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Posts Tagged ‘mulberry’

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High-tide line, Atlantic Ocean.

red light green light

the feeling of almost,/the door between worlds ajar, now,/as two lights dim and fade to black/shape shifting within square one/scary, illuminating, boundless/the taste of chocolate/warm possibilities/second, and third, and more, chances,/as many as I want/swirling in circles like the leaves/this night between two days/slowly slowly letting its cloak fall

*

I wrote the above almost five years ago, just before I was about to move out on my own for the second time in my life. It’s striking how often life requires this of us, whether it’s literally moving (across town, across the country, or across oceans) or figuratively moving (away from old thinking into new). The only thing we can safely predict while we’re on this big blue ball is that nothing stays the same.

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A box turtle, weighing his options on my street in 2010.

When I was moving out in 2010, I held in my mind a statement I’d seen recently (funny how you see and hear what you need when you need it, right?) that said the human default reaction to change tends to be fear, but why can’t it be excitement? Why can’t we choose to see change as an adventure? This perspective helped me a lot during that Matterhorn of a year. I kept reminding myself that being in square one meant being in the unique position of being a shape-shifter. We can do, go, be, feel anything in square one.

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Women chilling at the beach at sunset.

Here’s another one: I was crap at bio, but I remember this tidbit from one of my classes: it’s at the edges—where the water meets the sand, where the grass meets the wood, where one ecosystem abuts another—that the greatest diversity and activity are present.

Think of harbor cities, and how they tend to be filled with people, languages, and foods from everywhere. Think of the wet sand just at the high-tide line, where mussels, clams, and other bivalves lie atop the sand, with sand crabs and more below. Everything on the dry end is bumping up against everything that just came in. Think of inland, where backyards and mini-malls bump up against property lines, where the tidied and civilized meets the wild and unspoiled—those are the places you’ll find an abundance of wildlife.

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Beach plums, which the deer like as much as I do.

It’s at the edges, of sand and land, where children love to play and dream most. As soon as they’re old enough, beach kids are at the high tide line, running, digging, splashing. I saw some tween girls at the beach one evening not long ago, creeping around the jetty rocks which hold back the ocean. I asked what they were doing and they said, ‘Just looking around.’ ‘For a class or just for fun?’ ‘Just for fun.’* Grownups are at the water’s edge, too—fishing, harvesting mussels, walking, thinking. Much activity.

Go to a barbecue at a house that edges a little bit of tangled brush, and that’s where the kids are tramping around, their parents squalling across the yard to be careful of poison ivy. There are acres and acres of beautiful grass in my hometown’s ball field…and we kids ambled right across it to poke around in the narrow strip of wood at its edge. That was where the late-spring honeysuckle grew, perfect for a sweet hit on our tongues, and where we learned orange flowers taste sweeter than white. It’s where the fern-like plant, the one that closed up when you touched it, lived.** There was not a whole lot to discover in the flat, level grass.

It’s at the water’s edge and at the grass’s edge where I’m happiest, for the same reason the kids are. I never outgrew that. And bonus: it’s inevitably where the foraging is best. At the edges of sidewalks I find purslane. At the edges of my town I find wild crab apples, hibiscus, and mint. At the edges of park lands and fancy shopping plazas I find elderflowers. At the edges of the lake I find mulberry trees. At the Sandy Hook peninsula, jutting out into the Atlantic, I find prickly pear and beach plums. And every year, along the edge of some beach or some property line, I discover something new.

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The end of my road, overlooking the lagoon.

I live at the beach, at the very edge of a continent. With the exception of six years away at school—boarding and then college—I have never lived anywhere else, and I’d really rather not. College especially was an uncomfortable shock: I learned what ‘land-locked’ meant. Who would think a person could feel claustrophobic with miles and miles of open space around her? Who would imagine the sense of relaxation and reassurance that could come from being at a definite boundary? Last winter I spent many an evening on the jetty of my beach, wanting to stand as closely as I safely could to the ocean, just to feel that reassurance. It’s like the maps they have at the mall, the ones that show an X, a you-are-here, don’t-worry-you’re-good identifier. There is peace in that X.

