Miscellanie has posted latter-day still lives of Michigan fruit, and I have just had a Proustian movement of mind, revivifying my grandparents' backyard in Detroit.
For about 35 years, my grandparents lived in a bungalow on Cadieux Avenue in eastern Detroit, near the Grosse Pointe border. In my memory, their house is perfect: everything is exactly the size it needs to be; we all fit snugly into it (my grandparents and me sleeping on the ground floor, my parents and brother sleeping upstairs in the yellow slope-ceilinged space that was my mother's bedroom in the late 1960s); there are always surprises waiting somewhere (candy bars in the basement pantry, strange boardgames in the furnace room, exquisite desserts in the cake container). And the garden.
City gardens strike me as being their own special kind of exquisite. My grandparents gardened in tandem; my grandmother had roses and black-eyed susans and snapdragons and, no doubt, any number of other flowers that I now cannot call to mind. And one of the reasons I cannot call them to mind is that they are dwarfed, in my memory, by my grandfather's vegetable garden. My grandfather grew up on a farm near the north of Michigan's thumb, nearest to a town called Bad Axe, and though he left the farm for the city well before World War II, the farm did not leave him. Behind the garage on Cadieux, he had a plot of perhaps ten feet square. And in those hundred square feet, he grew unimaginable riches: tomatoes and cucumbers and carrots and lettuces and, no doubt, any number of other vegetables that I now cannot call to mind.
And one of the reasons I cannot call them to mind is that they are dwarfed, in my memory, by the raspberries that grew along the wall of the garage. My grandfather fashioned a special raspberry-picking tool, a kind of long-handled fork that he could use for reaching the farthest berries; he also used this tool to carry the partial milk jug in which he placed the berries as he picked them, one by one. He was among the craftiest of men. He taught me how to pick my way through those narrow rows, how to seek out the fruits among those veined leaves, how to decide which berries were ready to be pulled (not so much plucked as pulled) from the bush. Every summer when we visited my grandparents, we ate more than our fill of raspberries. My grandmother was the one who taught me how to eat raspberries: the first few, sneaked out of the pail even before the pail reached the house, to be sure; but the rest in a bowl, sprinkled lightly with sugar and forced to yield up juice (I now know this process as maceration); and on exceptional occasions--otherwise known as most times we visited my grandparents--over the kind of vanilla ice cream that scoops into a bowl, perhaps a 50s-pastel plastic bowl with a white rim, with an unbearable whiteness of being, begging for those berries that were still on the bush thirty minutes earlier. Such gastronomical joys, right down to the drinking of the syrup and melted ice cream concoction left at the bottom of the bowl when the too-hurried devouring of summer's best goodness had ended.
My grandparents also taught me the beauty of the frozen berry: even in the winters, we could sometimes find square plastic tubs of raspberries in the basement freezer. I neither grow nor freeze raspberries now; when raw raspberries, raspberries au naturel if you will, materialize before me, I enjoy in them an aftertaste of childhood, with just the ghost of a melancholic twinge at that particular city garden's goneness from my life. I do not think that my having gotten terrible poison ivy while picking raspberries on a farm near Ithaca has anything to do with my not seeking them out when they appear in the stores and the markets. Instead, I think that quasiavoidance is due to my utter focus on the workings of blueberry season.
I had never eaten a fresh, raw blueberry before arriving in Ithaca for graduate school, but within days of my arrival, blueberries constituted the cornerstone of my diet. Every subsequent summer--even in these last summers, when freshly picked Finger Lakes blueberries are not accessible to me with every trip to the local grocery--I have watched as the labels on the plastic packages of berries bear the names of nearer and nearer origins: somewhere far, then New Jersey, then Michigan. Every subsequent summer, I have hedged my bets about when the season is at its zenith and the prices at their nadir and have frozen pints and pints of berries. In some ways, blueberries are even better than raspberries, as a freezing fruit: they lose nothing of their texture or flavor when they're thawed. There are few things finer, in my food life, than a surprise! fresh blueberry pie in February. Not even to mention blueberry pancakes.