All food tells a story. Some of this story we can tell easily because we know where we bought the ingredients, or we heard a description from the waiter at a restaurant. But are there many foods you eat where you truly know the full story? It isn’t just about who serves the food or who makes it, but rather, where it was grown, and even where those seeds or animals were came from. Do we know if it is organic, heirloom, heritage, GMO free, wild or cultivated? Sometimes it’s too much hassle to think this much. But it can be worth playing the investigative reporter and getting to know your food and its origins. You might be surprised how long of a history there is on your plate.
Let’s look at blueberries. For me, the only blueberries worth any time or money are the cute little wild ones that pop up in lowbush patches. They are easy to find right now in our region, some patches bountiful, others with just a scattering of tiny tart berries even our blueberry-crazed 3 year old daughter doesn’t enjoy. “It makes my mouth weird,” she’ll say of an underripe pinkish purple berry she tested.
We hike trails and explore patches of woods where we thought we spotted some blueberry leaves in the fall and early spring. Are the berries good here? Did that controlled burn mess up the blueberries there? What about that spot from last year? We narrow it down until we find the right spot, and then it is simple. We pick as many as we can, filling quart jars and yogurt containers and water bottles–anything with a lid will do.
When we eat blueberry pancakes on Sundays throughout the year, we know their story. We know exactly where they came from. We sought them out, walked the paths, picked them fresh from the branches. We picked through them, washed them, dried them, froze them on baking sheets, and stored in plastic zip-top bags in our chest freezer. But really this is just part of the story for these blueberries. They go way back. Way, way, back.
When the glaciers receded over New England, one of the first signs of life on the re-exposed land was… you guessed it: the wild blueberry. This plant is a master of survival and spreading. It can tolerate highly acidic earth. It populates the land in multiple ways, with complex underground systems that can spread in rhizome-fashion and it also conquers new land by the expected fruit to seed to sprout method. Animals eat the berries and deposit the seeds far and wide while the main plant creeps and reaches to great spans of land.
With this aggressive development, it is only natural that variations occur from plant to plant, even berry to berry. There are thousands of different types of wild blueberries if you look close enough. Differences in berry size, color, and even shape exist within mere feet of each other.
When you eat a handful of truly wild blueberries you are tasting thousands of years of effort and improvement, a flavor that is as much of this earth as the smell of pine needles warming in the sun or the ocean spray as the tide comes in.
To learn more about blueberries, here’s my suggestion: don’t read about them. Don’t buy them from the grocery store. Go out and find some of your own. In New England this is not all that difficult. Mountainsides, areas surrounding lakes, and even the sides of highways can be loaded with the inconspicuous plant.
See where they grow and study how they grow. Some spots don’t do well, why is that? Some spots are amazingly lush and the bounty seems to never end. Eat some fresh from the bush. How did that one make your tongue feel? What about this one, is its aroma comparable to the next?
Learn their story. And give them a happy ending.