On the Side | A last, free-and-easy serving of summer

Posted: September 06, 2007

VILLAGE OF GREENE, N.Y. - Even the mildest of formalities dissolve at the water's edge, at the end of the season.

So we huddle on the tight deck, grabbing at a last helping of summer on Echo Lake.

Our picnic is spread slapdash on the too-small table, the slices of sweet salami and Parma prosciutto still ironed on the butcher paper, the olives in a plastic tub, cheeses hacked artlessly, balanced on rough hunks of Tuscan bread torn off as it makes its circuit.

No gauzy magazine shots this day, beyond this tidy village northeast of Binghamton, on a lake that's more a good-sized pond. There's controlled frenzy in the feeding, manners suspended, the food dealt out like cards from a deck.

Why slice the bread? Why stand on ceremony? We have known each other too long, and have come to know (the 60s now connoting birthdays) that life is short, and sometimes far shorter than is fair.

A friend who works for a Belgian-style brewery in Cooperstown has packed a cooler full of cork-stoppered beers - lemony wheat beers and golden brews and a lively, coppery ale called Rare Vos, after a bar in Brussels. He has packed chilled glasses, too, pluckily still frosty before they sweat in late-August sun.

There is a crunchy salad of chopped cucumber and golden cherry tomatoes from his wife's garden on a defunct dairy farm north of Oneonta, not far from the red schoolhouse in Pinder's Corners where Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York senator, once made his district office.

Everything except the salad is eaten by hand. Everything is in play - the green beans dunked in black-olive hummus, the rustic bread layered with salami and cheese.

Later, Klondike Bars are procured from inside the barn-red camp our neighbors have just bought here. They waffled for weeks, then took the plunge: You only go around once.

There is, blessedly, no agenda. No schedule. Nothing but the lake stretching out. Idly, two of the lunchers launch a canoe. Lawn chairs are set down in the water, two feet deep, the better to keep feet cool as the beers are toasted.

No deadline on the horizon. The afternoon unfolds at its own pace, chairs positioned and repositioned in shifting pools of shade, unsleek bodies ducking out for swims, the sun dancing on the water.

It is hours before we get back to the once-dairy farm; a baker's dozen of sweet corn, a scarlet blaze on the husks, scored from a roadside card table, $1.50 a dozen (plus one).

Big, nutmeg-scented meatballs (ground pork and beef and bread) are rolled, then stewed in a gravy of bitter endive, sweet onion and old ale.

Tomatoes are sliced and sprinkled with oil and basil.

Their time will be up soon enough, the garden tomatoes and local corn and basil and good peaches for pie, exiting with the summer, sooner than you think, or are ready to concede, the briefness of their moment ensuring that their preciousness never ends.

So we are left, a storm brewing in the hills, pleased with our abandon, and with our lunch on and, for a time, in the vest pocket of a lake.

It is not a bad note to end on, an echo sent, achingly awaiting its return, a question looking for an answer.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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