“If you cook it, they will come.” – Hot Tip #23 from Jeff Bercuvitz aka “Sparks”
I’ve just returned from cooking for a gig that was positively peachy, led by Sparks, a truly inspiring trainer of community builders and one of America’s premiere leadership coaches. I want to share some food for thought about eating a peach three ways, that bring Jeff’s three levels of Sparking to life through your taste buds.
For over twenty-five years, Jeff has made it his life’s work to help thousands of change makers, across America and around the world, find their spark so they can live a life filled with passion and meaning, and get MORE energized as they work to spark others.
Most recently, Jeff has partnered with Kate Jellema at Marlboro’s College’s Graduate Program for Non-Profit Management and with support from the American Express Foundation to launch the Advanced Leadership Institute for Growing Non-Profits (ALIGN). ALIGN brings together an intimate circle of progressive, emerging community leaders with a strong commitment to social change. Over the course of five monthly gatherings, the “Sparks Circle” intends to help participants learn tips and practices to find and re-find their own spark, while enhancing the effectiveness of their work to improve the world. Jeff’s creative approach to training has successfully established this work as part “extended conversation” – the kind we aspire to share over hours of feasting at a dinner party – and part “community of practice” – a space where people can share ideas, successes, struggles and support with the aspiration to make more possible.
Sparks welcomed each member to the third ALIGN gathering with the gift of fruit. He passed around a plate simply presented with eleven perfect peaches on it. This simplicity belied the fact that he had worked to prepare for this moment over the three previous days, during which he meticulously brought twenty-one peaches to ripe perfection with gentle turns as they rested in rows on his butcher block, an inch to breathe between skins. On this morning, I sat on a cabernet-colored bean bag, in a circle with ten other people who had gathered in the sun-flooded great room of his glorious retreat center, high above the hills of Lincoln, Vermont.
1. The Simple, Perfect Peach – or finding your Spark through sensual delight
He said, “I just want to make sure that at the very least you get one really good spark in your day as you bite into a perfectly ripe, locally-grown peach, maybe even letting the juices drip down your face.” And we did, with shameless abandon!
In the same spirit I ask you, dear eaters, can you recall a moment of “beholding beauty” in a peach? It’s a tricky question, especially in the fuzzy, golden madness of peach season. Sparks was helping us consider one path to re-energizing yourself through the very notion of beholding beauty each day, not only through the gorgeous expanse of green mountains framed by three sets of French doors, but through the visceral, delightful experience of really, good taste.
Sparks teaches people how to develop their Good Life Index (GLI), which he once described to me as a prism through which one can make decisions to optimize one’s happiness and success. The GLI is a tool to help you get clear about what is TRULY important in your life and what is enough. To construct a GLI, one identifies the ten things one cares the most about experiencing each month. One also develops strategies building on what he calls the “INGs” – the actual activities you engage in through your work that energize you the most.For example, I got to nail my GLI element “experiencing and sharing my creativity through food” through several HIGH INGs, including:
- Delighting in beautiful, delicious food outside with a sublime view
- Hatching a menu or recipe in the fields as I harvest fresh produce from my CSA farm and kitchen garden
- Sharing my passion for “eating lovingly and locally produced food in community” with people who genuinely care
- Surprising people with creative flavor and food combinations
- Designing a menu catered to a playful, intentional theme
- Using food as a vehicle for inspiring and preserving human connection and natural beauty
It’s a brilliant and inspiring approach, and one that has certainly helped me gain clarity on a personal and professional level.
3. The Peach of Partnership – or “Spark ON!”
One can experience the joy of biting into a perfect peach in solitude, but imagine adding an entirely new dimension of meaning by finding ways to connect with and spark others.
Sparks likes to say “never have a meeting when you can have party.” Which is how an oversized bottle of bubbly ended up on the lunch table. The gazpacho I served was meant to celebrate Sparks’ artful construction of the day: a playful, dynamic, fluid, engaging and nourishing experience. The spark was not lost on me: this gazpacho is sweetened with peaches, tempered with smoky paprika and garnished with rich, olive oil croutons made with Red Hen Baking Company bread, maple-roasted peaches and chives.
In the same way a peach is near-perfectly round, with a few hilly adventures around her navel, I prepared a sweet and circular ending that would represent Sparks and the ALIGNer’s intention to be part of a continuous, resourceful network. This is how the gazpacho’s leftover croutons were transformed into an eye-rollingly good crumble topping for dessert. I simmered peach halves in maple caramel, turning their edges amber, and topped the fruit with bread crumbs tossed with sel gris (absurdly coarse, quartz-like sea salt), lime zest (or lemon) and slivers of fresh mint. Might I recommend a mountain of ice cream beneath?
