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I had every hope of finding Concord grapes today in a local park. But the guy who told me about them impressed upon me the fact that they tend to wrap their viney selves around trees, way out of reach. So I might find them, sure, but would they taunt me from their lofty perch, giggling at my dinkiness? Probably. I suited up (boots past their prime, socks over the cuffs of my jeans, old t shirt, and backpack) and went anyway. I looked like a bohemian infantryman, which worked since the grapes were supposed to be somewhere at Monmouth Battlefield, the site of one of the most intense fights of the Revolutionary War.

It had been years since I’d been on these hallowed grounds—acres and acres of rolling hills, old fences, tree-lined pastures, nodding false Queen Anne’s lace blossoms, and no sound but the whirring of crickets. No sound except for today, when I was hiking behind two elderly couples who stopped every few feet to discuss in detail why the battle was an important one, even though all were Americans and might have heard of the kerfuffle we’d once had with the British. The gentleman who took the lead in enlightening the hikers, the pastures, and the crickets on the battle had the kind of manner that always seems as if he’s pontificating, even if he’s talking about tomorrow afternoon’s forecast. I’d planned on taking a right after the bridge, but took a left to get the noise out of my ears. At a place like this, all of that yammering felt blasphemous.

At first I found a lot of what looked like grape vines—they were all over—but found no grapes on them, so I figured I’d just enjoy the walk and the soul of the place. But I kept looking. And when I spotted my first few, a few feet over my head under an awning of leaves, I just stared, dumbstruck. These are the variety that’s made into grape jelly. Treasure is in the eye of the beholder.

There were in fact a few clusters out of reach along that pathway, maybe a half mile long. I think the deer probably got to the lower ones first. But a lot were accessible, even for Miss Five-Foot-Three, and I got about a quart’s worth.

Most important thing I learned while picking Concords: Wild rose canes are vicious. I’ve added their tiny vampire-like cuts to the ones I got last week while picking beach plums (more on that later). War wounds on war-grounds. Worth it. And I’m so grateful to those couples for their insufferable prattle or I never would have turned left.

I think I’ll make peanut butter muffins and top them with these.

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From the Couldn’t-Make-This-Up files: When my college boyfriend and his best buddy were working long hours at the pharmacy downtown, I’d sometimes bake them raisin bran muffins as a treat. One time I dropped off a bag of them to the buddy (Jimmy) while my boyfriend (Frank) was out on a delivery. I called Frank later to ask how he had liked them and he said, ‘What muffins?’ Then, ‘Jim—Marisa brought muffins? Where are they?’ With remarkable shamelessness Jimmy showed him the inside of the empty bag. Then he put Jimmy on the phone. I asked, ‘The bag’s empty? What about the paper muffin cups?’ He said, ‘Muffin cups?’

You know what you’re thinking happened? Yeah. Happened.

These are pretty much that good, though, not that I advise you to be as indiscriminate as Jimmy. There are better ways to get fiber in your diet.

This recipe was given to my mom by a fellow mom from our little town. She jotted it down onto a recipe card—women in the early 80s and prior were wont to recipe-jot—and it has been a favorite of mine ever since.

Bran muffins, in my experience, are either oily, dry as asbestos, or weigh as much as a Hyundai Elantra. These are light and finely textured at 20 minutes in the oven. I like them darker and slightly chewier at 30 minutes (see helpful pic above). If you can find non-GMO cereal, I salute you. Extra raisins are a plus, too.

This recipe is another example of what Sara Moulton, formerly of Gourmet magazine, would call a dump recipe. You can make it happen from scratch in the morning with no problem, bake just enough for breakfast, and keep the rest of the batter in the fridge for the rest of the week.

1 15 oz. box raisin bran

5 c all-purpose flour

1 c granulated sugar

1 c packed brown sugar

5 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp salt

4 eggs

1 qt. buttermilk or plain yogurt

1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Combine first six ingredients in a really big bowl. Add remaining and mix until moist. Fill greased or paper-muffin-cup-lined muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake at 375 for 20 minutes or longer. Serve warm or at room temperature. Peel off the paper muffin cups and discard. For crying out loud.

Batter can be covered and stored in the fridge for up to a month.

Here’s how much it serves:*

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*If you look closely you’ll see that my mom originally wrote ‘halve the recipe’, then scribbled it out. These are addictive. Don’t half.

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Cheerful reminder: June 27 is the deadline for recipe submissions:

https://mcproco.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/project-you-me-and-the-world/

Totally loved the creative and homey recipes I received this week. Please send more. Feed me, Seymour.

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Mulberry tree in full fruit.

