The Fat of the Land

Month: July, 2013

Fruit D’or

145px-'Peach_Forest',_painting_by_Lan_Ying

A book I read last summer presented an idea that has lingered with me since. The author, a farmer in Upstate New York, recalled something a Frenchman had told her years ago when she was in his country on a writing assignment: Food, he said, is the first wealth. And we can be certain that by food he did not mean supermarket fare. He meant, as any self-respecting Frenchman would, the manifestation of rich soil, of biodiversity, of skilled agriculture and culinary prowess.

To work in the rain and the wind and the sun, to feel the transforming soil, to plant weightless seeds and harvest pounds of food, to know true freshness and life-giving rot, to have the pleasure of a pantry filled with the literal fruits of your labor is more satisfying and, arguably, more certain than the imaginary wealth of our currency. Truly, we love money: holding it, hoarding it, and wielding its power—it fuels our contemporary way of life. But our cells sing in the presence of authentic food. Vibrant food shapes cultures, inspires ingenuity, and, ultimately, teaches us who we are. It is our longest and greatest love.

For many, mustard greens or lettuce may not be convincing substitutes for dollars or ducats, but golden hued apricots and peaches, royal purple plums or lacquer red cherries might sway even the skeptics. Named stone fruits for their large, central seeds, these fruits have heft, a gravity that foretells the thick, tangy sugar of their flesh. Arranged on a plate, they look like a pile of treasure.

It is not known when the first nugget of gold was found nor when the first peach or apricot was tasted, but it is possible, even likely, that stone fruits such as these dazzled our species first. Indigenous to various locations in Central Asia with ranges that stretch into Central Europe and China, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches and their close cousin, almonds, are some of the earliest cultivated fruits. Urban civilization may have been influenced by a desire for them and other ancient tree-fruits: annual seed crops are light to carry and will grow in a matter of months; a taste for almonds or dates means planting orchards and waiting a few years for them to bear. It means staying in that place indefinitely.

Historical consensus is that peaches and apricots were first domesticated in China. Brought to Europe via the silk road through Persia and Armenia, they picked up their botanical misnomers: Prunus persica for peaches, mistakenly thought to hail from Persia, and Prunus armeniaca for apricots, long associated with Armenia, though densities of wild stands suggest Chinese origin.

Not surprisingly, peaches are a powerful symbol in Chinese culture and mythology, signifying enduring health and immortality. In the story of the Peach Blossom Land (421 A.D.), a fisherman living in a time of political upheaval one day finds himself floating into a blooming peach forest. Transfixed by a landscape overcome with blossoms, he inadvertently follows the river to its source, where he notices a narrow opening in the rocks. On the other side of the opening he finds a utopian society of Chinese people living harmoniously with each other and wild nature—folks who shunned the outside world generations ago and live unconcerned by the civilization they left behind in this land beyond the peach blossoms.

Peaches and their tantalizing aromas may or may not guard mythical utopias, but it is clear to anyone who swoons at the first bite that these fruits hold an ancient power over us—one that lingers strongly in its country of origin. China is by far the leading producer of the global peach crop, growing nearly ten times our domestic production (10.82 million metric tons to our 1.26 in 2010), 80% of which remains in China and is sold for fresh eating. That’s a serious amount of peaches.

The taste of a peach was beloved long before the first gold coin landed in our palm, and trumps our currency still, in that we hand it over in exchange for them, to feel their soft velvety weight as we place them in a sack. The pleasure of eating a full-flavored, perfectly ripe peach is a fortune not soon forgotten, one that has traveled in our care from the prehistoric peach forests of China through millennia of orchards, across discontent and utopia, golden and paper money, so that we may know it today.

