Monday, July 14, 2008

A Berry Nice Day

...making the black cap feel at home...

There’s nothing like a seed pooped out of the sky by a bird, landing and taking hold in your otherwise, of course, pristine garden, and you, sometime in the future, reaching down to pull its shoot but, at the last minute and with uncharacteristic perspicacity, deciding to let it live, to bring the subject of food down to its most intriguing and endearing and just-the-way-it-should-be level: It is in our nature to eat, and in nature’s to feed us.

And there’s no pleasanter way to get back to nature than if that seed came from a black-cap – the wild black raspberry, than which nothing could be more sublime – and will produce more of those same black-caps every year for your own delectation.

Ah, blackcaps – winy things you can find alongside the road now, in any hedgerow, along streams, hidden behind your fuel tank, reaching up from between the boards of the deck. But, look at it crosseyed, try to manipulate it in any way, and the damned thing will shrivel up and die. It may have been said before, but the ways of nature are multitudinous and mysterious, often seemingly contrary, and endlessly fascinating. Michael Pollan said something to that effect, I think, when he talked about being a writer who likes to write “about the messy places where the human world and the natural world intersect,” and there’s nothing that belongs so naturally to one of those “messy places,” as a wild black raspberry.

Mine came to root under a pine tree, in thus slightly sour ground and dappled shade, near the edge of the garden, very near the sidewalk. I was perfectly willing, nay positively eager, to share my space with it, even allow it the habits that are native to it, but it could not go completely wild, like a ne-er do well uncle you benefit with few nights on the couch while he dries out and makes peace with your aunt. Does the man never run out of socks, what with stuffing them between the cushions and tossing them behind the couch? Does he not know you can smell the cigarette smoke on the draperies, find the bottles hidden behind the trash can?

No! a few manners would have to be instilled, but it would take all the tact I could summon, because, on the other hand, it is like a two year old child who wants to dress itself – “I do it, Momma!” I managed to pretend obliviousness to my black-cap bush even as I planted two fenceposts and strung a trellis of wire between them. Don’t even THINK, was my unspoken attitude, that this has anything at all to do with you! I waited until fall, when its leaves had fallen and its stems dried up and wizened, to gingerly thread them amongst the wires. While I was at it I snipped off all the old, dead wood. It was too weak and sleepy to protest. This all made it easier to weed the goutweed from below it the next spring, but otherwise, except for picking the berries on and around the 4th of July for a couple of weeks, I just let it be.

So far, knock on wood, it seems happy, and obliges, in its contentment, to give me an increasing number of berries every year, as more canes flourish, until this year it has taken up a considerable amount of time – we have evolved from several brief daily visits to pop some berries into our mouths, to having quarts of them sitting on the counter in need of an ice cream to be made into or a galette of leftover pizza dough on which to be piled, along with gobs of butter and a sprinkling of brown sugar and a little cream, and baked on a slow grill on a hot evening when nobody wants to turn on the oven.

... an odd conversation with mrs. bomblatt...

That one was rather spectacular, said my neighbor and dear friend, Mrs. Bomblatt. I spied her picking her own blackcaps at the back of her yard, wearing the old satin slip that she likes to garden in, and looking absolutely radiant. Sweat trickled out of her stunning fluff of snowy white hair down one high brown cheekbone, and she put the back of one wrist languidly up to wipe it off. The bees hummed and the sun turned the air to metal, and Mrs. Bomblatt seemed the most contented thing in the world. “My goodness,” she said, smiling, “Won’t you join me in my endeavor?” She nodded at the canes. So I did, and became increasingly damp and at peace, and when her basket was full she came willingly to taste my odd creation. When I asked her what she would make of her own berries she said, “Perhaps a flummery.”

Or a grunt, I suggested.

“Or perhaps a slump,” she added, “or a pie or a crumble or a crisp...”

Or a buckle, I said, stretching it.

“Brown Betty,” she insisted, “or pandowdie.”

How about a trifle, I urged.

“Bread pudding,” she countered, and then, “No! Summer pudding. Have you ever made summer pudding?”

I said that I hadn’t, and she told me how to make it: You completely line a one quart bowl with slices of firm-textured bread and fill that with cooked sweetened fruit, reserving most of the juice. Cover the top of the fruit with more bread, make it all neat and juicetight, cover with a plate that will fit inside the bowl, weight that with a can or two, or a brick, and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. To serve it, you unmold it onto a platter, spoon those reserved fruit juices over any bread that remains white, cut it into wedges and serve it cold with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

I'll bet that would be good made with some kind of honey/oatmeal or other whole grained bread, said I.

