Berry pickin’


by Rosemary Ruffenach | August 10, 2009 • Blueberries, Gooseberries, Raspberries—Red and Purple. Eventually, no matter how urgent my other Saturday tasks, I have to heed the siren call of berry picking. It’s one of my summer traditions, and if missed, fall and winter breakfasts are less tasty. But in fact, that’s not really what my berry-picking expeditions are all about.

When I was a kid, about every ten days in July and August, we’d get a call from my grandmother saying the raspberries were ready for picking. My brother and I would bike the mile to her house, empty ice cube trays rattling in our bicycle baskets. There my grandfather would point out the rows of bushes ready for picking, and we’d go at it, as many raspberries going into our mouths as into the trays. Later the berries that managed to arrive home topped our morning Cheerios and dessert ice cream. (In the previous generation, an aunt recalls that a schoolmate’s friendship seemed to turn on opportunities for raspberry picking.)

For many years Grandpa farmed an extra lot adjacent to his house, growing corn, rhubarb, kohlrabi, cabbage, celery, onions, strawberries and pear trees. Plus, another bed on the double lot on which the house sat was dedicated to his roses: Sutter’s Gold, Chrysler Imperial, Queen Elizabeth, Peace. One pink climber reached as high as the garage roof. Thus, when visitors stopped by a garden tour was always on the agenda.

When I married and moved into a home of my own, Grandpa was there to recommend rose varieties, help plant, and demonstrate pruning and the Minnesota tip method of winter care. Then he guided me through raspberry bush planting and care. Soon I got the itch to make preserves but found my patch didn’t provide the quantity needed, so I started making my annual berry-picking trips. And despite the time and expense, not to mention the day spent over vats of boiling water as I canned using the hot water method, it was well worth it. Soon my cellar shelves were filled with crimson pint jars holding ambrosia. The pints became much-valued Christmas gifts and topped our toast, corn bread and muffins until spring.

So the first Saturday In August, when I was once again kneeling in a berry patch, I found Grandpa’s instructions murmuring in my ear: “Roll the berry off the hull, if it doesn’t want to let go, don’t pick it, choose the dark red berries, pass on those that look shriveled, cover the trays after they fill up so the berries don’t rot so fast, don’t layer them so deeply, mark the spot where you quit picking.” Unfortunately, perhaps because of the dry summer, many of the canes were dried out and ready for cutting back. Thus, the fruit I did find was not nearly as plentiful as in Grandpa’s berry patch.

But, the lure of berry picking was so strong that Saturday, that I also tried my luck with blueberries. I figured it must be rather easy since a kid—and a bear cub– could do it, memories of Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal dancing in my head. It wasn’t. Soon my back ached from searching the lower branches of bushes for the elusive berries. Later, I was told it wasn’t usually that difficult. Often a picker could just roll a bunch of berries off into a pail. But this year . . . and, of course, it was the end of the blueberry season. Returning to the car, I snuck a look in the rear-view mirror. Yup, my mouth was smeared with blue, just like Sal’s. I smiled.

When I got home, however, I didn’t get out the canning jars like I had when a young mother. These days I freeze, a much simpler process. But, mmm, I sure am missing that wonderful home-made raspberry jam. Store-bought just can’t compare.

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