The Local Food Report: on inheriting a dream

What if, instead of having a dream, a dream had you? What if it grabbed you one day, picked you up on the street, took you by the horns, and told you what you were going to do every day for the rest of your life? Would you hop on board, or would you run?

I recognize that I sound like I'm writing song lyrics for Selena (Dreaming of You, anyone?), but that's the sort of story I want to tell you today. I met this woman, Myrna Cook, at the Falmouth Farmer's Market a month or so ago, a few weeks before we left. I didn't have time to tell you about her then, but she's the kind of woman you can't forget. She's quiet and sweet and a little bit private, too, and eight years ago, she and her husband bought a house. Or, they thought they bought just a house. Turns out, it came with a dream.

It was an abandoned house—somewhere in Barnstable—and just a little bit ramshackle after two years of empty rooms and an overgrown lawn. People told them they were crazy to buy it, that it needed more love than two people could possibly give, but they went in anyway. There were fruit trees here and there and it was in a nice, quiet neighborhood, and at any rate, it would be a fun project to have a fixer-upper, to do some renovations as time went on. They learned that a Ukranian woman and her husband had owned it before them, and that she had passed away young and unexpectedly before he sold. Then one day, when they were ripping through the attic in the midst of a project, they found a plan.

It was an orchard plan—a plan to have a business selling and putting up fruit. They realized that there were 48 trees and not just a few, and that the storage shed out back was for keeping pears and apples to overwinter in. They uncovered other traces—a stainless steel work table, more and more varieties of apples, peaches, plums, and pears. Myrna decided that if the woman who'd planted the trees hadn't had time to live out her dream, then she would have to live it out for her.

She started by collecting fruit samples from every tree. She sent them to the UMass Extension program, and they sent her back a 30-page color report on what kind of trees she had inherited, and how to keep them alive. She bought books on horticulture and fruit growing and combed the internet for workshop dates. She even enlisted the help of Spooner Ornamental Care, a plant health care provider in Hatchville, and hired a landscaper to help with pruning and year round maintenance. Of the 48 original trees, 30 survived, and this year, for the first time, Myrna had fruit healthy enough to sell.

When I asked Myrna if the dream had somehow, along the way, become her own, she hesitated. It wasn't really her dream, she said, but she had learned to love it over time. It was a labor of love in the most immediate sense—in the sense that fruit farming means sore knees and heavy lifting and probably a flare up of carpal tunnel syndrome here and there. Fruit wants to be picked when it wants to be picked—and to inherit this sort of dream, there isn't any way around the nitty-gritty of that.

This time of year, Myrna's wrapping things up—selling the last of her hardy apples and pears, and getting the orchard ready for a cold, hard winter—making sure not too many branches and buds tumble to the ground. She's ready for a break, ready for pie-baking and apple butter and the hubbub of the holidays, ready, for a few months at least, to lay the dream down. But underneath that readiness, she's incredibly proud. She's proud that she's been able to rehab the trees, proud and amazed to have fruit shiny and sweet enough that people actually want to buy it. She can hardly believe that this dream has taken off so well in her hands.

The phrase that's stuck with me the most, though, is something she told me after we first talked, something she murmured over the wires of the phone. I asked her why she did it—why she was so open to living this woman's dream out, this woman who she'd never even met. She thought for a second.

It was like picking a message up off the street, she said. Suddenly, my whole direction changed.

One day, I hope to be as open to life as that. In the meantime, I think I'll settle to being open to cake—to cake even the second time it's baked, even after the first try went so terribly wrong.

Like Myrna's fruit, some things just need a chance—the chance to be given a second time around.


This cake is adapted from a recipe I found in September in Bon App├ętit. I didn't mean for it to be an adaptation, really, but the first time I baked the cake I didn't read the directions all the way through before I made it. Also, I didn't have any parchment paper.

This, unsurprisingly, lead to the discoveries that a) there was a reason the ingredients for the pear compote came first, namely, that the compote was supposed to be ready when the cake was only half baked, and that b) because I had not lined the pan with parchment paper, even if the pear compote had been ready, the cake still never would have ended up intact upside-down on top of it as it was supposed to.

Luckily, as you know, Fisher ate the first cake, but the second time around, I decided to go without parchment paper again and keep the pears on top. The end result was not exactly what I'd imagined on the beach the day I was paging through the magazine—but somehow, for today, it seemed right.

Pear Compote:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 pound firm but ripe Bosc pears, peeled, halved, cored, and sliced thin

Combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, and thyme in a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Turn the heat down to medium, add the pears, and simmer until the fruit is tender but still intact, roughly 10 minutes. Transfer the pears from the saucepan to a cookie sheet using a slotted spoon. Continue cooking the remaining liquid for about five minutes, until it thickens into a syrup.

Buttermilk Cake:
1 heaping cup all-purpose flour
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 stick butter
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium size mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a large mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter and beat in the egg and then the egg yolk. Add the vanilla to the buttermilk, and then add the wet ingredients and the dry ingredients alternately to the egg mixture until everything is just mixed.

Spoon the batter into a buttered and floured 8-inch round cake pan with at least 2-inch high sides. Bake the cake for about 35 minutes, or until the top is just set. Leaving the oven on, take the cake out. Arrange the pear slices over the top of the cake in a circular pattern (or really, whatever pattern you like), and pour the syrup evenly over the top of the whole cake. Return the cake to the oven and bake it for another 10 minutes or so, or until the edges are just golden brown. Let it cool for several hours before serving it, maybe with some buttermilk ice cream, at room temperature.

Kate's, from Maine
Garelick Farms, purchased before we got our milk, which has finally—hooray!—returned
eggs, pears:
the December 6th Provincetown farmers' market
our garden

P.S. The UMass Amherst website has a ton of information on growing fruit, in case you're interested. There's so much there, in fact, that if you're just trying to get a feel for whether or not you're up for planting an orchard, it's hard to even know where to start. This page, put together by Fedco Seeds in Maine, has a little bit more broad information. (Scroll down to where it says "Choosing a Site For Fruit Trees and Berries.")


Alexandra Grabbe said...

Thanks for sharing Myrna's story. I loved the whole concept of inheriting a dream ...

Elspeth said...

Alexandra, it's crazy, isn't it? I think it is amazingly courageous to take on something so big and full of heart. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I know Myrna would be too.

All the best,

Tomten Farm said...

That is a marvelous story about Myrna. I'm glad she shared it with you, and you with us.

I'm finishing the last of her apples from that day at Falmouth Farmers' Market.

Apple upside down spice cake.

Bie said...

Myrna's stoy is wonderful.Thanks for sharing it.Life can b wonderful. blee

Jen (emsun.org) said...

How wonderful that she was able to inherit the dream, keep the tradition, and feel something for doing it. That's amazing.

Elspeth said...

Karen, apple upside down spice cake! Please tell us now it came out, because it sounds brilliant.

Biee, life certainly can be wonderful, especially for people who are lucky enough to have a grandmother like you. xo

And Jen, I think you are especially right that it's amazing how strongly Myrna ended up feeling about the dream. She just made a decision and poured herself into it, which is something I very much respect.

All the best,


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