Book Excerpt: 'The Feast Nearby'
Prime Pickings: In an excerpt from her new book, Robin Mather extols the virtues of Michigan- grown food in general and a bounty of plump raspberries in particular
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Wonder Wally popped in last week. He’d come, he said, to cut the grass at their place and would do mine as well. Since the yard had been looking tatty, I was thoroughly delighted.
“So what have you been up to?” Wally asked. “Are you OK? The chickens look good.”
“Actually, I’m feeling quite merry lately,” I said. “Jim and I went to pick berries the other day; that was fun. I got about eight jars of preserves, I guess. And I made some strawberry preserves. Would you like some?”
Wally eased his ball cap off, scratched his forehead briefly and resettled his cap. “I’m not much of a berry person,” he said. “Don’t like the seeds. But I’d take a jar of strawberries, if you can spare them.”
I looked at that kind man and said, “Just a second.” I hopped downstairs and returned with two squat half-pint jars of strawberry preserves under paraffin. “Let me know how you like them,” I said. “I have more.” We chatted for a while, and then he had to go. Wally’s always busy, I’ve noticed. He makes me think of a bumblebee, with lots of stops to make every day to make sure everyone is happily pollinated with Wally dust. We pollinees are left smiling in his wake.
When Wally rapped on the door again yesterday, I was a little surprised. Surely the grass didn’t need cutting again already? “I brought your jars back,” he said, handing me two washed jars in a plastic bag. “Those strawberries were incredible! I ate them out of the jar with a spoon!”
I laughed. “All gone already? Still have more. I’ll get you a couple more jars.”
“If you’ll keep giving me strawberries, I’ll give you some stuff from my garden,” he said. “How would that be?”
“I’d take every lick of stuff you can spare,” I said. “And if you’ll do that, I’ll knit you a very warm hat to keep you warm when you’re ice-fishing this winter.”
Secretly, I was glad Wally didn’t want my berry preserves. Raspberries are, far and away, my very favorite fruit. Depending on the cultivar, raspberries have a brief season in midsummer or a longer one in late summer. But either way, they’re always expensive, even in season: They’re so delicate that they mold easily, so they can’t be picked very far in advance. And, of course, being so ephemerally fragile, they crush terribly, even when packed carefully into shallow, slotted cardboard boxes. I have vivid memories of growing up in a tiny village in rural Michigan, and one of the best of those — the one I cite when people ask me what I liked about growing up in that way, in that place, in that time — is that my best friend and I knew all the places where the wild raspberries grew. I can still remember the two of us standing in a ditch along Grass Lake’s South Street, bikes tossed off to the side, chucking wild raspberries into our mouths as fast as our hands could pick them. I think those days may have been the only time in my life when I ate all the raspberries I cared to eat.
All winter long, I look longingly at the clear plastic clamshells of fresh raspberries flown in from Chile or some place far, far away. But I can’t justify buying them, not even as a special treat. You probably already understand why: the fuel costs of getting them to me, as well as the knowledge that the raspberry growers have taken land out of cultivation for growing food for people nearby. So I indulge my raspberry passion by eating them like candy when they’re in season, and by making preserves.
I don’t eat raspberry preserves out of the jar, as Wally said he’d done with the strawberries, but I love them on peanut butter sandwiches, toast, and biscuits, spooned into a cup of yogurt and even brushed on roasting chicken or pork. Sometimes, I stir a little into a vinaigrette to dress a salad, especially if the flavors of the rest of the meal are tart or bland and a sweetly dressed salad would be welcome.
When Jim suggested that we go pick berries a couple of weeks ago, I was tickled. He knew about a big berry patch on state land not far away, and he said he’d show me where it was. He thought the berries were blackberries, he said, but I’d have to look.
On berry-picking day, I took along a big, shallow pan to pick into — so the berries wouldn’t crush under their own weight — and a bottle of bug dope. We left early, to beat the day’s heat, since you really need to wear long sleeves, long pants, and boots when you’re working your way through berry brambles.
I drove, and Jim gave me directions as we went. When at last we arrived, I was completely lost and totally awestruck: I was standing looking at about an acre — perhaps more — of berry brambles so heavily laden with fruit that they sagged under the weight.
It looked like heaven to me.
They weren’t blackberries, though. They were black raspberries. The drupe fruits — so called because each little “bubble” on the berry is a drupe, holding a seed — interbreed easily, so it can be hard to tell them apart. Raspberries, dewberries, loganberries, tayberries, boysenberries, olallaberries, marionberries: They’re all related, in the prolific and amiable brambleberry clan.
The berry canes were taller than my head. Jim and I picked nearly a gallon of berries in about a half an hour — berries as big as my thumbnail, sweet, juicy, and plump, of a deep, shiny ebony. I froze a few small bags, but most of the berries went into the jam pot, and after delivering some to Jim, the remaining jars occupied their own corner of my basement-pantry shelves.
So Jim and I bartered — berries for jam — and now I was bartering with Wally: preserves and a hat in exchange for his garden’s riches. The hat I planned to knit would take some time, so I cast on for it right away.
I used a kind of unspun yarn called “pencil roving” for the hat I had in mind. By itself, the pencil roving is airy and delicate, easy to pull apart, like a cotton ball is. When knitted, though, it turns into a thick, windproof, warm fabric that’s much sturdier than the roving itself.
The pencil roving I planned to use had come from a Michigan fiber processor, the more-than-century-old Frankenmuth Woolen Mill. I’d bought a couple of “cheeses” — eight-ounce rounds of roving that are flat and disc-like, rather than wound into a ball — at the Michigan Fiber Festival in Allegan last summer, a four-day gathering that’s pure heaven for fiber addicts like me.
So I cast on for Wally’s hat and began knitting merrily away. I think Wally thought me daft, actually. Really, he certainly could afford to buy a hat if he needed one. But the point of hand-knit gifts, like hand-made quilts, isn’t in their cost-efficiency or ease, is it? I wanted Wally to know that I was thinking of him, and of his comfort, as I worked along.
He was good on his word. He’s been showing up at my door every few days with bag after bag of stuff from his garden. Big, blocky bell peppers and slim dagger-shaped fiercely hot ones. Cucumbers both fat and sleek and long and seedless. Tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, from little cherry and grape pop-in-your-mouths to massive, convoluted lovely globes that beg for mayonnaise in a drippy tomato sandwich. I’ve been putting up jar after jar of diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and crushed tomatoes, and I know the season is just beginning.
The very warm hat I’m knitting will do its job to keep Wally’s wonderful, thoughtful brain warm all through the next winter. And the strawberry preserves that he loves will nourish his wonderful bumblebee self.
Lucky I am, indeed, to have found myself on his pollination route.