March 2019

Local Fruits: A Personal Reminiscence

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

I grew up on a farm, and there was nothing so sweet as snatching a handful of ripe berries from the patch, precariously plucking the prettiest apple off the highest branch, or baking a pie from the pie-cherry tree with Mommy. Later in life, I fell victim to the unfortunate myth that sugars in fruits are bad for you, and it was the unhealthiest I’ve ever been. Bringing fruit back into my life was like being reunited with a long lost dear one.

People pay a lot of money for probiotics in pill form without ever knowing that raw produce straight off the bush has more beneficial microflora living on its surface than a whole bottle of the manufactured stuff. So, help yourself to a bowlful of fruit. Go crazy on it. Eat blackberries and melons in summer, pears and persimmons in fall, citrus all winter and strawberries come spring. Don’t forget the scuppernongs. We have an awesome climate, so if possible, turn your yard into the Garden of Eden. But if you don’t have a place of your own, there’s plenty to be scavenged. Here are a few of my favorites:

Meyer lemons
The first time I ever had a Meyer lemon, bulging yellow and pendulant off a friend’s tree, I was astonished by this exotic new specimen. Thin-peeled and sweet with a bouquet of savory herbs, it was like no lemon I’d ever tasted. (Later I learned Meyers are just regular lemons crossed with oranges.) I found them so palatable that after squeezing sections into my honey-lemon tea, I often dropped the rind into the cup, then chewed it up and ate it at the end. In those days, my signature drink was a thermos of “The Remedy”: honey-lemon tea with cayenne pepper and brown liquor. I was at a party once when an old-time Bluffton friend asked what I was drinking. I answered, “The Remedy,” to which she replied with a knowing nod, “Cures what ails ya.” I don’t drink brown liquor anymore, but I still boil Meyer rinds in my honey-lemon tea.

Blueberries
It’s an unfortunate truth that picking wild blueberries here—or huckleberries as some call them—will get you eaten up by chiggers. I consider this worth it. Finding a delicate sunlit patch in some low-bottom woods, or overhanging blackwater, or even by the roadside at forest’s edge, means I have to come back in early June when the fruits (and chiggers) are ready. Cultivated blueberries are safer, though not quite as flavorful, and planting a bush or two in the yard will be a welcome addition to your pancakes. Once I was riding down a certain country road in Bluffton when my eye fell upon several fine rows of blueberry bushes with clusters as fat as grapes. I was young and foolish then, so I rode my bike back with several grocery sacks on a covert theft mission. When someone came up and questioned me, I wriggled out of it with a Huck Finn lie. Well, wouldn’t you know, the minute I got on my bike with the backpack of stolen blueberries, a tremendous thundershower tore open the sky. I was afraid I’d get struck by lightning for my sin, but I only got drenched. That was the last time I ever did that. Years later, I became friends with the property owner and one day confessed what I had done. She not only forgave me but offered permission to raid the patch any time I pleased.

Pears
If you’re expecting a soft sweet Bartlett pear, you’ll be sorely disappointed by the local variety. Hard, crunchy, juicy but short on flavor, they remind you of something that would be fed to livestock. I think the old-timers stewed them down and canned them. I don’t mind eating them just the way they are, but I’ll tell you the best thing I ever did: cut them in slices, soak them in lemon juice and honey, then run them through my home dehydrator. With a little help from the tangy sweet marinade, they became my favorite snack for months! But if dried fruit isn’t your style, fry the pear slices in butter and brown sugar and put them over salad or French toast.

Persimmons
Persimmons to me are a delicacy. Few others like them, which is baffling but fortunate because it means I have little competition. There are two varieties—one shaped like a tomato with bright juicy pulp, the other shaped like an acorn with flesh that turns the consistency of sweet creamy pudding. I prefer the latter, but if you take a bite before it’s ripe, there are so many tannins in the flesh that it will turn your mouth inside out! You will throw it in a bush and never touch persimmons again. A dear friend in Bluffton has two trees, one of each variety, but neither he nor his wife eat them; so, every year when I return from my summer travels, he has me to supper and lets me pick the trees clean. Once he conveyed this invitation by text with a wonderful autumn haiku: “Persimmons are falling/Michele is returning/time for dinner.” A friend in Florida froze a bunch of pint jars of persimmon pulp, then made me the best oatmeal I’ve ever had by stewing steel cut oats with persimmon, dried apricots, fresh oranges from her tree, chia seeds and a touch of butter. Amazing.

Figs
Walking by a neighborhood fig tree and gorging yourself (with permission of course) then jumping in the May River—can there be any better pleasure in July? When I got bored of eating them straight, I used to caramelize the halved figs in the toaster oven with walnuts, butter and brown sugar, then put them over a tossed salad of greens and goat cheese. But it wasn’t until somebody gave me a trash bag of figs that were already starting to turn that the greatest discovery was made. My sister lived here at the time, and one of her hobbies was baking. I handed her the bag of partially fermented figs and she, looking quite annoyed, said, “What am I supposed to do with these?” All I could do was shrug. Well, that genius used a basic banana bread recipe to make what instantly became her most famed creation of all time: fig bread with pecans, cut in fat slices and toasted then topped with slabs of cream cheese. We used to bake the bread in summer and freeze it for Christmas gifts, until one year a roommate got into my stash and demolished every last loaf by stages so that when Christmas came, I discovered I’d have to make cookies for my friends instead. That’s how good the fig bread was. Banana bread recipe…figs and pecans…toasted with cream cheese. Try it and thank me later.

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