Berry Picking: Harvesting with Friends Makes Food Taste Better

Here’s a happy thought:  simply by eating more blue and purple foods, you decrease your risk for some cancers and increase your chances of aging well, maintaining a good memory, and enjoying urinary tract health.  But forgo lavender gelato: American Cancer Society nutritionists advocate a low-fat diet. Still, gobbling blueberries is a lifestyle change I can manage—even if the blueberries aren’t inside pastry. So in July, when my friend Becky invited me to pick blueberries, I agreed despite the twenty-fold increase in mosquitoes Iowa news media reported.

A city girl, I’ve picked berries rarely. Elderberries flourished briefly in empty lots near the Pennsylvania neighborhood where I grew up. We kids waded through waist-high weeds to fill buckets, then scurried home to doting mothers, who rewarded us first with shiny quarters and later with thick slabs of elderberry pie topped with dollops of canned whipped cream. All too soon, the post-World War II housing boom swallowed the empty lots. The weeds, elderberries, and pies disappeared, along with my berry-picking adventures.

Years later, my new husband and I shared a house with four friends in Seattle. Housemate Debbie suggested strawberry picking. Crowded into my husband’s Dodge Dart, five of us drove to an enormous berry farm. Nestled against wet earth, the plants’ damp leaves released puffs of green mold, which raised red rashes the length of my forearms. But the berries glistened like rubies. Intoxicated by their superb flavor, we picked billions of berries.

That night, bubbling-berry aroma permeated every room in our house. We filled jar after jar with jam, but our berry stash never diminished. Our jar stash did: we ran out. For three days, we gorged on raw strawberries. We had to! Could you waste perfect berries? Besides, eating red foods lowers the risk of some cancers and helps maintain heart health, memory function, and urinary tract health. Okay, so we didn’t know that then. Now we do, thanks to the folks at the American Cancer Society.

The autumn after the strawberry surfeit my husband, baby, and I moved to Iowa. Years passed. Then a farmer planted a you-pick strawberry field north of town. I picked berries with my son. Mom sent her recipe for glazed strawberry pie, and I made freezer jam, too. Then the farmer stopped growing. No more picking for us.

So I was glad Becky called. An organized gal, she scheduled a 7 a.m. Saturday departure and listed necessities: sunscreen, bug spray, sun hat, bottled water, sunglasses, berry containers, money. I also donned stained tennis shoes, gardening jeans, and a white, button-down, long-sleeved shirt from a thrift stop. Remember Sharon Stone in a lavender skirt and her husband’s white shirt on the red carpet at the 1998 Academy Awards? Looking more like Dan Akroyd ready to trap demons in 1984’s Ghostbusters movie, I felt smugly safe from mosquitoes, weird rashes, poison ivy, and ticks. (I told you I’m a city girl, didn’t I?)

At the farm, no one greeted us, but the farmer had left belts and pails on a weathered wood table. Becky’s friend Jane, who’d come along, told us to buckle on a belt after looping it through a plastic pail’s handle. This arrangement fosters two-fisted picking.

Suited up, we mined bushes heavy with glossy blue fruit. First we clustered, chatting. Later we dispersed, basking in berry-brightened silence. Exactly at 11 a.m. (our planned departure time) a gentle rain started. We weighed our harvest—35 pounds!—calculated payment according to posted rates, and dropped checks in a small, unlocked box bursting with bills, coins, and checks left by previous pickers. Driving home, we planned a September jaunt to pick apples. Join us: green, red, and yellow foods are good for you, too!

On our one-acre lot, my husband and I grow strawberries, peaches, and plums. One day we may grow apples and blueberries, also. I’m glad we don’t yet. Harvesting with friends makes food taste better. Try it and see. Meanwhile, enjoy this recipe for a simple blueberry dessert. Fussy American Cancer Society nutritionists might even approve it. Bon appétit!

Blueberry Fruit Cup
4 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
2 tablespoons raspberry preserves
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons minced lemon peel

Combine, toss gently, and garnish with mint leaves. Makes 8 half-cup servings.

© 2008 Cheryl Fusco Johnson.