One morning, there they are: raspberries in a gray cardboardbox. In the produce section of the grocery store, they stand on a special table, for, unlike strawberries and Granny Smiths and kiwi, raspberries still seem seasonal. Sometimes in the summer, markets carry them fresh from local gardens. A hand-lettered sign says so, as signs did every summer in our village where farmers' wives brought in flats of berries at midday.
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Our raspberries grew in the garden in glorious profusion, though once I married and moved away, I had always just missed them when I arrived in August. I stayed, instead, for the plums.
My sister came early enough for raspberries, which her little girl would gather, first from their bed in the garden, then from their renegade outpost north of the garage. Even wearing, with her sunsuit, her "garden shoes," an old pair of her grandmother's white high heels, she could stoop down and see under the leaves and through the canes as she reached in to dislodge the berries and drop them into the tin pan that rested in the dirt. Drop two. Eat one. Drop one. Eat two.
The tall raspberry bushes seemed misplaced among the vegetables. Tomatoes and peas and beans had to be planted or set out anew each spring; raspberries just turned up, where they were expected and where they were not.
Strawberries were compatible with the carrots and turnips and squash, for they grew low to the ground, anchored by runners that gave them a foothold in the earth. They would last the summer and, tended and mulched, reappear the next year in time for Strawberry Festival where women sold quilts and aprons embroidered with berries while their menfolk ate shortcake and pie and waffles with strawberry syrup or jam.
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The strawberry (Genus: Fragaria) is a solid, fleshy fruit, in Europe small and aromatic, in the Americas large and sweet. Rubus, the raspberry, is an aggregate, each dusky berry a cluster of drupelets that burst like bubbles against the tongue or teeth.
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My mother, who tended the garden, arose and gathered raspberries when the dew was still on the grass. "When I was little," she remembers, "we had berries for breakfast." They were served in glass bowls in the dining room with spoonfuls of powdered sugar and pitchers full of cream.
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Domestic raspberries the shade of garnets grew in the garden; wild raspberries, black and bright red, tumbled like fireweed through the woods. Midsummer was their season, and my father raced the birds for them, a bandanna tied around his forehead, his chest bare, his fingers deft as he pulled the berries off their core and dropped them into a bucket. Never a formal dessert, they were better served on frozen custard after the flowerbeds had been watered and the children tucked in for the night.
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"Raspberry," writes Fanny Merritt Farmer in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook index:
and currant Ice, 373
Apple Jelly, 481
Currant Preserve, 486
Hard Sauce, 392
Ice Cream, 377
Perhaps in Boston kitchens one had to mix not quite enough raspberries with not quite enough currants, but not because anyone snitched the currants. Fresh currants feel odd in the mouth and taste worse, though the juice is as clear as claret decanted in cranberry glass.
When my husband's parents moved from their home to a retirement center, each child heeled a piece, roots and all, of the old currant bushes into new soil. Green and leafy and full, each young bush yields every other year a crop that, with sugar and pectin, makes a dozen jars of scarlet jelly as sweet as blossoms on a vine.
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Had my mother lived in Boston or even Milwaukee proper, she might have made angel or chiffon pie or raspberry whip. She might have canned whole raspberries (Canning: "Remove caps and stems. Shake the berries down so that the jar will be full.") or frozen the fruit (Freezing: "If dusty, wash quickly in ice water."). She might have made raspberry jelly or speckled jam while her children sat on a settee and minded.
But her children ran through woods and fields from morning till night. "Wild Indians!" She called us at bedtime as she brushed our tangled hair and made us wash our scraped shins and scratched arms and stained feet. Scrubbed and damp, we mumbled our evening prayers, too young not to believe that all fruit is best forbidden. Nothing beat the wicked taste of berries pilfered from prickly bushes at high noon while our mother, cool in seersucker and a safe four rows away, picked garden produce, over which, during dark winters ahead, would float clouds of paraffin wax.
Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.