Life in the Pedestrian Lane: Gooseberries, pro and con

Three or four years ago, we bought a goose berry bush. We went to one of the spring markets where they were selling plants and someone happened to have a gooseberry bush. We brought it home and planted it; nursing it through the moose and other dangers that first year.

 

This was a completely sentimental purchase. Hubby and I both have fond memories of gooseberry pie and we each envisioned a steaming, luscious pie like mother used to make. Of course it didn’t happen quite that way, but this year we had enough berries to harvest — maybe a pint all told — and expect next year to be able to produce said pie.

Picking gooseberries is no easy task. While the berries are usually large, so are the thorns, at least half an inch and sharp as nails. After that first summer, we didn’t worry about the moose eating the bush because those thorns developed way before any juicy berries. Moose are smart. Maybe smarter than people, because we are determined to get those berries, no matter what. The moose move on to other, less lethal, tasty morsels.

On the farmer’s side of the state line where I lived as a kid, gooseberries grew on the stray bush in the corner of the back yard that every grandma nurtured to pick mid to late summer for one or two pies, and maybe a few jars of jam. They were treasured as the surprise delicacy. When the gooseberries were picked it was nearly time for harvest. I remember dinners on the farm being a succession of ‘deadlines’: strawberry shortcake; cantaloupe, new potatoes and creamed green peas, picked from the field; huckleberry pie. Each specialty signaled the progression of summer. When we got to corn on the cob, it was almost over. Only a few weeks left until we went back to school. Lots of summers the older high school guys didn’t come back until a week or so later because they’d be helping in the harvest. When the seniors got on the bus, you knew summer was really done. Like silver salmon marking the beginning of fall.

Now, with modern conveniences, we can enjoy nearly all foods at anytime of the year but I am encouraged by the current trend of family gardens, even in Alaska (maybe a perk of climate change?). Foods grown locally are always better. The twinge of regret when the last ripe tomato has been picked is quickly replaced by the surge of excitement when the first red raspberry is spotted on the bush. Not to mention the thrill of enough cucumbers for a jar of pickles, or potatoes to store for winter. In Alaska we have always noted milestones: the first rhubarb, fireweed topping out, cranberries wait for the first frost. The University even offers a course titled Ethnobotany, which is a fancy way of saying we have lots of native plants that can be utilized for food and medicine; learn to recognize and use them in season.

On the logging side of the state line where I spent my teen years, gooseberries were anathema. They and their cousin, the currant, spread blister rust, a fungus that could decimate a pine forest. The bushes had to be sought out and destroyed before they could infect the white pine. Blister rust camps were set up in the woods each summer, manned by local teenagers, who spent their days searching out and pulling the bushes to be burned later. The blister rust team was the best job you could have in the summer, and you could work it at 14. Of course, the first summer I could have worked it, the age raised to 16, and a couple of years later to 18 because of safety concerns. I don’t remember anyone ever getting lost or hurt doing blister rust, but Federal regulations were beginning to become a reality. No one liked it then either. While they had a point about child labor, they certainly put a crimp into young teens having a good job during the summer. And no gooseberry pie. We still had to go to grandma’s across the state line for that.

While I was preparing the gooseberries, I remembered Mom’s admonition that she didn’t know how I’d get them done. I must confess I am a nail biter, so I don’t have a long thumb nail. Haven’t had, ever. Gooseberries require what is called ‘top and tailing”. They have a stem on the top that must be removed and a blossom on the bottom. I use a knife; some use scissors. Mom used her very tough thumb nail. I must admit it was probably faster, but I got them done anyway. Added a little sugar and a splash of water and boiled them down for a sauce. Our first crop. Next summer, pie!

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai. Email her at vewalters@gci.net.

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