Small-Town Values: A Perfect Collingswood Day

Plus: An award-winning caramel apple pie recipe

I was recently asked to be a judge at the Collingswood Farmers’ Market apple-pie contest, and on the day of the event I woke up excited about it. I skipped breakfast, of course, remembered to put a bottle of wine in the fridge for dinner up the street at Bistro di Marino’s that night, and set off for the market. The azure sky was the kind of intense blue that hurts.

I got there and stopped at the Great Harvest Bakery booth and put in an order for their amazing stuffing bread to pick up the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I bumped into a woman I know from the gym, and the parents of one of my children’s friends. At the pie-contest booth I met the other judges, about six of them, one of whom I once met when I helped judge this year’s Proud Neighbor’s Fourth of July house-decorating contest. Ah, Collingswood.

Two of the people gathered around the pie tent introduced themselves, recognizing me from this very site, which was awesome. Another person introduced himself to me after confirming that I was “the mother of the girl who does face painting,” which was also awesome.

And then the tasting began, which was the most awesome of all. Fifteen pies were entered; we all scored based on presentation, and then we broke into teams—creative and classic. I was on the creative team, and therefore got to taste the pies that used ingredients in addition to apples, like cranberries or caramel.

When a woman overheard me saying which one I had picked for presentation, she pulled me to the side and thanked me for voting for her. When emcee Betsy Cook announced that very woman, who had her six-month old in a baby sling, as the winner, she called her an “overachiever.“ I found this hysterical because Betsy runs the market, is super-active in her daughters’ PTA, does freelance graphic design, and recently launched her own clothing company, National Picnic.

The winning pie in the creative category was a concoction loaded with apple and caramel, which somehow, the baker had managed to bring to the market with timing so perfect that tasting this pie was like biting into a warm caramel apple. (See recipe here.) When the winner was announced, I looked to see who was celebrating and lo, it was that perfect-timing baker, Abbe Elliott, a young woman who had been a student of mine at Rutgers. Ah, Collingswood. We chatted afterward, and I asked her what the recipe’s secret was; she said she had soaked the apples in butterscotch schnapps. Ah, the teacher and student reverse roles.

I went home for a bit, and then to my son’s soccer game in Knight’s Park. Christopher is my youngest, and this is his last year to play in the recreation league. Standing in the park under that intense sky, the myriad trees in peak fall colors, I did the math and realized I’d spent 15 years of fall Saturdays watching my children play soccer in this park. Fifteen years of Saturdays were now coming to a close.

At one point, my daughters both played soccer and field hockey. My husband and I would pack the car and a wagon like we were going on a daytrip, and map out our plan of attack. We’d switch daughters and sports equipment between quarters, arming ourselves with field-hockey sticks and orange wedges, sometimes jogging from field to field. Once our son was born, scheduling feedings and bringing extra diapers became part of the orchestration of our day. It was exhausting, but one of the best times of my life.

All of this was kind of overwhelming me as I stood in the strong fall sun, when a woman I know from town came to stand beside me. Who knows why things like this happen, but she started asking me about my kid’s ages when my husband passed away; it was like she knew what had been on my mind. The answer was 13, two weeks shy of 11, and almost 6. It felt good to talk about everything, but I was glad I had sunglasses on. Between sports, festivals, school programs, promenades, summer concerts and movies, my kids practically grew up in this park. In many ways, so did I.

Then two dads I hardly ever see came over and we started catching up, talking about everything from what kind of learners our children were, to my Groupon obsession, and my thoughts lifted as we laughed over stories from our college years and everything else in between. I thought about how Hayley, my middle child, insists that she will one day get married in Knight’s Park and somehow, just picturing her in a white dress on the red bridge over the creek made me feel even better, optimistic over the future rather than bemoaning the past.

We went home after the game, and Chris invited friends he has known since kindergarten to our house for pizza. My sweet boyfriend and I went out to dinner, and the hostess—seeing my oldest daughter’s face in mine—asked if I was Allison’s mother. When I acknowledged that I was, she gave us a better table and chatted with us as she opened our wine. Ah, Collingswood.