Rosemary is for Remembrance

·7 min read
Jessica B. Harris on the porch at her home in Oak Bluffs
Jessica B. Harris on the porch at her home in Oak Bluffs

Elizabeth Cecil

The gray-shingled house with the pink shutters opposite the tennis courts in Oak Bluffs has been a part of my life for so long that I cannot recall what it was like not to journey to Martha's Vineyard each summer. I can still remember when my family purchased it, in 1956; the journeying up-island to retrieve the key from the realtor and the searching for the hidden fifth bedroom that was only revealed when the sun shone through a window on a back stairway. I can recollect the small living room that existed before we expanded the house in the times before the Copeland historic district and its design watchdogs put an end to that sort of thing. I vividly recall the parties that were held, the friends and relatives who visited, and my paternal grandmother sitting under the venerable oak tree that shades the house's front yard.

The house is the repository of my summer memories. From the porch, I could watch tennis tournaments or just sit in the pink rocking chairs and read. The small backyard was the place that I proudly displayed the first fish I ever caught. Inside, the kitchen, with the old-fashioned cast-iron stove that we never used but that my mother refused to remove, was the scene for much summer cooking, and the dining room with the scarred oak table and mismatched chairs the locus of many a summer entertainment. The house has always been a place where I've felt secure in the warmth of family and community.

Jessica B. Harris measures out olive oil for her sesame-honey-ginger dressing
Jessica B. Harris measures out olive oil for her sesame-honey-ginger dressing

Elizabeth Cecil

Over the years, the house has represented refuge and sanctuary and joy. But, over the years, it has also changed and evolved. Twenty years ago, after my mother's death, it became mine, and I was challenged with transforming what had been a family house rich in memories into one that was still a repository of remembrances but not a mausoleum: a spot that paid homage to the family joy that had existed and where new tales could be written and new stories told. I started, somehow, the very first summer after my mother's passing, moving bags, baggage, and bookshelves out of my childhood bedroom into what had been my parents' bedroom. Gradually, I began to make the house my own. My mother's garden remains, but I had an arbor built and planted a wisteria that now shades the back deck, and I created two raised beds in which I grow vegetables. I kept my mother's bright pink shutters, but the hues in the rest of the house now veer toward mauves and greens and blues: colors more of my choosing. Art hangs on the walls; a large work on paper, entitled "Soul Sanctuary," by my friend Kim Dummons lives over the living room sofa, and my James Beard awards are on the dining room wall. Last year, with the help of friends, I transformed the downstairs bedroom into an office and began converting one of the upstairs ones into a library. My friends joke that I have eliminated bedrooms so as not to be overwhelmed by houseguests.

"The house has always been a place where I've felt secure in the warmth of family and community."

—jessica b. harris

My taking ownership of the house extended not only to decor and gardening, but also to creating my own traditions. My mother and her friends had their bridge parties and soirees; I've always preferred to host full-on, sit-down dinner parties. So I established a tradition of several meals during the summer season if I have guests who don't mind helping as sous chefs and dishwashers. (I'm a stemware, full-silverware, dishes-to-the-max kind of person. There are even knife rests! So cleanup is no mean feat after dinner for 10 as there is no dishwasher here.)

The most important of those full-on dinner parties by far is the season-opening Bastille Day one, which allows me to trade the barbecue and grill of the Fourth of July for a sit-down supper with friends. In the early years, the dinner saluted various different spots in the African Atlantic world complete with individual menus illustrated from my postcard collection, but now it has morphed into a set menu. I occasionally vary the hors d'oeuvres that we nibble in the living room while I introduce new guests to the Guadeloupean ti' punch cocktail. Current favorites are a spread of locally smoked bluefish and a spin on the rumaki of the 1960s I make with watermelon-rind pickles and bacon "borrowed" from my friend Ken Smith, in New Orleans.

