Food: Remembering the most perfect pears ever
When we were kids, we had a neighbor, Mr. Wendt, whose hobby was growing pears. He had a big back yard that could have supported a garden, but all that was planted in it were about 15 pear trees.
I used to ride my bike over there in the spring just to see, and smell, this orchard when it blossomed. It looked as if the trees were covered in heavy snow during their peak and I marveled at the delicate, yet pervasive aroma that wafted on the warm spring breeze when these trees were in bloom. As a kid, I often imagined that heaven might look similar to this scene, with the branches all billowy white.
In the fall Mr. Wendt would harvest his pears. He would haul out a ladder and I often watched him over a picket fence, painstakingly picking the fruit and placing them in a bag that hung around his shoulder. My mouth would drool as I watched because these specimens were a deep golden yellow, plump and succulent.
Many times I wished that Mr. Wendt would share some of his harvest, but I was always a little afraid to ask. He was a big, burly man, with bushy gray eyebrows and a demeanor that made me wary. When he would see us watching him, inevitably he would say, “Don’t you kids be getting any ideas,” and we would look at him with wide-eyed innocence, wondering how he knew just what we were thinking.
But one year those pears proved too big of a temptation and a buddy and I decided that we would help ourselves to some of this bounty despite the wrath (if we got caught) of Mr. Wendt. We planned a foray, where one of us would be the lookout and the other would climb a tree and pick like crazy. Since I was a superb tree climber, I was elected to be the picker and when we noticed that the pears were at their prime, we chose a moonlit night and made our move.
But, as I have often learned throughout my life, the best of plans often don’t go as expected and since my lookout buddy was petrified of Mr. Wendt, I was literally up a tree when the man flew out of his house in boxer shorts and pointed a high-beam flashlight into my face. “You want pears?” he bellowed, as he stood below me, looking like a bull ready to charge.
I thought this was a stupid inquiry since I was up in his tree, my pockets stuffed with loot. I slunk down, beaten, and then Mr. Wendt made me empty all my pockets, gathered up the pears and stomped off into his house. I knew I was in big trouble and went back home, knowing the next day I would probably be tarred and feathered by my parents.
But a strange thing happened. Mr. Wendt kept his mouth shut and in fact delivered to our porch a wooden crate filled with the most beautiful pears I have ever seen. They were flawless in every way and to this day I can remember their sweet and perfect taste. My mother was so enamored with the gift she made two pear crisps-one of which she delivered to Mr. Wendt and the other our entire family consumed with gusto.
I never forgot Mr. Wendt and the superb discretion he displayed when he caught me red-handed up his tree. In fact, he wasn’t the curmudgeon we kids always thought he was, but actually a very nice person, provided you left his pears alone, which I always did after he caught me.
In fact, every year after that he would deliver a wooden crate of pears to our family, for which we were all thankful, but secretly I thought it was kind of anti-climactic; nowhere near as exciting as being in the branches of a pear tree on a moonlit night.
6 cups pears, (about three lbs.) cored and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs. cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, divided
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
3 Tbs. chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup regular oats
1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine pears and lemon juice in a 2-quart baking dish; toss gently to coat. Combine granulated sugar, cornstarch, and 1 tsp. cinnamon together and the nutmeg; stir with a whisk. Add cornstarch mixture to pear mixture; toss well to coat. Stir together flour, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, brown sugar and salt until well combined. Add chilled butter to the flour mixture and combine with a fork until it resembles coarse meal. Add oats and walnuts, and stir well. Sprinkle flour mixture evenly over pear mixture. Bake for 40 minutes or until pears are tender and topping is golden brown. Cool 20 minutes on a wire rack; serve warm or at room temperature.