Sunday, August 19, 2012

Neighbors: Peach Upside Down Cake

When I was growing up, there was a petite Italian lady named Mrs. B. who lived across the street from our house.  She was well into her eighties, but she was a spry, feisty little thing.  Despite her fairly constant claims of heart palpitations, telling us she "felt nervous" about one thing or another, we'd see her out sweeping her sidewalk almost daily in the summer, and raking endlessly in the fall, when her towering maple seemed to catch fire before it would drop its leaves.  In the winter, she would don her plastic bonnet with its chin-tie, and shovel herself out in the middle of a Nor'easter.  She drove her cream-colored Oldsmobile Cutlass long past the time when she probably should have stopped driving, giving us a near-heart attack every time we saw her backing out of her garage.  She had an opinion about everything, and she was quite eager to express it, motioning us close so she could stage-whisper conspiringly in our ears, shaking her head and wringing her hands at the absurdity of whatever happened to be the subject of the day.  Though we sometimes joked that she was the neighborhood busybody, she was also, admittedly, an effective one-woman Neighborhood Watch: she would peek out from between the Venetian blinds periodically when something was happening outside, and if she was concerned (which was more often than not), she'd give us a call.  We felt completely confident leaving our house on vacation, knowing that she would look after it for us.

As she got older, she would often come over to ask us for a favor: help her back out of the garage, help her lift something heavy, help her to reach something by climbing up a ladder.  Most times, when we'd do something for her, we could expect a cake to appear within the next few days.  We would joke about that, too, ask each other when the cake was coming if we thought we'd done something important.  But really, it was a generous gesture, and the most genuine way, for her, to properly express gratitude.

When we moved into our current house, I had pretty low expectations of my neighbors.  Besides Mrs. B., I'd had few experiences of close relationships with the people who lived next to us.  So I was pleasantly surprised when our neighbors began to become friends.

On one side of us lives a couple who is now in their nineties, an old farmer and vet whose wife reminds me a great deal of Mrs. B., armed year-round with her broom and her sharp tongue.  They brought food when our children were born and remember them every birthday and holiday, they lend us things like eggs and garden tools, they look after our house.  We shovel them out in the winter, help them with small maintenance tasks, and take an interest in their lives.  My husband often sits out on their porch in the evenings with Mr. H., drinking a beer with him and listening to him talk about his years in the war.

On the other side of us lived a woman who was the director of our county's domestic violence agency.  She had two older children, but adopted us soon after we moved in: she brought me chicken soup when I was sick, came over with tea to tend to me during the worst of my miscarriages, took in our trash cans, worried over us during visits from our parents, wrote love notes and gave gifts to our children.  We baked her birthday cupcakes, shoveled her out in the winter, lent her eggs, listened to her when she needed a convenient ear, and finally, hearts heavy, helped her to sort out her belongings to get rid of some before her move to the West Coast.

Our new neighbor, who moved in when she left, is different: still neighborly, as my husband described him, but not a friend.  He waves and makes polite conversation with us when we see him.  He bought lemonade when our son was selling it from our driveway.  He is still someone who we'd be willing to let borrow our hose and ladder, but not, perhaps, someone who would remember our birthdays, or pick up my son in a bear hug, or take care of us when we're sick, or come over for a lazy beer and talk after the kids go to bed.  He often makes a point of telling me how hard he's working (on his house and elsewhere), as if suggesting that I'm somehow not.  The other day when I was outside, he asked me where I. was, and, learning he was at camp, asked if there weren't other kids in the neighborhood he could play with if he'd been home.  I felt like he was criticizing me, but I didn't feel like telling him it was none of his business, nor did I feel like explaining to him about my job limbo, about what it's like to have two kids who are far apart in age and stage of development spend every waking moment together.  He's just not the kind of person I feel I can confide in.  After having such fabulous neighbors for seven years, I have to keep reminding myself that just because my neighbor isn't my best friend doesn't mean he's not a good neighbor.


There's been a lot of discussion around my little corner of the blogosphere lately about what makes a good member of the blogging "community."  For me, it's a lot like remembering that there are different kinds of neighbors.  Though we all live on the same block, our relationships can be very different.  Some of them we hold at arms' length, borrowing eggs and garden tools, waving when we see them outside.  Some of them come over for tea, take care of us when we are sick, remember our birthdays, become our friends.  Some of them argue with us about the fences between our properties.  And some of them watch over our houses from behind the venetian blinds, keeping us safe, and occasionally bringing us cake.

What kind of neighbors do you have?

Peach Upside Down Cake
adapted from Fatfree Vegan Kitchen
One of the cakes my neighbor Mrs. B. was known for was her pineapple upside down cake.  I had a peach version the other night that reminded me of her.  The one I'm posting here today is probably healthier for you than hers was, but it's still baked with love.

Dry ingredients:
1 1/2 c. unbleached white flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. sugar
1/8 t. salt

Liquid ingredients:
1 c. vanilla soy milk mixed with 1 t. lemon juice
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 t. lemon zest

4 c. peeled and sliced peaches (about 4 peaches)
1/2 c. brown sugar, divided (2 T. and 6 T.)
6 T.  cup natural, raw or brown sugar
2 T. water

Preheat oven to 350F.

Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Combine the liquid ingredients separately. Set aside without mixing them together.