My preparation for the meal was not shy or dim, but lavish and full. Partly because I spend hours letting a simple theme inspire me, and even longer crafting the perfect bite when called to the challenge. I’m happy to report that after running the “Sparks Test,” I left with a belly swollen with smiles and feeling more energized than when I started cooking. My fellow eaters left charged as well.
And so we finished the day, having built on each peach, each lesson, each moment and phrase. It was certainly one of the most delicious as well as fascinating gigs in my lifetime, and I truly hope to participate with my fork again!
(You can reach Jeff Bercuvitz at Be.The.Spark@gmail.com)
I had the great pleasure of cooking with Marc Harrington, ALIGN’s master chef and the Executive Director of The Claude Fredericks Foundation. I’ve been following his culinary feats on Facebook for quite some time now. His platter of perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned asparagus and outrageous almond biscotti sent me over the moon! I loved hearing Marc vividly reconstruct the elaborate meals he and Claude would create from cocktail hour well into the late hours of the evening; his memories are as poetic as Claude’s important literary work.
My husband taught me to halve a peach like an avocado, but more gently. Slice the circumference of the peach, vertically - stem to tail. Using both hands, gently twist each half in opposite directions. If you squash a ripe one, eat it, and try another - your peaches don't have to be perfect. They only have to taste perfect, which they will if you find them farm-fresh and they feel supple to the touch. Warning: if visiting Italy, don't even dream of prodding fruit and vegetables at the market - you'll be spanked! It's a bad habit, and spoils the fruit for the next customer.
- Ripe peaches - 6 ripe peaches (or other stone fruit, like apricots), halved and pits removed
- Maple syrup - 2 tablespoons
- Tomatoes - About 8 large tomatoes
- Cucumbers - 1 very large, or 2 small cucumbers
- Yellow onion - 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- Garlic - 4 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- Red wine vinegar - 4 tablespoons, more or less to take
- Lemon juice - 2 tablespoons, freshly squeezed
- Tomato paste - 1 tablespoon
- Extra virgin olive oil - 3/4 cup
- Mint leaves - 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves
- Basil leaves - 3/4 cup packed basil leaves
- Smoked paprika - 1/2 teaspoon
- Sea salt - 1 teaspoon
- Black pepper - Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Rustic croutons - About 30 rustic croutons
- Chili flakes or Hot sauce (optional) -
- Minced Chives
- Preheat the oven broiler to high. Line the halved peaches cut-side up on a baking sheet and slather them with maple syrup. Broil for 2-5 minutes, until the peaches begin to turn a caramelized amber color. Remove and let cool.
- Quarter four tomatoes. Over a large bowl, grate the cut side of the tomatoes, allowing the pulp and seeds to drip into the bowl until only the skin is left in your hands - discard the skin. Quarter the remaining four tomatoes and add them to the bowl, skins and all.
- Peel and halve the cucumbers - scoop out the seeds. Chop the cucumber coarsely and add to the bowl of tomatoes.
- Note: if you are using a food processor, you will need to make the gazpacho in two batches, using half of the ingredients each time and then combining both batches in a large bowl or pot to mix. Alternatively, you can use an immersion blender to make the entire batch at once - it will also result in a creamier gazpacho.
- Add the onion, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, tomato paste and half the olive oil to a food processor or bowl with immersion blender, and blend into a puree.
- Add the tomatoes, cucumber, two of the caramelized peaches, mint, basil, smoked paprika, salt and pepper to your blending device or bowl. Blend into a creamy consistency, while continuously pouring in the remaining olive oil in a slow steady trickle. If it is not creamy enough, add more olive oil in the same manner.
- Taste, and adjust for more salt, olive oil, lemon juice, basil or spice - depending on your taste buds. Trust your palate!
- To serve, add several croutons to each bowl and ladle the gazpacho on top. Garnish with chives and a few cooled peach slices for a beautiful, sweet twist.
- How to make croutons (Stefan Senders of Wide Awake Bakery): Just cut up your aging bread and put it in the oven (preheat to 400F before popping your bread in the oven). You can drizzle olive oil on the bread first if you like, or just toast it dry. Like crumbs, spices are a lovely and easy addition to croutons. I always enjoyed eating commercial, bagged croutons when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until recently that I began really understanding what they could offer. Croutons can be all sizes and shapes, and they can take on almost any flavor you come up with. They’re a lot more than just bread cubes!