Sunday, October 4, 2009

This One's For Frances

Fall makes me ravenous. Summer and fall and harvest and suddenly I crave half-bushel bags of apples, piles of tomatoes, plums, corn, quinces, and bathtub-sized piles of grapes. Here in Brooklyn, it gets sunny, smells sweet, and then the leaves turn and the wind picks up and winter comes, but it is never quite summer, never quite fall. The CSA has gone a long way toward countering this, but even with the piles and piles of anything imaginable at the farmers market, something of abundance is missing. Which is another way of saying that I can never really quite get my fix until I have too many, too much of something. Twelve pounds of blueberries was just a warm-up. Next to having the garden myself, I want neighbors, abandoned trees on public land, and, more realistically, farm stands with generous deals on blemished or overabundant produce.

Since I was being (happily) drafted for foraging expeditions from a very young age, I can't pretend ignorance of the origins of my hunger.  This one is squarely in my mother's court. It was she who brought me to strawberry and raspberry pick-your-owns before busybodies thought I'd be able to tell ripe from green,  and she who talked the old woman down the block into letting us clear her sour cherry tree for years. My father was no slouch himself, and we often found ourselves deep in the grounds Northampton's recently defunct State Mental Hospital--not so incidentally his old employer--raiding the neglected orchards for peaches and the rampant brambles for blackberries. Whatever we could come by or grow in quantity was the prize, and in my greedy childhood confidence I came to understand that only too much is enough, and that, when it came to fruit and my family, too much was more of an academic concept than a concrete reality. 

These days, I live in a city--one with wonderful farmers markets--and my fruit budget, even when maxed out, is measured more in pounds or single fruits than in bushels. While I always have some, I rarely have flats and piles, and it's almost never cheap, let alone free. We're working on growing, but we're not quite there yet--total home fruit crop this summer was four sweet and unexpected late-August strawberries. (I'm transplanting the runners, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best--what's the best way to keep them alive overwinter?) I love nostalgia and longing as much as the next girl, but when it's fruit I can't just wallow, I need action.

I teach myself foraging skills, and hunt mulberries, juneberries, and black locust flowers right in my neighborhood. I also make sourcing trips to Northampton several times a year, cramming the rituals of the seasons into hurried weekend trips. March or April is for sugaring, and carrying home the gallon jug. June and July are for berries, and rhubarb, and August begins the blueberries. In September or October, I turn to my old home again for Yom Kippur and big bags of 'utility' apples from Outlook Farm. It may seem single-minded, but for me it's how I rejoice, and how I connect. And how I eat.

And when I can't find a way to satisfy my need for seasonal abundance completely, I trick myself into satiety by making Frances the badger's favorite--jam.

Preserving, by its very nature, breathes abundance--enough for the next day, and the next, and for the whole winter. I've already written about the wineberry jelly (note that I spent my birthday picking fruit. This is how important it is), my most ambitious project to date. This fall, it's been jams and butters.First, greengage plum jam, tart and squishy, followed by tomato puree, then apple butter, and now pear cardamom butter. Corn kernels from the CSA put up in bags with their milk. I've been freezing, eating, or giving away, rather than really canning, because the batches are too small to make even small batch canning impractical. I doubt we'll be provisioned too deep into the winter, but the long hours of slow simmering, stirring, tasting, and getting everything sticky have started to calm something deep inside of me, some primal agricultural hunger. Now I can begin to let the old year go, and turn toward winter with at least one or two little jars of summer abundance distilled and waiting, sweet and sticky.

The harvest isn't quite over, though...our carrots are sweetening on the roof. The last of the fruit, though, was picked on Friday, over the phone. I called my mother, and asked her about the state of the next door neighbors' quinces, which I've been absconding with for the last few years (like mother, like daughter). She, able co-conspirator that she is, was out the door with the phone still in hand, and long before our conversation was over, had filled a bag with fallen fruit. Yes, I come by it honestly. And sweetly.What you might call a goodly heritage.

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