A few years back I read an advice column written by a master gardener. Someone wrote in, distraught about an apple tree on his property, and asked if there was anything he could do to prevent ‘the mess’ the tree caused every fall. To which the columnist (after a stiff drink, likely) suggested the unthinkable: collecting up the apples and baking something.

Now take the wild black mulberry tree. It’s messy, too, but I’m glad. Hydrophilic and sandy-soil-philic, they’re profuse in the watery area where I live, and in mid-June it’s easy to find a mulberry tree: the area below it is helpfully stained purple.

The first time I ever tasted a mulberry was when I was 19 and a summer camp bus counselor. Outside one chronically-late girl’s house was a huge tree, and one day to pass the time the driver, a native Italian, climbed out and started snacking on the fruit. I tried one and asked what they were. He didn’t know the name in English, but said people ate them all the time in Italy. Years later I learned the name and found some wild trees I could raid instead of Sadie’s.

These delicately sweet berries are wonderful baked into muffins or coffee cakes, cooked into jam—throw in a few almost-ripe red ones to add a tart counter-note to the ripe black’s sweetness—and tossed into your Cheerios. I hear they also dry very well. (If you have a dehydrator and decide to give it a whirl, let me know how it goes.)

My favorite tree is on a narrow road between a lake and a supermarket. It’s not in the hottest location. But since a lot of towns have cut the branches back from my old favorites, and I’m 5’3″ and only have a wimpy stepladder, I go where the low-hanging fruit is.

Ripe mulberries fall off the tree very easily. In fact, the best way to harvest them is by spreading a few tarps around the base of the tree and giving the trunk a good shake. I usually go the slow route and pick them one by one.

Either way, in all of the years I have been doing this (five? six?), someone always walks by, calls out, or pulls over to ask what I’m picking.*

Then they look up at the tree and say they have passed this way hundreds of times, but have never noticed it. This is how it goes, without fail. And when I tell them it’s a mulberry tree and that the fruit is edible, they always get the same look on their faces. Did you ever surprise someone by telling him or her that the ABC song has the same melody as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’? That’s the look. (I bet some of you have it right now, huh?) It’s a combination of incredulity and wonderment. But there’s something more—the look of someone who had lost something, had long forgotten about it, and then turned the corner and is suddenly reunited with it.

This year the first person who stopped to ask about the tree was a pony-tailed woman in her mid-twenties, tattoos up one arm. She actually got out of her car to come and talk to me. I asked her if she baked. The look on her face was wistful. She looked at the tree the whole time, almost never at me, and I’m not exaggerating or being melodramatic—the look was of lost love. She said she used to bake all the time, but hasn’t in a while.

‘How long will they be available?’

‘No more than a week, less if it rains. Make muffins—that’s easy.’

I have a feeling she came back. Pretty gratifying to imagine.

The next person walked over on his way into the supermarket, a young guy.

‘Do they need cooking? Can I eat one right now?’

‘Try those over there; they’re ready. They’re sweet, but not sweet-sweet.’

He went right for it. ‘I like that. That’s good!’

I heard the next person before I saw him. He was sitting on a parked bulldozer and was watching me from the lot. This was the first person I ever met who didn’t ask what I was picking. Instead he called out, ‘What are you making?’

This guy, in his late forties, was fascinating. He told me the best way to pick them was by spreading a tarp and shaking the tree. Yeah, I know.

‘No one ever knows what I’m picking,’ I called back. ‘How do you know?’

‘My grandfather picked them every year. He made mulberry wine,’ he grinned.

Wow. ‘How was it?’

‘Oh!’ He tilted his head back and grinned some more. A good sign.

‘When was the last time you had mulberry wine?’

‘Man…he died in 1980. Before that.’ From the smile on his face, it looked as if thirty years had just dissolved.

I love talking to these passersby while we pick and eat berries. Just as in Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the mulberry tree gives and we all get. Sure, there’s the fruit; but even more, there’s a kind of peace, in a way. By chatting with my neighbors and getting their stories, them getting mine, finding commonality and learning something we didn’t know before, this pushes the pause button on our increasingly narrow, tunnel-visioned lives.

And for a brief time, during those five minutes or ten minutes or whatever, there is peace in remembering a time when people looked outward more often, when we saw and understood and interacted so much more often with each other and with the natural world than we do now.

Maybe that memory is part of our human heritage, and learning that a tree growing nearby gives fruit, freely, to anyone who wants it reminds us of that heritage, makes it accessible again, and who knows, maybe makes us a little more human.

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*I read about a guy who was biking across the country and never had trouble finding room or board, often for free. He hypothesized that people figured an endeavor like his would only be undertaken by an honest guy. Could it be the same for someone who would pick fruit from a wild tree?

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