Vaccinium

512px-Vaccinium_membranaceum_Fruit_and_leaves

Blueberry bushes are one of those generous plants that lend superior charm to each season of the garden. In winter, their stems turn cranberry red as the temperature drops, accenting evergreen plantings with sparse but vibrant color. Their spring bloom occurs alongside leaf emergence, when clusters of bell-shaped flowers and bright green leaves seem the definition of exuberant freshness. Their prodigious summer fruits pull us into the garden for breakfast forays and evening snacking. In autumn, their foliage blazes in electric reds and oranges, offering some of the most impressive fall color available to maritime northwest gardens.

As a food, we adore them. We can spend an afternoon popping them into our mouths for their crunch, their juicy dark sweetness and hint of sour. Rub a blueberry on your sleeve and the epicuticular wax, known as the “bloom,” will give way to polished midnight. Heat them in a pan and this powerful pigment stains their yellowish flesh into a deep, silky sauce.

The pleasure of a backyard blueberry bush is a relatively recent phenomenon, having been successfully domesticated less than a century ago. A member of the genus Vaccinium, most garden blueberries are cultivars of the Northern highbush blueberry, a species indigenous to the eastern United States.

Wild patches of Vaccinium corymbosum were a popular July destination both before and after European contact, when locals would pick them for eating and preserving. In the early 1900’s, Elizabeth Coleman White, the daughter of a cranberry farmer in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, collaborated with botanist Frederick Coville to seek out and refine wild selections for commercial production.

White employed the help of experienced local pickers to locate desirable specimens, paying $2 a bush for plants with large berries and good flavor. Dozens of prospects were delivered and, with the help of Coville’s research on blueberry culture, the first cultivars were brought into production by 1916.

In Maine and eastern Canada, another species, Vaccinium angustifolium, the lowbush blueberry, was also domesticated, though propagation attempts were unsuccessful. Lowbush blueberries spread by rhizomes and do not easily transplant. Rather than propagate them in fields, growers learned to cultivate existing patches, encouraging their spread by removing competing plants and keeping them productive through field burning or mowing every few years. Lowbush blueberries are marketed as wild blueberries since they are not technically planted, though they are intensively managed and machine harvested.

Edible berry producing Vaccinium species are also found in the western U.S., most notably the huckleberry, an enigmatic force that captivates those who know it. Huckleberry species populate nearly every type of ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, from coastal rainforests to subalpine meadows. All are edible and have nutritional value, some are bland or dry and best eaten cooked, others make a tangy (but miniscule) snack. Two species, V. membranaceum and V. deliciosum incite delirium and crazed obsession.

I knew the obsession long before I tasted a fresh huckleberry. As we drove from Wisconsin to Oregon with all of our belongings squeezed into a rented minivan, we noticed cafes and gift shops dedicated to them, exclamations of “huckleberry shakes!” dotting the interstate through Montana and Idaho. We smothered our pancakes with huckleberry syrup and drove on.

Since huckleberries don’t exist where I grew up, I’d never seen one. I had no particular reason to seek out a picture, no reason to go picking them. Living in eastern Oregon for a couple of years, their reputation eventually surfaced in our consciousness as we heard talk of people hoarding ice cream buckets full in the freezer. We saw the fire in their eyes when they spoke of them, and began to get curious.

Driving into the mountains one particularly scorching August day, we rolled our windows down to let in the cool forest air as we slowly gained elevation. After a few minutes, we both detected a fragrance we’d never noticed before: caramel sweetness tinged with a rich liqueur that beckoned us to scan the slopes for its source. We didn’t see anything blooming, but as the scent grew stronger, our eyes narrowed in on an abundance of reddish-blue berries dangling from the shrubby undergrowth. Could it be? We finished our ascent to the campground and saw the same shrubs filling the spaces between sites, folks crouched amongst them, dropping berries into large containers.

My first taste of a huckleberry, perched on the forest floor surrounded by its opulent scent, was transformative. Nothing has caught me so off guard as that unassuming little fruit: explosive, precise and extraordinary, tasting like the dream of itself. For a moment, picking and eating, I felt like I had somehow arrived on Mt. Olympus itself, that I was sitting in the land of the gods, where everything is just a little grander than its counterpart on earth, sneaking a taste of their favorite fruit.