Have you ever tasted a gooseberry?
These unique, tangy fruits are related to currants, but have a flavor all their own. Let Joan Dye Gussow–radical homemaker, confessional homesteader–take you on a hopeful and arresting journey into the suburban frontier…
The following is an excerpt from This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader by Joan Dye Gussow:
Since man (or woman) does not live by vegetables alone, one of our goals over the years was to produce our own fruit. Thus it was that when we finally sold the great Victorian house that held thirty-six years of my life, the only things I regretted leaving were the vegetable garden with its deeply mellow soil and some of the perennial fruitbearers that had put their roots down around the yard. The new soil could and would be improved, but if we wanted a crop of fruit in our first year in the new house, the perennials would need to be moved in early spring, almost a year before we intended to transplant ourselves. We wanted to make a fresh start with raspberries—the canes tend to get infected with virus after a time—and the grapes were immovable. So, we learned, was our hardy kiwi. The morning we went out to dig it up and traced one sturdy root to a spot twenty feet north of the trunk, we decided to leave it where it was. As it turned out, the younger of our two apricot trees, a highbush cranberry, and two small hybrid blueberries that never produced much anyway got moved in spring, just before we began what we assumed was to be the renovation of our Oddfellows hall.
Two obstacles prevented a spring transplanting of the towering blueberry bushes that remained. First, it was not at all certain that these giants could be wrenched from the ground. Second, we didn’t want to lose a single year of the tremendous crop of fruit they reliablyproduced. To get any berries, we had to net the bushes and check the nets regularly for trapped blue jays and other fruit lovers, since ravenous birds had proved capable of penetrating the most formidable defenses. Modern science had given us bird-proof netting, but vigilance was also essential. When the berries began to ripen in June, we wouldn’t be living in Piermont; at this point, we didn’t even have planning board approval for renovation of the house there. Excluding birds from blueberries was no task for absentee owners.
So the big blueberry bushes stayed put through the summer of 1994—the summer we learned that the battered house we intended to renovate had to be razed. In July, we tore down the house. In August, we dug and poured the footing and laid out and poured the foundation. In September, we began to build, from scratch. By October, when the framing for the new house was just going up, we had committed to being out of the old house by January. Our lives had become sufficiently dominated by the combined tasks of general contracting the new house and accumulation-reduction at the old one that plants should have been the furthest thing from our minds.
Nevertheless, when the blueberries lost their leaves in late October, Alan managed to drag two of the largest and most fruitful of them to Piermont. The remainder stayed in Congers, as did twenty-odd gooseberry bushes that grew in the fertile but shady spot where our first vegetable garden had been. So when the sales contract was drawn up, we wrote into it a clause guaranteeing us the right to come back the following spring and remove a number of plants, including several gooseberry bushes.
Gooseberries have always had special meaning for me. When I was a child, our guests at every Christmas dinner were a family from my parents’ home state of Iowa, a mother with two unmarried daughters who had descended on Mom years earlier with an introduction from a remote cousin. The daughters were not much younger than my mother and, though both were childless, they were confident that they knew better than my mother how children ought to be raised. My sister and I were required to endure in silence their frequent critiques of our manners. What made the holiday dinner tolerable was that the mother of the family always arrived bearing German anise picture cookies and gooseberry pie.
Nothing I know of tastes anything like gooseberry pie. My first Christmas away from home, in 1950, with my whole family across the continent in California, I tried all over Manhattan to get fresh gooseberries. Finally, in the German section, I got two cans of gooseberries for a price which was, then, about 20 percent of a week’s salary. Well worth it. My recipe calls for fresh ones.
Preheat oven to 450° F.
Pick over and wash:
1 quart gooseberries, discarding soft ones and removing stems and tails.
3/4 cup sugar
41/2 tablespoon flour
1/8 teaspoons salt
Sprinkle mixture over berries, stirring to distribute.
Turn berries into:
8-inch pie crust, unbaked
Dot top with:
2 tablespoons butter
Roll pastry for top crust, and cut a design for steam vents. Brush edge of pastry with water. Lay pastry over pie. Press edge together; trim. Let rest 10 minutes, and flute the edge. Bake in a 450° oven for 15 minutes or until crust is delicately browned. Then reduce heat to 325° and continue baking 20 to 30 minutes, or until berries are tender.
Note that I give no instructions for pie crust. Do what you want. Whenever I threatened to make a pie, my sons ran out of the kitchen screaming, “Watch out! Mom’s making a pie crust!” It remains a trying experience.
As I copied down this recipe, I remembered why people don’t use gooseberries. You have to have a strong taste-memory for the end result to be willing to sit around stemming and tailing them. And because the best kind of gooseberries for pie are green and sour to bland, you can’t snack as you go, as you can while taking the little green caps off strawberries. The end product is worth the work, though, and you can always clean gooseberries while listening to All Things Considered on National Public Radio.
But back to the gooseberries in our house contract. The first months after Alan and I finally landed in Piermont were incredibly hectic; the house we had moved into was unfinished for months. The first night we slept there, only the bathroom shower had running water. Getting a drink in the middle of the night meant holding a glass to the shower head and turning on the faucet very, very carefully.
And in the garden, that spring was D-day. The year’s crops had to be planted or we wouldn’t eat. So we didn’t pull off the gooseberry transfer that spring as our contract specified. By the following spring, we were a year more organized. The new garden was productive beyond our wildest dreams, and we had picked the perfect spot for the gooseberries.
That’s when we got the call from the FBI.