We are all at the edge of a equinoctial change now, too. Here in the northern hemisphere, Fall is imminent. Halloween is derived from the Wiccan feast of Samhain, which marks the beginning of winter. It’s believed this time is a liminal one, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinner and can be traversed by spirits. Some cultures leave food, light candles, and more to appease the spirits and keep them from haunting homes.

Very similar are threshold myths: In ancient times it was believed doorways were another kind of edge, another liminal place. Like the two ecosystems butting up against each other, there is potential for significant, and in this case possibly dangerous, activity; anything can happen in this divider between worlds. Spirits, some potentially harmful, were believed to loiter in doorways. This is why grooms carry brides over thresholds—to prevent them from being snatched away.

Edges are powerful places.

This Fall (and whenever we’re up against an edge), I hope we own the chance to be shape-shifters, and are able to chase away fear and own that power.

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*So much for attesting that kids can’t look up from their phones, huh? 🙂

**We never learned its name, but thinking back, it must have been carnivorous. How cool is that?

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Are you sick of hearing about my kitchen screw-ups? No? Awesome, because here’s another one. It’ll also be good reinforcement for those who say they can’t imagine me fouling up a recipe. Plus, it features colorful language and is therefore a shot of truth for those who don’t think I ever swear. I’m all altruism today, aren’t I?

It started with a request from an actor friend of mine. Some time ago she had posted about her love of peanut butter fudge on Facebook. I told her I had a fantastic recipe and would treat her to some during the run of our upcoming show.

The day before I planned to bring it in, I looked for said fantastic recipe and couldn’t find it in my recipe files. No worries, I thought. I’ll find it on Martha’s site. It’s hers. But it wasn’t there. She had a different one, but not MINE. My printer has been chewing up paper lately, so I wrote it out by hand. It was simple, but it did say not to overcook.*

That night I was out late with the cast, then proceeded to yammer away in the restaurant parking lot, as theatre types tend to do, until it got even later. Got up around 9 all the same, and began. I had to leave by 6 for the show and knew the candy would need to set awhile. Here’s how it went.

1) Blinked blearily into the exceedingly bright light of the fridge. Saw I had no milk for the recipe. Mumbled the first of the day’s colorful language.

2) Decided I needed to double the recipe since we had around 21 actors, who typically are hungry creatures, plus crew and staff. Doubled it. Set it into a pot that still had a good half-capacity empty space above it. It was only about a quart of goo. Harmless.**

3) Had to bring the mixture to 236 degrees. Began to worry when I hit 220 and it started to foam up like a Chow-Chow watching a Sizzler commercial. Turning down the heat to medium didn’t help. Also, turning down the heat to barely on didn’t help. More colorful language ensued.*** Brown, sticky, and continuing-to-bubble peanut butter goo erupted all over jet #1.

4) It did smell nice, though.

5)  Had just a few seconds to decide if I was going to chuck the whole sorry pan or figure out what pan I was going to switch it into. Candy is a diva; you let the temperature fluctuate just a little bit and it gets all ‘I can’t work like this.’ And I already had a strike against me lowering the heat as quickly as I did. I had a great enamelware pot that would be perfect to use, but I used it last week to make mulberry compote, and parts of the bottom still had cheerful berry-shaped burns on them. I had neglected to stir the compote as often as I should have. I also very purposely neglected to tell you about it. All I had left to use was my turkey stockpot, which could accommodate a watermelon. If you set it on end, it could also accommodate a Chevy Impala transmission.

6) Pushed aside everything on the counter and set down the oozing pan. Grabbed the step ladder and pulled the stockpot down from the shelf above me. Poured all of the goo into it, set it on jet #2, and started it up.

