Close to home, close to heaven

The Baltimore Sun

Anyone coordinated enough to lick his or her own elbow possesses a rare gift, like being able to hum and whistle at the same time.

Kids shamelessly try to do it - as soon as you tell them most people can't. Yet the only time adults usually try is on or around the Fourth of July, when the watermelon is so ripe that the juice pools in the crevice of your thumbs, slides coolly down your forearms and beads on your elbows.

It awakens something in us, that tickle of fruit sap. Consider the taste of summer's yellow cling peaches: No matter how far you lean over the sink to catch the nectar, you still end up with it slavering into your collar and down to your elbow - just out of range of your tongue.

This nectar of summer is not just experience but indulgence. And the magic is ripest when barely removed from the earth.

My husband and I go "U-picking" each summer. We live in Howard County, where the plethora of local produce - a rainbow of strawberries, tomatoes, carrots, nectarines, corn, pears, broccoli, cucumbers, eggplant, grapes and more - means we need never settle for what Garrison Keillor labeled grocery store-Styrofoam, the kind "they strip mine down in Texas."

The feeling of turning onto a gravel road marked by a hand-painted "Pick-Your-Own" sign, one arm dangling out the car window, could hardly be more different from the feel of dragging a cranky metal cart into a massive grocery store.

Fresh fruits and veggies simply taste - and feel - better. There's that surprising soft spot in a plum where you sink in clear to the nose. Or the fleshy hard pit of a cherry against the back of your teeth. That's because local growers have the freedom to select for taste and texture, not just an apple's ability to withstand four to seven days' transit. And certainly, fresh produce is better for us. Food retains vitamins when allowed to mature on the plant - close to its roots - rather than being tossed, unripe, onto a truck, where it's expected to reach healthy adulthood (on its own or with the aid of sprayed-on hormones). There is peace of mind that comes with knowing where your food has been all its life.

And best of all, eating from the garden is intimate - by nature. Under sacred blankets of dirt, beds of earth and seed somehow conceive. They make of themselves flesh that we eat, and it becomes part of us. On sultry afternoons, we sample promiscuously. We inhale heady melons and earth-scented potatoes, and ingest bitter asparagus and treacly raspberries. Downy peaches thrill the upper lip. Apples rip, sweet corn cracks, plums smack.

Is it any wonder that paradise was a garden and fruit the ultimate temptation?

In summertime, the closer it is to home grown, the closer it takes us to our core - our most vibrant, elbow-licking humanity.


Susan Heslinga, an Ellicott City resident is a high school English teacher at Chapelgate Christian Academy and a graduate student in writing at the Johns Hopkins University. Her e-mail is

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