It’s full on foraging season here and I’ve spent many hours berry picking over the past few days. And as I’ve been enjoying nature’s bounty, I’ve also been thinking about food, taste, berry picking practices, place and identity.
It occurred to me, as I picked saskatoons (known locally as Chuckley Pears), that berry picking practices can be read as markers for regional identity.
You see, nobody picks saskatoons here.
Well, nobody except for people from away – mainlanders, if you will. And yet, saskatoon bushes laden with fruit line many of the local trails. Picking, usually a quiet, contemplative activity (except for when you reach higher and higher for the juiciest berries that are always just slightly beyond your reach…), becomes a social activity. People stop. They ask questions. They nod. They taste. And then they walk on. And in that conversation, boundaries are marked and boundaries are broken. We are separated by my picking and by their questions, but we come together in our shared interest in wild berries (or, perhaps more prosaically, free food….)
On Facebook, however, saskatoons are a common currency. I mention the word and my community rejoices. Many people, it seems, have good memories of picking and eating saskatoons. Saskatoon pie. Saskatoon crumble. Saskatoon jam. Stewed up berries over yogurt. The possibilities – and the memories – are endless.
My memories of saskatoons are mixed. I loved eating them. But I didn’t love picking them. They grew along the riverbanks in our hometown, a mosquito-infested hell that we had to brave in order to secure our treasured fruit. Picking berries was a complex process that involved not only tubs and berries, but also bug spray, long sleeves, careful breathing, and arm flailing.
Saskatoon picking is much easier here, largely because there are so few bugs.
But saskatoons aren’t part of local identity. Here, identity is measured in blueberries, bakeapples and partridgeberries. People have their coveted berry picking spots. They measure the weather. They keep their eyes peeled. And once it’s berry picking season, everyone’s out.
And nobody is allowed home until their buckets are full.
Well, that’s not true.
But I have been amazed at the sheer volume of berries that people can pick here. Salt beef buckets. Lots of them. Or laundry detergent pails. Also lots of them. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are determined pickers. Perhaps it’s because the berries are plentiful. Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to grow so many other things. Perhaps it’s because they just taste so darn good.
Well, except for bakeapples, which have never really grown on me.
Bakeapples (also known in other parts of the world as cloudberries) are a unique fruit. Bright orange. A bit like raspberries, at least to look at. But completely different in flavour. Juicy. Somewhat sour. Yogurty in texture. Each plant produces only a single berry. And while you would think that picking them would be impractical, you’d be amazed at how many plants can congregate in a single small area.
In Central Newfoundland, you can buy bakeapple jam by the side of the highway. Big jars stacked on the hood of a car. I always wonder how many hours of picking went into them. Later in the summer, those same hoods will hold buckets of blueberries, and, early in the fall, buckets of partridgeberries.
Partridgeberries (or lingonberries) are my favourite, but I’ve never really figured out when, exactly, I’m supposed to pick them. Do I pick them before it freezes? Or after the first frost as local lore would have it? The very fact that I need to ask this question is, in itself, also a marker of identity.
Mainlander. It’s a word that whispers through my ears, settling itself on my body, my taste buds, my identity.
What do your berry practices tell you about who you are?