New Jersey Peaches

Today we have to head for the shore. It’s my nephew’s birthday. Everyone who is free will meet at grand mom’s house for his birthday dinner. The problem is that it’s a Saturday, not the best day to drive to South Jersey. To make the best of it, the boys and I will divert the monotony of the traffic by visiting some of my favorite farm stands along the way. Most important, corn and peaches are ripe and ready. The dogs know when we’re off for a visit. As soon as they see me pull out my suitcase they dance around it on the bed with yelps of excitement. They know where they are going. Down and out we go the car. Felix and Oscar, Finley and Franklin hop into their seats. We’ll use the Barry Bridge and then follow 322 to Mullica Hill. The road is home to a number of very good farm stands but I have a few favorites.

Our first stop is Ever-Fresh Produce in Swedesboro. They specialize in Italian produce. Ever-Fresh is on the right hand side of the road headed East. It’s a small something of a shack and it’s almost hidden by the trees around it. You have to be attentive and careful as you turn in. The stalls are surrounded by eager buyers. Tractors and carts are bringing corn in directly from the fields. The workers are coming in for their lunch. At the site of the variety my head begins to race with ideas. There are several varieties of peppers, tomatoes of all kinds are in boxes and bins and baskets. Huge cantaloupes and watermelons form summer sweet walls along the back stalls. Eggplants, onions and potatoes suggest July favorite recipes. I can smell the peperonata and taste the ciambotta. Moussaka will soon be on the table with lightly salted melon for dessert. Of course, I can’t forget the corn. Nothing is sweeter than corn as soon as it is picked and these are still in their field sacks. It takes two trips to the car to load my finds.

It takes a few minutes wait for a break in the never ending line of Saturday traffic. While I’m waiting a see a sign in an adjacent field: “Future site of Shopping Area.” The loss of this rich farm land with its produce so close to Philadelphia would be an irretrievable loss. I don’t understand why this area so abundant in fruits and vegetables does not fall under New Jersey’s “Protected Farm Land.”

The traffic line parts and we’re back on the road. The traffic is a bit slow but at least its moving and we’re not in a hurry. 322 makes a sharp right into Mullica Hill. Even though it almost immediately makes another left we stay on the main street of the town. Mullica Hill is on the small side but the main street has several nice Victorians, a fair share of touristy antique shops and at least one nice cafe© with outdoor seating. The Friends Meeting with its colonial grave yard sits upon a small rise. We drive as far as n extensive public park. Usually such parks are good places for the boys to have a run and a sniff but this time there is a big sign with red letters: “No Pets.” Sorry guys.

At the park we turn around and rejoin 322 East. Peach orchards line the road. I keep wondering what will happen when all this is concrete and asphalt. Then, there it is, set back off the road, a somewhat rusty looking loading dock and depot with a faded cloth sign, “Peaches.” We pull up on the bumpy drive to the loading area. A teenager is shuffling crates of produce. “How much is a full box?” I ask. “$20.” “Hand me down one,” I say. The box is heavy. It is loaded and fragrant with peaches. The catch will into several uses. My mother will turn half of them in jars of peach preserve that will take bake to summer in the middle of winter. I will peel and slice a large batch and preserve them in the freezer to be the stuff of January pies. And a portion will do to tonight’s dinner as a peach cobbler. What is left over is just for eating as they are. We’ve accomplished our two major goals for the day. The traffic is still heavy. A short way down from the peach depot is a winery. This is a good place to stop for a little snack. There is a pleasant outdoor seating area. Wine tasting is available if that’s your pleasure on a summer afternoon. If this were a mid-week road-venture we would have the time. Mullica Hill, New Jersey, is only about an hour drive. But we have miles to go and traffic ahead so we move along. There’s a birthday party this evening.

Post Script: The ride home.

Even though I know that blueberries are now over, I thought I would give one last chance to see what I might find by stopping off at Hammonton, New Jersey on the way home. For ease I took the Atlantic City Expressway. Just before you come to the Hammonton exit you see to your right two large blueberry farms. These would be my two tries. Once off the Hammonton exit I take the first right that parallels the Expressway. In a minute I see the sign for “Bill’s Berries.” I turn up the drive towards the sheds. Outside are all the empty boxes. It doesn’t look good. Nonetheless, I get out and peer into the deserted depot. In the far corner a woman is stacking empty crates. “Any left?” I ask. “No, finished. Only frozen.” She has a Spanish accent. “Congelado?” I answer, “está bien. Yo voy a congelarlos me mismo. Ok. Cuánto?” After all, I was intending to freeze them anyway. “Let me ask my husband?” she answers in English. She goes to the phone, waits. No answer. She opens the freezer and filled with boxes of frozen berries. On the top is a bag that looks like the left overs that didn’t fit into the cartons. “Here,” she says, “take these.” “Cuánto?” I continue in Spanish as I open my wallet. “Free,” she continues in English. “Muchas gracias,” I mutter. “De nada,” she smiles and goes back to her work. It’s a good thing to speak another language.