to freeze, scratch the frozen part free, into the unset liquid. Check and scratch every hour. The more often you scratch, the better the crystals will be.
Serve in small glasses.
Photo credits: Marie Viljoen and Vincent Mounier (bottom photo).