Jessica B. Harris places a sprig of rosemary above a painting of her parents in the stairwell
Jessica B. Harris places a sprig of rosemary above a painting of her parents in the stairwell

Elizabeth Cecil

Photographs
Photographs

Elizabeth Cecil

Then it's on to the main course of roast leg of lamb, seasoned with garlic, herbes de Provence, and lavender and rosemary from my garden and cooked over a bed of roasted new potatoes; fresh string beans from the farmers market that is my summer joy; and a salad of fresh island lettuces mixed with avocado chunks and island blueberries, dressed with a vinaigrette made from sesame oil and a honey-ginger vinegar that I pick up on-island. A jazzed-up mint jelly accompanies the meal, and, because I'm not a dessert-maker, my friends either bring one (I'm especially partial to my friend Karen Finley's lemon chess pie) or we end up with a seriously alcoholic café brûlot in a nod to my love for New Orleans. At meal's end, summer is officially opened, and my entertaining season has begun.

When I close the house down for the winter every autumn, I clip a branch of rosemary from my herb garden and place it over the painting of my parents that hangs in the stairwell. Rosemary is for remembrance, and I leave the house with the memories of the past, those that I've created this year, and thoughts of the new ones yet to be made.

Recipes

Bacon-Wrapped Watermelon Rind Pickles

Gently rendered, crispy bacon comes together with sweet-and-sour pickled watermelon rind in this salty, tangy, chewy snack. As they bake together in the oven, the bacon takes on the fruity brine, while the watermelon rind takes on the savory, smoky aroma of the bacon. Use standard- cut bacon for the best results; thick-cut slices will not cook evenly. Harris recommends Walnut Creek or Prissy's jarred watermelon rind pickles for their firm texture and not too cloyingly sweet taste. Cut larger pickles in half to form 1-inch squares for even cooking.

Bacon Wrapped Watermelon Rind Pickles
Bacon Wrapped Watermelon Rind Pickles

Greens, Avocado, and Blueberry Salad

Harris keeps specialty vinegars such as
a honey-ginger white balsamic to bring instant interest to salad dressings like her sweet and fragrant sesame-honey-ginger dressing. Its mildly piquant kick highlights the fresh peppery greens and creamy avocado in this beautifully colorful side salad. The blueberry-honey sea salt made on Martha's Vineyard is absolutely worth sourcing for both its pleasantly fruity and tart flavor and its stunning purple hue.

Greens, Avocado and Blueberry Salad
Greens, Avocado and Blueberry Salad

Smoked Bluefish Spread

Smoky, rich, and creamy, this delicious spread brings together luscious smoked bluefish with light and fluffy whipped cream cheese, tangy whole-milk yogurt, and a dash of acidic hot sauce and horse- radish. Don't skip on chilling the dip for at least 1 hour; time in the fridge allows the flavors and textures to meld.

Smoked Bluefish Spread
Smoked Bluefish Spread

Ti' Punch

Don't be fooled by the simplicity of this Guadeloupean cocktail—it packs a ton
of flavor from vegetal, grassy white rhum agricole, which is made from sugarcane juice, unlike sweeter white rums made from molasses or sugarcane byproducts. Serving this drink at room temperature as is traditional opens up the aromatic, herbal notes. If you prefer, you can serve it chilled for a smoother drink; just be sure to dissolve the sugar before adding the ice.

Ti' Punch
Ti' Punch

Leg of Lamb Cooked Over New Potatoes with Spicy Mint-Rum Sauce

Dried lavender and fresh thyme lend floral, woodsy flavor to fresh garlic cloves in a simple paste created on the cutting board, which seasons the lamb before cooking and helps the dried spice crust stick to the meat. The mint sauce will appear very thin when hot but thickens to a glaze as it cools.

Leg of Lamb Cooked Over New Potatoes with Spicy Mint-Rum Sauce
Leg of Lamb Cooked Over New Potatoes with Spicy Mint-Rum Sauce

Shortcut Café Brûlot

This New Orleans libation traditionally comes with special equipment to light it aflame and is served in a silver punch bowl. Jessica B. Harris offers a more approach- able version, with deep citrus and clove flavors infusing the coffee, cognac, and orange liqueur without an open flame.

Café Brûlot
Café Brûlot

Thalheimer's Lemon Chess Pie

Jessica B. Harris' good friend Karen Finley shares her family recipe for buttery, silky, and lusciously tart lemon chess pie. The flavor of the filling is similar to a lemon bar, but a touch sweeter and with some pleas- ant texture from floral lemon zest.

Lemon Chess Pie
Lemon Chess Pie