Berrying with Thoreau

Cigarette card celebrating cranberries; featured on the Austerity Kitchen by Christine Baumgarthuber
Images from the Fruits series (N12) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes Brands (1891)

 

Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor … Let us understand that the equitable rule is, that no one should take more than his share, let him be ever so rich.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Man the Reformer” (1841)

 

Of those writers who flung themselves against Mt. Monadnock’s steep, rugged slopes, arguably the most famous and widely read, Walden author Henry David Thoreau, came not to pen soaring verse, as his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson enjoyed doing, nor solely to thrill at the view. Over the course of his relatively short life, Thoreau scaled Monadnock four or five times. Each time he’d train to Cheshire County, New Hampshire from his native Concord, Massachusetts wearing hobnailed boots and carrying plum cake and salt beef, his preferred camp rations. He detailed these expeditions in his journals. From them we know that Thoreau certainly admired Monadnock’s views. Yet what excited him even more than the summit were the summit’s berries: blueberries and huckleberries, and even the rare mountain cranberry. On Monadnock the sun-kissed treats thronged in easy abundance. “Nature heaps the table with berries for six weeks or more,” Thoreau wrote, a profusion “wholesome, bountiful, and free.” As they presented “real ambrosia” for anyone with enough energy to reap, Thoreau found it absurd that so few people stirred to the task.

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Seaweed as Food, Fodder, and Fuel

Brown seaweed
Images from An Introduction to the Study of Seaweeds (1895)

Shell-entangled, bright-hued seaweed,
From what mermaid-haunted bowers
Wert thou cast? did rude waves tear thee
From thy beauteous sister flowers?

Or did glittering star-fish tempt thee?
Did the Nautilus say, Come?
Did they whisper ‘neath the crystal,
Of a fairer, brighter home?

–S.E. Tonkin, “Seaweed” (1866)

Michael Innes’s 1977 mystery novel Honeybath’s Haven sees eccentric artist Edwin Lightfoot drowned in a saline pool of cultivated seaweeds. A pet project of Lady Munden, a fellow inmate of the retirement home in which Lightfoot lived, the pool is thick with great sea tang, whose stems are “as thick as a cable,” and sinewy bull-head kelp. It was this latter plant that proved Lightfoot’s undoing. So ensnared did he become in it, a policeman at the scene noted, that “the body had to be cut out of the stuff.”

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The Gooseberry: A Cottager’s Treat

Green and round with delicate translucent skin, the tart berries of the gooseberry bush first appear in June.

The plant grows in copses and hedgerows in areas of northern and central Europe; its origins are unknown, however. Pliny mentions it briefly. The plant was valued in the Middle Ages for its cooling properties in the treatment of fevers. But it wasn’t widely cultivated until the sixteenth century, when skilled gardeners in Holland deliberately propagated the gooseberry for eating.

The gooseberry was a great favorite among the poor cottagers of Lancashire. They cultivated numerous varieties of gooseberry from seed in their small garden plots. An 1864 article from the Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentlemen attributes the success of the gooseberry’s “fruit culture” to the “humbler population” of the district who managed to increase the size of their gooseberries. The Journal urges its readers to imitate “the good works of these real cottage gardeners.”

Today there are over two thousand varieties of gooseberry, with berries in all shades of color. Pink, white and yellow gooseberries are just a few of the color variations developed over the past centuries.

Gooseberries are eaten in pies, relishes, puddings and even omelets. Here’s a nineteenth-century recipe for gooseberry preserves, much like the one enjoyed in those humble Lancashire cottages.

Gooseberry Preserves

For every quart of gooseberries, add one pound of granulated sugar, dissolving it in the preserving kettle [a heavy-bottomed saucepan] with as much water as it will take to make a syrup. Let it boil for twenty minutes, skimming well; then put in the gooseberries, and boil five minutes; then set by till the next day, then boil again until they [the gooseberries] have a clear look and the syrup is thick. Put up in jelly glasses, with brandied paper on top.