“Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine good God how fine. It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.” (John Keats, Letters of John Keats (1891), p 324)
When Keats gushes in pleasure-induced rapture about a nectarine to Charles Wentworth Dilke, the recipient of his letter, he is in the midst of describing a rather mundane career decision he has made to pay his bills while he waits for his creative writing to become profitable. Up until this point, which comes about two-thirds of the way through the letter, Keats has been explaining his reasons for taking on work for pay that he knows Dilke will find a bit distasteful. Keats creates an image for the reader by describing himself as having a pen in one hand and the nectarine in the other, going about the ordinary task of letter writing. Suddenly, the unexpected shock of the nectarine’s flavor, juice, and texture transports Keats into a moment that transcends his engagement with his ordinary task of letter writing. For Keats, the ingestion of the nectarine is a sensual experience, to which the characteristics of the fruit itself are essential. The “soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy” plumpness arouses a moment of surprise: an unexpected rush of joy in the midst of the banal act of writing a letter. He stops mid-thought (having just mentioned to Dilke his fear that he will not be able to afford many of life’s pleasures) to record the unexpected pleasure aroused by his enjoyment of a perfect piece of fruit.
Sometimes a piece of fruit or a helping of some other type of food, is just that: something to be eaten to nourish one’s body as she goes about fulfilling her daily responsibilities, or something served merely to fulfill the requirements of tradition: the apples and oranges available on the counters of university or work-place cafeterias; the canned pumpkin pie in frozen crust served at Thanksgiving celebrations; or the bland potato salad served in large bowls at summer picnics. Sometimes, however, one takes a bite of a food and much like Keats, is surprised by joy in the sudden deliciousness of that bite, transported by that bite to another mental mood or emotional state. Food is as intrinsically connected to our emotions and memories as much as it’s connected to the well-being of our bodies. Sometimes, as with Keat’s experience, food can make an ordinary moment extraordinary. I recently had one of these surprised by joy food moments, perhaps one not as dramatically moving as Keat’s describes (I did not feel that it would make me breed!), but surprisingly moving all the same.
I, like Keats, was similarly engaged in a quotidian duty – waiting in the backyard for our terrier Rex to decide he was ready for the ninety minute trip to Austin from San Antonio – when I decided to eat a peach that was at the point of turning so that it either had to travel to Austin with us, or spoil while waiting for our return trip to San Antonio. The peach was a bit soft and malleable on the outside, but as soon as I bit into it, the juicy, pulpy sweetness not only shocked me out of an ordinary moment, but also aroused my memory as it took me back to the summers of another era. If summer has a taste, surely it’s the flavor of a nearly over-ripe, golden-red, sweet, juicy peach. Each luscious bite of the tender skin and succulent, drippy fruit excited my memory, reminding me of the kind of summers we had when I was a child. This peach reminded me of summers in which, as children, my sisters and I played with friends under street lights while parents, gathered on someone’s front yard, sat in lawn chairs and talked while supervising our activities. We children played on, such games as cooties, or hide and seek, as the crickets chirped and the mosquitoes buzzed all around. We spent summers lazily: sleeping late, eating ice cream, riding bicycles, swimming, and sometimes just laying on our backs in the soft, fragrant grass, looking up a the sky and cloud-watching.
My sisters and I ate watermelon, deeply red and slushy, and discarded the seeds by spitting them at each other. We ate artificially neon yellow-colored banana Popsicles on the front lawn of the church during vacation Bible school. We walked to the corner store and bought small bottles of cold and frosty cane sugar-sweetened Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola that we lifted out of those old fashioned floor freezers, before anyone ever heard of high fructose corn syrup. We’d open the bottles at the store and drink them on our way home, reveling in our free and easy time with no responsibilities.
My grandfather would catch fresh fish from the marshes and piers between Savannah and Tybee Island, and for supper we’d have fish coated in corn meal, then fried golden brown; perfectly textured buttered grits; home-made French fries; fresh okra braised in tomatoes; and thick slices of cornbread made from scratch. Sometimes we’d have been out to the wild blackberry bushes near Ft. Pulaski and having hand-harvested a large amount of the plumb, juicy, purple-black berries, would have enough for my grandmother to make fresh blackberry pie. And we would eat fresh, delectable Georgia peaches.
Food is interesting this way. It can make an unnoticeable moment suddenly exciting and pleasurable, as with Keats and his nectarine, or me and my peach. One minute I’m standing in a backyard in Texas, getting one of my dogs ready for a short road trip, then one bite of a too-ripe, pulpy, juicy peach transcends the moment, makes it spectacular because the fruit is so delightfully enjoyable, and by its very flavor of early summer – it’s perfect season – takes me to another place and time.
And in celebration of the transformative power of food, scrumptious peaches, and sweet summer, I’ve been enjoying the most light and sensually enjoyable of lunches: peaches, brie cheese, and pecans. Some of the most delicious foods we eat are naturally made and naturally gluten-free.