Cooking Family Friends

The Berry Patch

The local berry farm closed a few years ago.  That was a sad day for me.  The farmer’s kids didn’t have the desire to keep up the family land that had for so long produced juicy strawberries in late June and then perfectly honeycombed raspberries (purple and red) right on their tail.  In late July, there’d be blueberries so fat and sweet you could pop them right in you mouth. Sugar would have been redundant.

The closing of the patch was a loss to many of us locals and summer people and anyone who enjoys the ritual of growing or gathering their food understands why. Not only was there something satisfying about serving my family fresh, local grown berries, but there was a sense of accomplishment in picking them myself.

Heading to the berry patch was really more about communing and about companionship.  Bent over or on my knees between the rows of green bushes, dragon flies humming, and crickets chirping, the field was my church at times, the ritual a kind of morning vespers. Berry picking was something I did with my friend Liza (aka “Groove” a nickname from the 70’s, the exact origin of which has been lost).  Liza and I grew up on our little lake bay in the summers. She is the oldest continual friend I have and two of our children were born in the same years.  They have inherited their friendships by birth, an unspoken powerful connection.  Those ties go deep.

In the many years that Liza and I berry-picked, we survived the eye-rolling and the ridicule over our dogged devotion while the short season lasted.  Together and alone we braved hot temperatures, rain and mist, bugs and flies all to find our peace, chatting and picking, talking and advising, finding the rhythm of the row as we filled the little green cardboard boxes and loaded them onto the farm’s hand nailed wooden trays.

It was the conversation that counted, more than anything.  As our hands felt down the stalk, determining the firmness of a berry, our eyes focused on the color and our minds were free to talk.  Picking was also about tending a friendship, sustaining the strong parts and feeling tenderly for the weaker places.  Nothing was off-limits, in that easy way that lifelong friends have with one another.  We covered kids and parenting, picked over our marriages and memories and reinforced summer rituals we’d now instilled in our own children; Monday night square dancing, Friday night s’mores at the campfire. We gossiped and swapped stories.  We ate handfuls of berries straight from the vine.  Being in the patch accomplished many things.

When they were younger, Liza and I would drop our kids at the morning camp and race to the patch to pick and talk.  As they got older and able to join in, we’d occasionally bring them in the afternoons.  Even the most zealous berry picker soon became bored by our itinerant worker staying power.   They soon lost interest.

At home, berries were eaten plain or became ingredients for my annual ritual of jam-making.  I loved jam days; the washing, boiling and canning, ladling the sluggish ruby mixture into the cut glass Ball jars and later affixing the personal labels my artist friend Laura made for me.  The jams were my gift to dear friends at the holiday, a little bit of summer vacuum sealed in a jar.

It hasn’t quite been the same without the patch.  Yes, there are berries aplenty in the farmers markets around.  But it’s not the same.  It’s not like passing the field weekly and noting the height of the bushes, watching the farmer on his tractor and feeling the anticipation of opening day with the fervor of a baseball fan.  I miss the satisfying heft of lifting my pallet on the scale to be weighed, of stashing the boxes of fruit in the back of my car and closing the tailgate.

There’s talk of a new patch opening next year.  The plants are supposedly in the ground now, although I can’t see them from the road.  Liza and I have more luxury of time as our children have aged.  In the absence of berry picking, we’ve found other places and ways to commune, on hikes with the dogs, in chairs at the beach with sunhats covering our heads.  Will we still find the same magic in the patch, that moment of release from our homebound selves?  Will our pattern be broken, our devotion lessened by the long break in our ritual?  I’ll let you know next summer.  



1 Comment

  1. Raymond M. Kron III

    July 16, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Lee, I have been going through the same type of ritual every year since I was about 7 or 8.We use to pick the wild berries though that we found in fields, along hedge rows,on creek banks and in the woods! It was my solace time as well were I could just think to myself and many times observe nature up close as I would work silently through the wild berry patches!Mom and dad put up many preserves back then and those sweet little berries were delicious on breakfast cereals! I am still at it today and every spring as I drive the back country roads I keep a journal of the location of flowering Elderberry bushes and thimble Berries whereever I see them growing! Like yourself many a christmas tree has had my jams and jellies along with my homemade breads in a basket placed gently underneath! If it was a good year there was, mint jelly, Blackberry, Red Raspberry, Strawberry, Blueberry, Elderberry, Current, Strawberry-Rhubarb, peach, crabapple, and Apple Cinnamon. It is a shame that we miss out on what grows wild right in our own back yard. I now enjoy making these things with my mother who is in her 70s and my grand mother who is 94. Dad has been gone since March of 2000 so we have cut back some on the amounts we make. It is amazing how doing theese things keeps a family close and tradition gets past on. I can't wait for the apples to start coming as my youngest daughter, now 10, loves to help with making the homade apple sauce! She is almost ready to begin learning how to make bread from scratch and honing her skills in the kitchen preping food. She loves her vegtables and that is a good place to start teaching her how to use her paring knife as it is just the right size and with supervision she will learn how to properly use this tool safely! She loves working with Grandma and myself in the kitchen!

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