Combine the peaches with the 2 T. of sugar. Wipe or spray a 10-inch, well-seasoned cast iron skillet with oil. Begin heating it and add 6 T. sugar and the water. Heat and stir until the sugar is completely melted and the mixture is bubbly and slightly reduced (but be careful not to burn it). Place the peaches on top of the sugar and remove from heat.

Add the liquid ingredients to the dry, stirring briefly, just to moisten. Pour the batter over the peaches, covering them entirely. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the edges of the pan and a toothpick comes out clean (about 30-40 minutes).

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 15-30 minutes, and then run a knife around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Place a large plate or serving platter over the top and invert the skillet. Remove the skillet carefully from the cake, and sprinkle, if desired, with a little bit of extra cinnamon.
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  1. This was so very nice. You've had wonderful neighbors! We've lived in our house for right at a year now, and we barely know our neighbors. The peach upside-down cake sounds wonderful!

  2. Your post is timely for me. My husband and I were just talking last night about what we miss about living in the States and the main thing is community. We had a great community of people in NYC and here not so much. We've made a number of friends, both Malawian and expat, but we feel like very few of them really get us. We definitely feel like we are all holding each other at arms length and we miss the way we could be uncensored in NY.

    I started my blog mostly in the hopes of finding that sort of community online but I'm realizing that it's very difficult to be uncensored in this world as well. I often edit or over think what I post (both on my blog and in comments) for fear of something being misread or taken the wrong way or just because I don't know exactly who's reading and I'm worried about inadvertently offending someone.

  3. Oooh pineapple upside down cake is one of my faves, easy whip up (even easier than this recipe!!)

    I love the way you've unwrapped that neighbours topic then related it to the blogosphere. My irl neighbours are (mostly) awesome and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by the ones we have (the ones we're not so struck on, we don't tend to bump into so much, but there's at least 4-6 who we have beers with, occasional meals, share cakes and preserves, and play cardgames - god it all sounds so civilised in words, doesn't it?!)
    Having had shitty neighbours in the past who basically had zero consideration for anyone around them, I really REALLY appreciate this home.

  4. Mrs. B reminds me of my Great grandma. That is exactly how she was until the day she moved out of her house and into an assisted living. The whole driving thing makes me laugh so hard.
    Great post! Great analogy! We have a family who our back yards meet. Since we moved in they have been awesome! We bring food to each other randomly and when I found the huge marshmallows and roasting sticks I got their family some. They have 4 kids. The oldest is in high school and youngest is middle school. We have other nice neighbors too, but some I keep at arms length.

  5. Mmm, peach cake, neighbors, and cyber friends--what a lovely way to start the week. Thanks!

  6. Hi from ICLW! What a beautiful post. It resonates with me on so many levels. We currently live in neighborhood where everyone keeps to themselves. If you have children then maybe you'll get to know other neighbors otherwise, no chance. In a more abstract sense, I am on bedrest and thus my neighbors are my blogger and Twitter friends and are exactly as you described - all with varying degrees of closeness. Thank you for sharing your experiences and the recipe sounds delicious!

  7. I think about neighbors and neighborhoods a lot. My husband grew up in NYC, and his idea of neighbors is a brief nod to someone in the building, whereas I grew up in the country, where we knew most of our neighbors pretty well. Here in the 'burbs, we have neighbors who have helped us with any number of things, and we try to help out too. But you're right: there are different levels of intimacy with different neighbors, and that seems a good thing.

  8. I love your neighbors! We have nice neighbors but both sets are much older and retired. We don't really know people in our neighborhood and I guess we're not very friendly. Part of the problem is that a lot of the neighbors with kids have SAHMs and they know each other, but I can't find them on the weekend when I'm home.

    I wish I could be as open and chatty IRL as I am on Twitter.

  9. ahhh. A perfect way to use up these gorgeous peaches all around. The first thing I noticed when I moved to Baltimore from Northern Virginia was the friendly neighbors. I became used to avoiding eye contact and people ignoring my simple "hello". Here, everyone is looking out for each other although I doubt I'll get a hug or a happy birthday. It is just different in the city, I suppose. We are all shuffling back and forth as quickly as possible.

  10. We just moved so I don't have a lot of info on our neighbors. The one side seems nice, but we never see them (though they did come over about 10 minutes after the moving trucks pulled away to introduce themselves). On the other side, I think the house is empty. Across the street, the people are friendly--we always wave hello.

    But, really, we are not "good" neighbors. We're probably more like your new neighbor: friendly enough to make small talk (though his comments do seem...odd), but not really neighbors you'd sit with and have a beer. Of course, that is the type of neighbor I'd like to be, so maybe you've given me something to work towards.

  11. We are friendly, not friends, with our neighbors. I used to think it was the neighborhood, but now I'm thinking it may also be us! We are not very outgoing people, so its easy to just stay in our own little worlds...we'd like to be closer but we don't like doing the hard work to get there...

  12. I MUST try this recipe it looks amazing! Sounds like you have had some great neighbors.

    ICLW #41

  13. I grew up in a Philly suburb, and instead of your Mrs. B, we had Mrs. G. Italian, too. Her thank-you dessert was biscotti, which I didn't like so much as a child. She never minded if the neighborhood kids played in her lawn sprinkler, and she had the most amazing collection of cannas in her garden I've ever seen. And a fig tree that produced bucket of fruit.

    Really love this post; and now I feel impelled to make some sort of upside down cake today. Thanks!


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