Summer Salad

by Cathy Corcoran


I am sitting under the big red umbrella on my patio waiting for the exact moment of the summer solstice, 1:16 PM on June 21.  At that moment, the earth will reach the point where it is most sharply inclined toward the sun.  This tipping toward the sun is what causes summer in the northern hemisphere.  Then, mother earth will begin her slow tipping back the other way until the winter solstice on December 21.


It’s a perfect day, and I am loving the blue sky, the cool breeze, the bright sunshine, the sounds of birds in the woods.  


I fix some lunch - a baby spinach salad.  This reminds me of the lunch I had at the Hula Grille on Ka’anapali Beach on Maui this past March.  


It was a fabulous salad, made with baby spinach greens, beets, gorgonzola cheese, and some little fruits, oval, red, strange, smaller than grapes.  After tasting mangoes and papayas and even pineapples that tasted nothing like the ones we get at home, I bit into the little red fruit and was met with an explosion of flavor in my mouth.  Intense, fruity, sweet, but with an earthy taste underneath, not sugary like pineapple or other tropical fruit.  It was fabulous.  I ate a few more, noting how this new taste went so well with the baby spinach and the gorgonzola cheese.


Gorgonzola, now available on most menus from Maui to Maine, was something that never appeared in my home when I was growing up.  My father’s father was apparently fond of gorgonzola.  I never saw him eat any, but I heard the stories, heard about the cheese that smelled like old socks, the cheese that was blue, not orange like the American cheese my mother served. Gorgonzola cheese - yuck!


As I grew up however, I discovered the joys of foods beyond the Velveeta of my childhood.  On a trip to California, I sampled guacamole - delicious! - with fresh cilantro - wonderful!  It came with shrimp and crumbled blue cheese, gorgonzola, as it turned out.  I loved it.


At the Hula Gille, I couldn’t wait to ask the waitress what those little red berries were.  I could expand my palate even further. Maybe I could find some in a gourmet food store back home.  At the very least, I’d look for them at the Farmer’s Market in Lahaina.  


“These things?”  the waitress asked.  Her eyes narrowed.  O.K., so she could tell I was a tourist, not familiar with exotic tropical delicacies.

“Yes,” I said gamely.  “What are they?”

“Um, little tomatoes,” she said.

“Tomatoes?” I squeaked.

“Tomatoes,” she said, shaking her head.


Isn’t it interesting how we see something and make up a story about it - yummy or gross, exotic or commonplace, nutritious or bad for us?  We file that story away, and when confronted with something that looks like, say, a tomato, we think we know what it is.  


But our expectations remove us from the direct experience.  I know what a tomato tastes like, but, since I didn’t think I knew what those little red things were, I was free from my knowledge, free from my expectations, free to experience the real thing.  And it was so much better than what I thought I knew.


Once the waitress told me those were little tomatoes, I knew it.  Of course they were!  But weren’t they wonderful anyway?  And it became apparent why tomatoes, which I used to think were vegetables, were really fruits.  These little grape tomatoes were sweet, plump, juicy, fruity.  They were great.


I put a few little grape tomatoes on today’s salad and sit down to enjoy them.


Then I look at my watch.  Oh no!  It’s 1:20 PM!  I have missed the solstice.  Rather than focus on what’s right in front of me, I was focusing on the past, on lunch on Maui, not on this beautiful day in Massachusetts.


Ancient people knew all about the summer solstice.  They built caves in Ireland more than 5,000 years ago where the rising sun touched a certain point on the floor on the summer solstice.  The Druids held ceremonies at Stonehage in England, the Chinese marked the day by honoring Li, their goddess of light.


But I, with my laptop computer and my digital clock at the ready, was thinking about March on Maui. I missed the moment on June 21.  It was the equivalent of focusing on the boring little word, “tomato,” and missing the delicious fruity flavor explosion in my mouth.


Well all is not lost.  I’m no astronomer, but I doubt that the earth reaches its tipping point, then bounces back like a tennis ball off a brick wall.  It stays here for a while. 

So I’ll sit here a while in my back yard and enjoy this glorious first day of summer.


No expectations, just the lovely flavor explosion of this beautiful summer day.

Right here. Right now.

That's where the juiciest sweetest things always are.