The month of August has a funny effect on the business of produce. We still have lots to do but the pace falls off a bit from the breakneck speed of June and July. Conversations tend to get a little longer, which is ironic because it seems the collective attention span of the office is much shorter during this time. This happens every year as the dog days of summer arrive.
At home my garden suffers a bit during the dog days as my springtime energy and enthusiasm wanes. Part of my problem this year is El Niño - this has been the coolest summer on the west coast in many years. While I'm sure many folk in other parts of the U.S. would welcome a respite from the unrelenting heat of summer, cool west coast weather translates into poor performing commercial crops and gardens like mine. Despite the cooler than normal summer here in California, the dog days mark a traditional change in my diet in three very important ways. These are largely seasonal changes and are one's I look forward to every year.
One of two crops that need the long, hot summer days to bring out their full flavor potential is tomatoes. August marks the start of the true heirloom tomato season. My dog day tradition here is simple: tomatoes become a part of every meal I can manage. This can mean breakfast with a sliced Cherokee Purple broiled with grated Reggiano Parmesano and topped with a poached egg; a sandwich made with a thick Brandywine slice for lunch; or a simple (or not so simple) Caprese salad.
While blueberries are still available, for me they have past their peak. Production has moved to the northernmost parts of the country and while this is good news for folks who live in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest, for the rest of us the cost will start to go up and the container size will start to go down. Strawberries are still available as are blackberries, but the best late summer berry is, hands down, the raspberry. My dog day tradition is to make the rounds along the fence line of my backyard every few days and place the ripe raspberries that I find on the tips of my children's fingers. A good harvest covers all twenty fingers (although my youngest, Delilah, lacks the necessary self control to wait until I've completed the harvest).
The other crop that needs the long kiss of summer is melons. My friends in the southern states are more fortunate than I in this respect, but most varieties of melons in my area tend to be disappointing before August (particularly during cool years like this one). My dog day melon tradition is simple but very satisfying. I will usually buy two melons over the weekend at my local farmers market or Whole Foods Market and on Monday and Wednesday, I take a little more time at home in the morning and carefully cut and cube the melons for my family. I also do the same at the office with the samples we frequently get during this time of year. There is something comforting about the simple act of slicing the melon in half, removing the seeds, slicing the halves into smaller simulated "smiles" and cutting "teeth" out of the smiles (my son Aidan's description). My favorite melons right now are the Galia and Orange Honeydew but just about any melon is better in August.
My diet and traditions will change again with the seasons (or when my wife Erin says "enough with the tomatoes already") but there is something deeper at work during this time. The dog days mean different things to different people, but to me it represents a period of relative calm sandwiched in between the equally frantic but different activities of the summer and fall. It's almost as if my body is deliberately slowing down to soak in the last of the summer's energy.
What are your dog day traditions? I have many more but most involve lazy afternoons in the backyard watching the weeds I should be pulling in my garden get larger and more ominous. Any food or activity suggestions would be most welcome. I've got time.