7) Waited for the goo to come back to temperature. Wet a dishtowel and began cleaning the melee off the stove. ‘Why’s the dishtowel smoking?’ I’m thinking. ‘Wait, what’s this jet still doing on?’ My stove is only about 2 weeks old, and the jet dials are opposite of my old one. Which meant the dishtowel was smoking for a very good reason**** , and I had turned off the heat on the candy again.

8) Turned it back on. Realized using a really deep pot means your candy thermometer will be too short to reach into the goo. Held it myself with the traumatized dishtowel in one hand, and a rag in the other to wipe off condensation so I could read the numbers.

9) Still hard to read due to the above. Hit 236. Well, 7. Okay, 8. Poured the goo into the parchmented pan, which turned out to be too big a pan. So much for doubling. Lifted the whole shebang into a smaller one. Twice. Took an extra 10 minutes trying to scrape out the remains from the godawful big, and 238-degree hot, pot.

10) Since I messed with the temperature too much, the fudge predictably Patti LuPoned, and the edges turned out as chewy as caramel.***** Chopped them off, and thanked the universe, asteroids and nebulae when I found the interior still soft. Not as creamy as it should have been, but at least I wouldn’t have to contend with any backstage lockjaw. Tasted it. It didn’t have that kick of salt that I think peanut butter needs, so I sprinkled some fleur de sel on top. Then I crashed on the sofa until my 6:30 call.

The actors loved it. One quoted the movie Big Night and told me she had to die now. The girlfriends of the actors loved it. One told me she wanted to marry it. It’s gratifying knowing my cooking can inspire drama, but then again, I was in the right place for it.

I cleaned the kitchen today. Was this close to opening my windows and asking the boys next door at the fire house to let rip the water hoses.

*Words to live by. For someone else.

**And I’m not even done.

***On the ROYGBIV rainbow scale, we’re somewhere around cadmium yellow.

****Turquoise.

*****Ebony. Oh, we’re way over the rainbow.

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My neighbor, Mr. Cook, is to me an example of how to live.

That’s his flag above, which he puts out at dawn, and takes in at dusk, every single day of the year.

Mr. Cook tells me he’s lived in his house since the 1950s, when he was our tiny town’s fire chief. In those days, many of the houses along my street were home to firemen. When the bell sounded from the fire house across the street, the men would hear it and run to gear up and go. To this day, when he sees activity there, he slowly heads over to get in on it. And our fearless boys, young enough to be his kids and grandkids, treat him like a returning hero.

Retired for many years now, Mr. Cook keeps active in dozens of ways. Dancing is his favorite pastime. Every spring he drives to a handful of different town halls up and down the shoreline and picks up a copy of their summer events schedule. Then he goes home, sits on his little porch in one of those white plastic stackable chairs you can buy outside the Home Depot, and details where and when all of the senior dances will be held. He never misses one, and let me tell you—as a single, mobile gentleman in his 80s, his dance card gets filled. Each morning he tells me how it went. Music, socializing? Not a big deal. To him, it’s pretty much a numbers game: ‘I danced with eight ladies last night!’ he’ll say. I think ten is his personal best.

Mr. Cook also travels annually to visit the surviving members of his company from his days as a World War II soldier. (That’s not a typo. He still keeps in touch with his comrades—over sixty years later.) He had a bonus a few years back when he went to the southwest for an army reunion and danced with, as he put it, ‘lots of cowgirls.’

He makes pancakes for himself every Sunday morning without fail. (You’re getting a sense of what kind of man this is, right?) I like to bring a piece of whatever it is I bake to him. Later I’ll ask how he liked it. He always has the same response: an eye twinkle and a ‘Keep practicing.’

And Mr. Cook is the only one I know who doesn’t blink when I say my coffee cake contains wild mulberries that I picked myself. I really think he’s one of the last great outdoorsmen, so to him there’s nothing strange about picking fruit off a tree. He grew up in nearby Asbury Park, NJ, a seaside city flanked by Deal Lake on its north and west ends. A natural lake that once flowed from the ocean, its expansive arteries and narrow, shady fingers stretching further west must have thoroughly enchanted adventurous boys in the 1920s and 30s, with no electronics or malls to distract them. He tells me he canoed every inch of that lake.

