We love hearing from listener Lisa Kroner. She frequently send us funny stories she’s written all about food. Yesterday she wrote us about her trip to Alaska where she went berry picking.
The Zen of Berry Picking
Two days into my summer chef job in Sitka, Alaska, I noticed them. The reedy green shrubs that were growing everywhere. By the roadside. In front of every house. In the woods. So abundant that if it wasn’t for bright little spots of color just starting to show, you wouldn’t notice them at all. They were berry bushes.
On my first walk around my neighborhood – a two-lane road between my lodge and the ocean – I spotted two red berries in the sea of green next to the bike path. I crept into the canes and picked them, assuming they were wild raspberries. I wanted to pop them into my mouth but something stopped me: ignorance. I was not just in different state, I was in a different world. A place often called the Last Frontier. Bears lived where I lived and eagles were as common as crows. No one locked their doors, they had guns instead. This was clearly a place with its own ethics, rules, and ecosystems. Best not to impose on any of them just yet. For all I knew this was a species of berry that only bears could eat…deadly to humans, and everyone knew it but me. Maybe it was known as the Tlingit Death Berry, used for thousands of years to vanquish one’s enemies. Headline: Los Angeles Woman First Berry Death of the Year. I tucked them into my greedy little fist and hurried home.
My boss saw them later, two lonely berries sitting on the kitchen counter. He told me they were salmonberries. “Can I eat ‘em?” I asked.
“They’re gonna be tart,” was all he had to offer.
So I did, and they were. I was thinking about the island erupting with fruit in the coming weeks and I was excited to get out there and collect fresh, wild food in my beautiful new surroundings.
A few days later I met an 8-year-old girl in town. She showed me around her yard and invited me to have some of her salmonberries. “Why do they call them salmonberries anyway?” I asked her. I had been thinking that the name referred to the color – reddish, but not as red as a raspberry. And the fact that everything here – economically, socially, culturally – revolves around the salmon.
“Because they look like salmon eggs.” Of course! So simple, so obvious. She showed me around her modest garden, educating me. “Have you ever seen blueberry blossoms? Have you ever seen forget-me-nots?” She told me you couldn’t eat Indian celery. Blueberries would be ready at the end of summer. A bear’s breath smells like dog poop.
She picked an orange berry and handed it to me. “Are these ripe?” I asked. That’s when I learned that they come in both orange and red varieties. I ate it…sweet and mild and delicious, without the tart, tannic taste of the red ones. I felt honored. And I was hooked. I wanted those oranges ones. A lot of them.
Later that week working in the kitchen, I looked outside and saw my boss’s 10-year-old daughter and her friend wandering the property carrying white bowls. Two best friends picking berries in summertime, nothing cuter. But I looked closer and saw that the bowls were not that small. And they were quite full. And they were full of the color orange. I bolted out the door.
“We’re picking berries!” they announced sweetly.
“Cool! Can I have some?” I said, just as sweet.
“Well…” one said.
“We were going to make smoothies…” said the other. Cuteness factor…waning…
I went back to my work, forlorn at having missed the opportunity to pick berries in my own backyard. I had been watching the berries ripen, of course, but was waiting for the perfect time, the peak of ripeness. Why hadn’t I moved quicker? Why did I procrastinate so much? And how did they find so freaking many?
Well it wasn’t going down like this. I was no tourist when it came to berry picking. I remembered long, miserable hours picking raspberries in my mom’s garden back when I was exactly their age, battling bees, mosquitoes, and Wisconsin humidity. I knew how to look from underneath, I could climb better, hell I was two feel taller than these usurpers. I grabbed a Tupperware. Who did they think they were dealing with?
The thing about picking wild berries is that although they are everywhere, they are not always easy to get to. You can get a few right from the roadside, but the rest are usually deep in a tall thicket. The canes have tiny scratchy thorns. They grow in ditches with steep sides, on the muddy banks of streams, they hang off of vertical rock walls. You often have to contemplate that one questionable step to get them…a step across some loose dirt on a river bank, or onto a rock that’s too wet or too small. But you can see those three beauties hanging there…just out of reach…the ones that no one else saw and no one else had the guts to go after. Amazingly beautiful and perfectly ripe. I’ve come close to falling into a deep, muddy, thorny ditch a few times going after those three berries. But you have to asses risk. You have to know when to go for it and when to back off. You can’t get lost in the pursuit. You must always pay attention.
So thirty years after picking my first berry, I fell in love with berry picking. It’s physically challenging. I have to employ strength, flexibility, and balance. I cry out if I drop one or it misses the bucket. I walk home in the rain and I feel fortunate. When I get home and look at my cache, I turn into a girl with a crush. They look so beautiful and pure it seems almost a crime to wash them. I always, always eat them right when I get home, never the next day, and I never add anything…there seems to be no other way, no other time. I often smile dreamily and say ‘thank you’ after popping each one in my mouth. That kind of awareness of nature, gratitude for my food, and feeling of good health is nothing less than a happy slap in the face, re-awakening me to the awesome generosity and abundance the earth offers. That kind of awareness is worth falling into a ditch once in a while.
I found out later that the girls murdered their haul with white sugar, making a smoothie so sweet even a 10-year-old wouldn’t want it. They threw most of it away. Philistines.