Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Unburying the fruits of summer.

Miscellanie has posted latter-day still lives of Michigan fruit, and I have just had a Proustian movement of mind, revivifying my grandparents' backyard in Detroit.

For about 35 years, my grandparents lived in a bungalow on Cadieux Avenue in eastern Detroit, near the Grosse Pointe border. In my memory, their house is perfect: everything is exactly the size it needs to be; we all fit snugly into it (my grandparents and me sleeping on the ground floor, my parents and brother sleeping upstairs in the yellow slope-ceilinged space that was my mother's bedroom in the late 1960s); there are always surprises waiting somewhere (candy bars in the basement pantry, strange boardgames in the furnace room, exquisite desserts in the cake container). And the garden.

City gardens strike me as being their own special kind of exquisite. My grandparents gardened in tandem; my grandmother had roses and black-eyed susans and snapdragons and, no doubt, any number of other flowers that I now cannot call to mind. And one of the reasons I cannot call them to mind is that they are dwarfed, in my memory, by my grandfather's vegetable garden. My grandfather grew up on a farm near the north of Michigan's thumb, nearest to a town called Bad Axe, and though he left the farm for the city well before World War II, the farm did not leave him. Behind the garage on Cadieux, he had a plot of perhaps ten feet square. And in those hundred square feet, he grew unimaginable riches: tomatoes and cucumbers and carrots and lettuces and, no doubt, any number of other vegetables that I now cannot call to mind.

And one of the reasons I cannot call them to mind is that they are dwarfed, in my memory, by the raspberries that grew along the wall of the garage. My grandfather fashioned a special raspberry-picking tool, a kind of long-handled fork that he could use for reaching the farthest berries; he also used this tool to carry the partial milk jug in which he placed the berries as he picked them, one by one. He was among the craftiest of men. He taught me how to pick my way through those narrow rows, how to seek out the fruits among those veined leaves, how to decide which berries were ready to be pulled (not so much plucked as pulled) from the bush. Every summer when we visited my grandparents, we ate more than our fill of raspberries. My grandmother was the one who taught me how to eat raspberries: the first few, sneaked out of the pail even before the pail reached the house, to be sure; but the rest in a bowl, sprinkled lightly with sugar and forced to yield up juice (I now know this process as maceration); and on exceptional occasions--otherwise known as most times we visited my grandparents--over the kind of vanilla ice cream that scoops into a bowl, perhaps a 50s-pastel plastic bowl with a white rim, with an unbearable whiteness of being, begging for those berries that were still on the bush thirty minutes earlier. Such gastronomical joys, right down to the drinking of the syrup and melted ice cream concoction left at the bottom of the bowl when the too-hurried devouring of summer's best goodness had ended.

My grandparents also taught me the beauty of the frozen berry: even in the winters, we could sometimes find square plastic tubs of raspberries in the basement freezer. I neither grow nor freeze raspberries now; when raw raspberries, raspberries au naturel if you will, materialize before me, I enjoy in them an aftertaste of childhood, with just the ghost of a melancholic twinge at that particular city garden's goneness from my life. I do not think that my having gotten terrible poison ivy while picking raspberries on a farm near Ithaca has anything to do with my not seeking them out when they appear in the stores and the markets. Instead, I think that quasiavoidance is due to my utter focus on the workings of blueberry season.

I had never eaten a fresh, raw blueberry before arriving in Ithaca for graduate school, but within days of my arrival, blueberries constituted the cornerstone of my diet. Every subsequent summer--even in these last summers, when freshly picked Finger Lakes blueberries are not accessible to me with every trip to the local grocery--I have watched as the labels on the plastic packages of berries bear the names of nearer and nearer origins: somewhere far, then New Jersey, then Michigan. Every subsequent summer, I have hedged my bets about when the season is at its zenith and the prices at their nadir and have frozen pints and pints of berries. In some ways, blueberries are even better than raspberries, as a freezing fruit: they lose nothing of their texture or flavor when they're thawed. There are few things finer, in my food life, than a surprise! fresh blueberry pie in February. Not even to mention blueberry pancakes.

sources for tonight's images: 1) GardenAction's raspberry page; 2) Oregon State's Food Resource.


Blogger four inches of ego said...

For me it is apples. Every fall, first my grandmother and then my mother would go through a weekend long process of producing quarts upon quarts of applesauce -- gallons of it certainly -- most of which was to be frozen to last the family until the next fall. Store bought applesauce was simply unheard of.

On the other hand, it was actually through applesauce making that I learned respect for the stove. Whereas you learned to sneak those first few raspberries, I learned that freshly sauced apples are moderately dangerous to small children.

8:01 PM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger Miscellanie said...

O! Resonance! I'd like to think that berries tend to liminal space as a way of drawing us to what we don't usually see; the ones here are from an almost unnoticeable pocket near the mailbox.

3:26 PM, August 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you remember Grandma's hundred lilies and her gladiolas?
Do you remember Grandpa explaining which vegetables didn't like each other and shouldn't be planted next to one another? Do you remember the onions and elephant garlics planted in front of all of those rose bushes to keep off the bugs--and not waste ground space?
The raspberries formed a U-shape around the rear of the garage and the two adjoining fences. The ones along the garage bore fruit twice each season.
Do you remember the giant blackberries that grew along the fence across from the garage--the ones as big as Grandpa's thumb? They were there when you were about four.
I wish you could remember Grandpa climbing up into--and I mean way up into--Charlie's apple tree to spray it and then, later, to pick the apples. Charlie was afraid of heights. Grandpa was part acrobat. He stopped doing that when Charlie complained that Grandpa was taking too many of the apples. The tree was cut down a couple of years later when the apples stopped being decent for eating. Charlie, I don't think, ever figured out why.
Do you remember the constant bouquets on the kitchen table starting with the daffodils and ending with the mums--and always in a quart Ball jar.

4:11 PM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger ttractor said...

try balsamic vinegar for maceration. it is completely amazing. and canning blueberries with honey and a rind of orange, oh my!

how is it I don't know miscellanie? she lives in my neighborhood, has a dog and likes MFK Fisher...an evil twin?

4:36 PM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

@4"oE: apples. mmm. apples, for me, = pie.

@Miscellanie: I am going to start calling out "O! Resonance!" as I walk down the street in Gambier.

@Anonymous (O Mama! My Mama!): The answer to too many of your questions is No. But the questions themselves have made me remember some things that I didn't remember: the garlic, for one. And yes, the vegetables that didn't like each other. I seem to remember being confused about that. And yes, the bouquets, yes, I remember, yes.

@ttractor: I sense another project for my week in NYC...!

5:17 PM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger ttractor said...

try canning in NYC! you have to go to a "specialty store" to buy ever-lovin Ball jars. (for fun, try walking into stores and asking for them by name. imagine the consequences. yes, I have done that).

You can buy bushels of fruit at farmer's market, but I tend to pick up my jars at the local supermarche whenever I am more than 300 miles from here. (hmm, now that I think about it, the last time was at a KMart in W. Va. and I was wearing combat boots, fishnet stockings and Bjork-like hair do)

12:51 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Oh, I was thinking that my project was making sure that you and Miscellanie meet, probably a substantially less difficult task than canning. Hah!

3:14 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Miscellanie said...

Although canning sounds divine! I know a place in Astoria for Ball jars.

12:42 PM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger ttractor said...

I am starting to itch to put up marinara....anyone have a tomato mill?

9:44 AM, August 05, 2006  

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