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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Lure of Free Fruit

When I was growing up, I hated picking blackberries.  My mother loves nothing better than blackberry pie in January - she makes pies in the summer and freezes them whole - but blackberries don't grow in January.  So that means in July, the hottest, muggiest month of the year, blackberries have to be picked.  On the dreaded Blackberry Picking Day, always around Independence Day, my mother would roust us out of bed much, much too early - like six o'clock - to put on long sleeved shirts and pants and go to whatever cow pasture she had found that had brambles and an owner willing to let us strip those brambles.

After fifteen or twenty minutes we would begin the whine, "When are we going home?  I'm so hot!  Haven't we picked enough yet?"  My mom would resolutely ignore us and keep filling her bucket, one blackberry at a time, perhaps thinking of hot pie in January or long strips or duct tape that would stop our whining.  

We have friends with a mulberry tree.  When I found out that they were leaving for the whole summer, I offered to pick their tree for them.  I'd never tasted mulberries before we lived in Baku, but I've grown fond enough of them to add mulberries to the growing list of trees in our hypothetical future orchard.  Almost impossible to get in the States, they are everywhere here.  Tajikistan was a silk producer in the the Soviet era, and the trees are still growing so in high season you can get mulberries from roadside stands for about forty cents a pound.

I watched the trees in our neighborhood for the telltale sign of mulberry season - squashed and rotten fruit littering the ground wherever a mulberry tree grows - and headed over to start picking when it was time.  And once I started, I couldn't stop.  One trip I spent two and a half hours picking and finished off the day with a gallon of frozen mulberries and six quarts of canned mulberries.  We also made jam and dried mulberries to put in granola bars.  

By the fourth trip, when the children asked why we were going over to pick mulberries - again - when we already had enough mulberries for milkshakes through the whole winter, I shrugged.  Because they were there.  I couldn't stand the idea of letting perfectly good mulberries rot when I could be there picking them - for free.  My hoarder tendencies just can't let perfectly good food just rot because I'm too lazy to go pick it.  Maybe we don't need mulberries, but if they're there, why not pick them? 

So when one of Brandon's co-workers offered to let us pick out her apple tree - here they have small apples here that come ripe in early summer - the children just sighed and hopped in the car with hardly any complaining.  The tree wasn't very large so it took about an hour to pick the apples in reach, filling four bags by the end.  There were still ripe apples on the tree, but most were too high for me to reach even while standing on the 'do not stand' part of the ladder while stretching far enough to make everyone nervous.  It was almost physically painful to leave those perfectly ripe sweet apples on the tree with nobody to pick them and take them home, destined to eventually fall and rot all alone with nobody to love or eat them.

I canned the apples, making almost fifteen quarts to add to the six quarts of mulberries.  Every time I pass my jars or see my bags in the freezer I feel smug, a squirrel hiding away nuts for winter.  I've got the blackberry patches in my neighborhood marked out and examine the tiny green berries each time I pass, planning my expeditions to gather even more free fruit to save up for the cold winter months.  I'm hoping that the locals don't have a taste for blackberries or have too much dignity to pick blackberries from the side of the road.  But just in case, I've memorized all of the blackberries patches on all of the hikes we've taken. 

I'm not sure what plans I have for all of that fruit.  Mulberry milkshakes are pretty tasty, and mulberry muffins weren't too bad.  Applesauce needs no plans; the children can polish off a quart in one sitting.  Maybe I can start enjoying blackberry pies in January.  And I am quite fond of blackberry cobbler.

Whenever I have fruit stored away for the winter, I feel rich.  I've been in a lot of places where preserving wasn't an option and I'm just too cheap to buy those bags of frozen fruit.  After all, it's not really necessary to have strawberries in your pancakes when snow's on the ground.  But now I can eat all the fruit I want in January.  Because it cost me nothing more than time and sweat.  And I've got plenty of both.

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