What’s in season? Pears

This week, I’ve been thinking about pears.

pretty pears

Mmmm. Pears…

Pears? I can almost see your furrowed brows. Why pears? you may be wondering and well you might.

Apples are, after all, the glory of Albemarle County. We have our own heirloom variety—the tiny, tart Albemarle Pippin—not to mention apple festivals and fall pressings and, my personal favorite, my buddy Kevin Lynch’s homemade hard apple cider.

Just this fall, apples have adorned the cover of Edible Blue Ridge magazine here in Charlottesville; they’ve been the subject of countless newspaper food section spreads all over our region; they were the star of—well, at least the opening act in—The Botany of Desire, the book that started the whole Michael Pollan phenom. And yet … I can’t stop thinking about pears.

You see, they, too, are in season—though you’d never know it to look at the grocery store shelves, which abound with pears fresh off the container ship from China and Chile twelve months of the year…

But the “slow foods”-local foods folks have got me thinking about seasonal eating. And that’s meant thinking back, way back to childhood when “farm fresh” meant the food I ate “down home,” at my grandparents’ farm in Godsey, a tiny community of emancipated slaves who all purchased land together, founded a church together, married, farmed, worked, and lived together near Ninety-Six, a one-stoplight hamlet in South Carolina’s Appalachian foothills.

Yes, there’s a story behind the name Ninety-Six, and one day I’ll tell it, but today I’m thinking about the pear trees on my grandfather’s farm—one hundred fifty acres of the “sweetest land on earth,” my Uncle Lee Moss used to call it.

tree swing

Just after dawn last November: an old tree swing, the sweetest land on earth

There was a pear tree by the cotton house, where the cotton was stored until it could be taken to the gin, another by the well house and yet another next to the enormous woodpile that fed the woodstoves, the one on which my grandma—we called her Mawmaw—cooked and the ones that heated the house.

I knew nothing of varieties in those days, just that the fruit were green and stony hard and they’d make you sick if you tried to eat them too soon (and we “grands” tried every year). But that was just until late fall, and then they’d turn honey sweet and golden yellow—well worth the wait.

Those trees gave fruit in such abundance that it was impossible to eat fresh. So my aunts and uncles would pick, and Mawmaw would can in quart-sized Mason jars or turn the fruit into meltingly sweet preserves.

Sweetness. That was what I remember of that farm. Now, I was a city kid and no stranger to penny sweets from the corner store. But there was nothing in my city life like the sweetness to be found on that farm, which, along with pears, produced  green and red apples, yellow and white peaches, bright red plums not to mention the sweet melons from Mawmaw’s one-acre vegetable “patch” and the mulberries, maypops, blackberries, scuppernongs, muscadines, persimmons, and so much more that grew wild.

By the time of cold weather, this time of year—the time of frosty nights and grandkids snuggled two and three to a bed under piles of quilts sewn on a foot-powered Singer by Mawmaw and my aunts—all that sweetness had been dried or canned or jellied and was waiting in neat rows in the root cellar to be turned into dessert.

So I’d like to share a recipe for my grandmother’s cobbler—a word she never used, by the way; her desserts were either “cakes” or “pies.” I was lucky enough to get the green thumb gene from my Mawmaw—the baking gene, unfortunately, passed me by. But this cobbler, which is neither a cake nor a pie but a kind of best-of-both-worlds cross between the two, is so easy even I can’t mess it up!

One note about the pears—my grandmother made this all-purpose recipe with fresh peaches or berries in summer or with canned pears or dried (and reconstituted) apples in fall and winter. A really firm pear would likely not cook to the desired consistency, so I’d recommend really ripe fresh pears or lightly stewed pears for this recipe.

Mawmaw’s Fall Pear “Pie”

1 stick of butter

1 cup of self-rising flour

1 cup of sugar

1 cup of milk

1 T of vanilla extract

½ tsp of cinnamon

A pinch of salt

2 cups of peeled pears

Peel and chop the pears. If they’re nice and soft, add 1 T of sugar, a squirt of lemon and set aside in a bowl. If they are firm, stew for about 10 minutes in a small amount of water with 1 T of sugar and either a pinch of salt or a squirt of lemon. (A touch of tart to cut the sweetness).

Preheat oven to 325 degrees, place butter in a casserole-style baking dish in the oven.

Combine wet and dry ingredients separately, then slowly combine wet with dry to create a cake-like batter.

Remove the melted butter from oven and pour the batter on top of the melted butter.

Pour the pears and some of the reserved juices on top of the batter.

Shake the dish to even the distribution of batter and fruit.

Bake about 30 minutes or until a golden brown crust forms on top. (Note: This will not be a “dry” pie, but gooey and delicious).

Serve with a tall, frosty glass of (raw!) milk or with a scoop of your favorite vanilla ice cream.

OK, this is making me hungry. I gotta get in the kitchen and get baking. … But stay tuned. I’ve got a lot more to say about my farming ancestors. I think you’ll find them quite an interesting crew.