A fisherman to this day, when he was in his early 80s he regularly trekked out to Sandy Hook, about 1/2 an hour north, to teach kids how to fish. He still goes in September to pick beach plums, which he collects in a plastic grocery bag and presents to a friend who cooks them down into his very favorite kind of jelly.

He also likes to bag his own turkey for Thanksgiving. The rest of us go to Shop-Rite; Mr. Cook goes to Pennsylvania. He bundles up, packs a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sits down in the woods, and waits. And waits. I asked why it takes so long to get a turkey, and he said, ‘It’s because they’re smart, and very fast. You move just an inch, and they all fly up into the trees.’ We think of turkeys as being slow—in the head and otherwise—because if we have any association with them at all, it’s of farm turkeys. They’ve had all the brains bred out of them, and to add insult to injury, they can no longer fly, either. But wild birds, now—everything is intact. Sharp vision, sharp minds, and they can fly up to 55 mph.

I asked Mr. Cook if wild turkeys make good eating and his eyes lit up. ‘OH, yes,’ he says. ‘They make the best soup you ever had.’

Well, those are the times when he’s able to catch one. He says his Thanksgiving meal is always a 50/50 toss-up. Many’s the Thanksgiving when I’d call out to him, ‘So what’s for dinner?’ and he’d sigh and smirk and say: ‘Franks and beans.’

Independent, adventurous, happy with the little things in life. That’s him all over.

But my favorite image of Mr. Cook is one I have of him on the Fourth of July, in the evening, a few years ago. Just after dark, Asbury’s fireworks were visible over the trees south of us. I climbed out onto my roof just as they started and caught a glimpse of him on his tiny porch, on one of his white plastic chairs, watching and eating a dish of plain vanilla ice cream from Carvel.

Happy Fourth, everybody.

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I have always envied people who have ancient apple trees or wild blackberries or man, Kadota fig trees growing on their property. Not everyone shares my quirky sensibilities (something that’s been pointed out to me regularly all of my life), and I know, it’s all available at the supermarket. But I love the idea of having my own fruit there for the taking. Imagine being able to go outside and pick it whenever you want! It doesn’t even really matter what it is. Something I planted would be fine, but even better is something that just happens to be growing right out there on its own.

When spring arrived this year, my first in my new place, I was so excited to discover I have a crab apple tree. I recognized its white-pink blossoms, so similar to its larger cousin’s, on the branches that drape over the balcony of my second-floor back porch.

Yes, crab apples are edible. They need more sugar than their sweeter cousins, and I’ll admit making jam from them isn’t easy. Those little pits are the size of sesame seeds and are a bear to remove. But the jam, musky and mellow, is worth it to me. Besides being free for the taking, the apples are also pesticide free; the tree grows along a neglected border between two properties as well as two towns. Lastly, even if the branches reached the other porches (which they don’t), it’s doubtful anyone will be fighting the eccentric little chick on the second floor for dibs on wild fruit. I think it’s safe to say it’s mine. In late summer I’ll open the door of my porch and stay cool while the fruit bubbles on top of my prehistoric Kenmore. I was all ready to wait.

But then the universe lobbed me another surprise. A few days ago I was craving fruit. It was 4ish and we all get draggy and sweet toothy around then. Now, my favorite new thing is spooning vanilla yogurt over whatever fruit’s in season. Had the yogurt; didn’t have the fruit. I had even eaten up all of the dried fruit I had left over from Christmas. (Okay, I know, I need to go shopping.) I pouted and looked out my dining room window at the tree branches that stretched across the other side of my back porch. But along with being green and leafy, they also had little red and purple splotches. Wait, why would crab apples be ripe in June?

They weren’t. Growing right alongside the crab apple tree was a wild mulberry tree, a delicately sweet relative of the fig. I pulled a bowl out of my cupboard, picked a few handfuls of ripe mulberries off the branches, plopped some yogurt on top, and gobbled it all up.

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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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