Charles notices it before I do, that familiar sing-song count of parents holding the hands of a toddler and swinging the giggling child high in the air. He nudges me to turn and look. "Our son's all grown up now," Charles says to the parents wistfully. "We can't do that with him anymore." The parents smile as awkwardly as we once did, not sure what to say to people whose lives have taken them outside the borders of what to them still seems a land without end: the country of parenthood.
We're walking across the dirt parking lot to the entrance of the Salman Raspberry Ranch, outside Mora, New Mexico. We come here almost every year for the pick-your-own raspberry harvest, our own little hedge against winter. We started coming when our son was a teen. By now we've been here far more times without him than with him, and while truth be told I've grown to love this middle-earth between child-rearing and grandparenting, something in this place invites nostalgia. Maybe it's the bushes festooned with berries at child's-eye level, the bright blue skies swirled with clouds like egg whites in egg drop soup. This is "Blueberries for Sal," kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk!, where the bears come only at night.
Our first stop is the booth where a tiny Hispanic woman pre-weighs the baskets we brought. (They provide buckets for people who didn't bring their own containers.) A traffic director guides each group of customers to their own row and offers some advice. Most people don't go to the end of the row, he says, so there may be better pickings there. Reach down to the bottom branches; that's where the riper ones are.
It's still early in season, but there are plenty of red berries among the green ones. My strategy is to go for the ripest ones, which have the best flavor. Charles picks the firmest ones, which will hold their shape best by the time we get home. At first as many go in our mouths as the baskets, but eventually our baskets fill. The kids in the next row are getting rambunctious, and Charles is picking up their vibe. His berries are better than my scrawny ones, he says. But mine taste better, I counter. Good thing we're not competitive, he says. Yeah but I'm better at being uncompetitive than you are, I say. He tosses a berry at me.
Back in Maryland, an "Indian Summer" could last well into September, even October. Here in the New Mexico mountains, fall comes early. By Labor Day weekend, summer's harsh light has yielded to softer colors, longer shadows, air as sweet as a baby's kiss. When we get home, I'll line the berries on cookie sheets, put them in the freezer until they're frozen solid, then pack them in freezer-bags until some dreary winter day when we'll throw some in pancakes or a pie. There's no stopping time: kids grow up; frosts hit; harvests end. But a few bags of raspberries in the freezer persuade us we have stolen a piece of summer and given us a jump on the next.
2/3 cup balsamic or other hearty vinegar
1/3 cup oil
Salt to taste
Mash the berries a bit with a fork and let them sit for a few minutes to let more of the juices release, then put them berries in a mason or other jar with a good lid. Stir in the vinegar and salt, then whisk as you pour in the oil slowly. Alternatively, just add the oil, vinegar and salt at once, cover and shake the beejesus out of it. The high ratio of vinegar to oil works well since the raspberries are so sweet. Delicious on a spinach salad with artichoke hearts, olives, gorgonzola cheese, sliced pear and candied walnuts.