I don’t want to give you ideas. I mean, if I’m honest (and you can’t be a good writer if you’re not), I don’t actually want to send you, reader, out to the sandy margins of the bay beach to pick beach plums from their gnarled branches in the solitude of a late-summer afternoon. Why? Because I would like to hoard both the beach plums and — especially — the solitude for myself. But that’s the horns of the dilemma faced weekly by a newspaper column author: Which private thoughts and clever ideas to divulge? Which to stow away and keep for myself?
This is stupid, and betrays something of my childish nature, but after all these years I’m still crestfallen when I go out into the bogs and hollows of the Walking Dunes in October only to find other people crawling about plink-plonking cranberries into pails. It’s unreasonable of me, but the appearance of happy strangers carrying buckets in previously wild — unvisited — places is among the losses the population boom has rained down on our heads, we the locals raised here, of a certain age, and we will moan and we will groan. Unreasonably, unfairly. I do wish you all cranberries. And beach plums.
Beach plum jelly, made from the juice of the fruit, is far and away the most popular thing to cook from beach plums, but there are other things, less obvious things, you can do with your harvest. My friend Nina in Noyac has been soaking them in canisters for beach plum vodka! I need to try that for my New Year’s toast. My friend Nisse has been out getting beach plums, too, and asked me if I had any old family recipes, from the Amagansett antecedents, that might be of interest.
We carry a heavy burden of purportedly historical notes, papers, and scraps in this old house — stored in a variety of historical filing cabinets, overstuffed drawers, and inconveniently shaped antique desks — but no notes, papers, or scraps pertaining to beach plums have I found. So I took down my stack of Ladies Village Improvement Society cookbooks, dating back nearly 125 years, to see what I could discover. It turns out that my great-grandmother Florence Huntting Edwards (or “Mrs. Everett J. Edwards” as the ladies would have it) was the self-appointed beach plum queen of the South Fork.
No surprise. Anointing ourselves authority or chieftain of something-something-whatever is a family trait — characteristic? flaw? — that can be traced back through the centuries, like our small, straight teeth. Florence supplied several beach plum recipes to the L.V.I.S., including a few that were slightly left of center, like a beach plum jam (made with the flesh of the fruit) and a beach plum pie. I can summarize the pie for you, with a brevity inspired by the brevity of the L.V.I.S. housewives of yore when they shared their “receipts”: Between two crusts, place enough pitted beach plums to fill the pie plate, mixing 3/4 cup sugar in for each full cup of plums, and bake at 350 for about an hour. Tah-dah.
Interestingly, no beach plum recipes appear in the very earliest editions of the L.V.I.S. cookbooks, between the turn of the century and the Roaring Twenties. Maybe beach plums were considered poverty food. Or maybe everyone already knew what to do with them, and it was too obvious to require writing down.
My brother, something of a connoisseur, felt the beach plums weren’t truly ripe until Saturday, and he put off his picking until then. Everyone says it’s a bumper year. It’s also a bumper-crop year for hydrangeas — have you noticed them, boundless white hydrangeas this August, nodding and bouncing on the PeeGee trees? — as well as dragonflies. I haven’t gotten my beach plums yet, myself, because I was otherwise occupied, nursing a teenager with mononucleosis and driving this weekend to a wedding in Massachusetts, but I plan to go this afternoon if the rain holds off and if I can find them still ripe, ripe, berry-ripe. They should be an iron-purple, deep purple, waxed with the white “plum bloom.”
In my self-conception, I’m 100 percent the sort of person who keeps her pantry full of home-canned goods, peaches under tin lids and dandelion cordials corked in bottles. I do have all the requisite equipment (rubber-coated tongs to remove lids from a boiling-water bath, Ball jars), but in truth I’m too lazy to do much canning. This is why I volunteer to make cranberry relish or a spiced chutney for autumn-holiday festivities or communal meals, instead. Chutney or relish is easier because you don’t have to go through the ritual of sanitizing the jars in boiling water.
Here is what you do. Go to the L.V.I.S. Bargain Box and, avoiding the temptation of the vintage shoe racks, head to the annex in the back, where the inexpensive housewares are sold, and find an old-fashioned meat grinder. I saw two meat grinders there on Tuesday, the kind that clamp to the edge of a table or counter. Also see if there’s a cherry-pitter. Buy those.
Remove the pits from, oh, maybe five cups of beach plums. Grind them up in the meat grinder; it doesn’t matter much which grinder disk you use, but maybe one of the disks that looks like a sunburst or fan. For each cup of ground beach plums, use 3/4 cup of white sugar; yes, nearly as much sugar as fruit. Cut up a clementine or Halo orange and run it, whole, skin and all, through the grinder, letting some sugar flow from your fist into the grinder with the orange. (The sugar helps the orange move through. If the orange doesn’t look like it has been truly ground, run it through again.) Run a handful of candied ginger through the grinder, too, with more of the sugar.
Put all the above in a heavy-bottomed pot with, also: 3/4 cup currants, one whole star anise, a teaspoon of fresh-grated nutmeg, and half a cup of sweet dessert wine, orange juice, or water. Your choice. Bring it to a boil, stirring to make sure the bottom doesn’t scorch. Taste carefully. Don’t burn your tongue. And add more sugar or spice, or liquid, if needed. It shouldn’t be dry. Low-boil for maybe 15 minutes. Experiment with a dash of balsamic, if you like. Remove from the heat. Once cool, fish out the star anise with a fork, and ladle the relish into lidded containers to keep in the fridge.
I, personally, keep this relish in the fridge for up to three months after preparing it, but I cannot recommend in print that you do so, because the Health Department might not approve, so I recommend you eat it up within two weeks. Or, better yet, take it to a dinner party or weekend in the country as a hostess gift within two weeks. The hostess will be impressed when you say you picked them yourself.