Michelle Lewis is the editor of Wild About Health and our guest blogger today. She and I have laughed about how similarly we love blueberries and the season. Enjoy her Down East spin on my favorite fruit.
If you visit a Down East Maine town like Machias, Cherryfield or Jonesboro during the late summer harvest season, you will witness the special relationship the residents have with the wild blueberry. Talk of the harvest is everywhere: from farmers who own and manage land, from workers who harvest the berries, and from residents who sell them, bake them, or serve them in pies at the local diners or at the annual festival. Collectively, it seems, residents hope that the pull will be large, the weather will hold, and the season will be profitable.
Today, commercial harvesters do much of the work of removing wild blueberries from the field, but raking by hand still makes up a small percentage or harvesting, as it did when I was young and raked blueberries in Machias during the summer. Historically, migrant workers traveling from site to site were hired for the few weeks during August when the berries are at their peak. For them, it meant hard work and good money. For my best friend Janie and me, the harvest meant something else: money for school clothes.
At 13 or so, we were young and less serious than the other workers – mostly young men and a few local mothers – who raked for their livelihood. But we were energetic and driven; to us, our mission was every bit as important as theirs. We would persist during hot days under the sun by reminding ourselves that every motion of the rake was a part of a sleeve, each full bucket part of a shirt.
On the barrens, it was all business. No one stood and gazed at the sky, no one gossiped or laughed. There were no iPods then; sometimes you could hear a transistor coming from the lunch trailer. When no one was looking, I would push my hand into a full box of berries and to feel their cool pressure around my wrist. We’d stop just briefly to eat the lunches we’d packed, and then return to the field and bend over a sea of green and red leaves, the rhythm of swishing rakes all around us.
As a raker, time and focus is money. A clean “rick” (the bowling-alley shaped section designated with string) was of utmost importance to the farmer – leaving berries behind on the bush was like leaving dollar bills on the field. We balanced our need for clean raking with how fast we could complete a rick and bring our full buckets to the winnower where they would be poured into boxes. Each box was worth $8, and the more we filled, the more we’d have for our annual trip to Bangor before school started.
Our jobs lasted about ten days. We rode home in the back of a pickup after each day was over, our own rakes clattering on the truck bed, and I remember the silence of the ride and faces of the men we were riding with who had only more days of work ahead – after this field, another. After that, more work where they could find it. When the truck slowed near my house, it was a sign for me to launch off the back and walk the rest of the way home.
For the Love of Berries
Off the field, wild blueberries were everywhere. Pints were poured into batters at home, and in the local diners, pies burst with more berries than it seemed possible for a crust to hold. We knew the virtues of small and wild over those large cultivated globes. Wild was tastier: their natural variations, the result of hundreds of naturally-occurring varietal clones, created a unique and complex flavor. The color of wild was more intense as well, ranging from navy blue to deep ruby. Even the health benefits were lauded by locals. Blueberries had been boiled into teas and juice to cure ailments for hundreds of years. Wild also meant strong – wild blueberries endure harsh Maine winters, rough terrain, and intense ultraviolet light. As a result, they have developed protection that in turn protects us from disease when we eat them.
While it’s impossible not to see plenty of wild blueberry stands dotting Route 1 in Maine this time of year, in fact, a very small percentage of the approximately 80 million pounds of wild blueberries
harvested in the state are sold fresh. The rest are individually quick frozen, preserving all the taste and nutrients when they are at their height of ripeness. These frozen blues go on to provide us with their benefits long after the fields are empty, the festival tents are broken down, and the talk in the local stores turns from the bounty of the harvest to the things at hand, until next year when it all begins again.
A Taste of Maine
Wild blueberries have been growing in Maine, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces for over 10,000 years. Their role in the American diet begins with the Native Americans. As Virginia M. Wright writes in The Wild Blueberry Book, [http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Blueberry-Book-Virginia- Wright/dp/0892729392] a handbook for all things blueberry, Wabankis harvested berries both to eat fresh and to dry for pemmican – a paste made of dried meat and fat. Today, the most coveted wild blueberry recipes are coffee-style cakes, scones, muffins and pies. But thanks to the recent decade’s foodie movement, they often appear in less traditional forms. They brighten up salads, give pizzazz to proteins like pork, and help make a name for award-winning chefs in creative, locally-flavored dishes.
Chefs, home cooks, and bakers love wild because they have lower water content than cultivated, making them more flavorful, and because baked goods made with wild have more berries in every bite compared with cultivated berries – wild boasts twice as many berries per pound! (Read the most asked questions about cooking with frozen berries [http:// www.wildblueberryhealthblog.com/2012/03/faq-blue.html].)
There are so many ways to enjoy a taste of this iconic Down East ingredient. Pick your own, experience a chef’s specialty made with wild, or make your own recipe at home. When you do, remember to tip your fork a bit in honor of the history and the harvest.
Editor, Wild About Health [www.wildbueberryhealthblog.com]