“I think it would be good with this bread,” said Mrs. Bomblatt, picking up the remaining crust of her piece of galette and crunching away on it noisily.

I like the idea of smushing bread, and told her so. I like a butter and cheese sandwich that I stand on with my palms, so that the bread and the butter and the cheese marry, and each bite is a savory cookie. She nodded delightedly and broke in, “There is that time that MFK Fisher writes of a sandwich made of hollowing out a baguette and slathering it with butter and stuffing it with ham and dolloping it with mustard, then sitting on it on a train trip,” said my friend. “Apparently the sitting on it is necessary,” she added.

I know exactly what you mean, I exclaimed, and jumped up to get the book, and read to her, ‘One of the best of our sitters... da da da... was... da da da ... built like a blade of grass during those useful and fargone years, but with a curiously potent electricity between his little beam and the loaf, almost like infrared cookery. He could make the noble sandwich flat without squirming on it, and melt the butter and marry it to the mustard and the crisp shattered crusts, better than anybody.’ (The book is With Bold Knife and Fork by MFK Fisher;Perigee)

“Disgusting,” said Mrs. Bomblatt with real pleasure.

Do you remember, I asked, that scene in “the Jewel in the Crown”, where the girl meets her father very early in the morning to go horseback riding? And he brings bacon sandwiches – white bread, well-buttered, and thick crackly slices of bacon? I’ve always thought that was one of the nicest things a father could do for a daughter.

“Or anyone could do for anyone,” she amended. “I think that one was smushed, too, simply by the carrying of it, a man’s awkwardness in making, and tenderness in giving, that gift.”

Yes, I agreed. At least I assumed so, and I said that that one of the sweetest things about that scene, at least in my imagination, one that is never mentioned, is the idea of the father getting up much earlier in order to fry bacon first thing, just before dawn. The sandwiches were warm, I said, and the waxed paper was grease soaked.

Agreeing, Mrs. Bomblatt rose to leave, and as she did, I asked her again what she would make of her berries. “I think I’ll make some ice cream for my grandkids,” she said, and carried her berries home with her.

It was only later that I realized that Mrs. Bomblatt did not have grandchildren! What a very strange woman, I thought, and completely admirable. raspberry ice cream...

But there was yet another quart of black caps on my counter now. Perhaps I would make some ice cream for MY grandchildren, but then it struck me that I, too, have none.

But ice cream did sound good. And easy, too. If I was not mistaken, the cylinder from my old red Donvier ice cream maker was still chilling in the freezer downstairs, if I had not gotten rid of it in some misbegotten yard sale. Nope, there it was! I beat one egg with 1/3 cup of sugar and a driblet of vanilla, and stirred that with 1 cup of heavy yellow cream, and dumped the scant quart of berries into that mixture and beat it slowly for a moment in order to break up the berries.

This was good enough to eat itself, I thought. But no, once the berries have plopped into your palm from the cane, managed to bypass your mouth, got into the pail, and when you’ve satisfied your urge for a bowl of them touched with cream and perhaps a grit of sugar, you might as well freeze the whole thing. I turned that purple mix into the frozen cylinder and placed the top on the contraption and turned it a few turns several times over the course of a half an hour, and I had soft serve ice cream. I scooped that out into a small bowl and pressed it down and froze it some more.

It’s absolutely amazing what you stand to gain when you’re receptive to what nature has to offer. Ice cream from the seed from the bird in the sky. It reminds me of the coffee that’s called Kopi Luwak, said to be the most expensive of coffees, made of perfectly ripe coffee berries. Coffee snobs once drank it because it was expensive, but what apparently gives it its exquisite taste is that a small animal – perhaps named a Kopi, a type of civet cat – swallows those coffee cherries whole and its digestive tract does a gustatory number on them and when they are excreted – whole – the excretions are rummaged through for the berries, the cherries are cleaned up and sold for an immense amount of change. I do wonder, though, how delicious the coffee would have to be if drinkers of it, themselves, had to rummage through a civet’s latrine for them.

Later that mellow night of a berry nice day, I sat on the porch savoring a bit of black raspberry ice cream and suddenly knew that Mrs. Bomblatt was doing the same thing on her own porch. And I thought, as she might have thought, Oh well, who needs grandchildren, anyway!

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