Secret Maine Blueberry Mission
We told anyone who asked that we were going to Bangor for lunch, and the two-for-one sale at Payless. It wasn’t true. My sister Irene and me were going on a secret mission!
We do this once a summer. I had put my supplies in the car the night before, when it was dark, so no one would see, and the next morning I pulled into Irene’s garage to pick her up, so she could do the same. Our excitement was high we was headed out of town.
When we reached our destination, we suited up: long pants tucked into our socks, sneakers, long-sleeved shirts, neck bandanas, straw hats, and those attractive bug nets over our heads. Then we sprayed each other stem to stern with Deep Woods Off. After all the rain we’ve had, the mosquitoes ‘round here are some fierce. And that citronella and peppermint oil stuff you get at the heath food store may work in Central Park, but to the hearty Maine mosquito, it’s just like an aperitif. For this mission, you need to bring in the heavy artillery.
We wiped our hands off good with some pre-moistened towelettes, rinsed them with a bottle of water we’d brought along, grabbed our buckets and headed off into the woods. Our destination: the wild blueberry patch where we used to pick with our grandmother. I’d tell you where it is, but then I’d have to kill you!
Now, the wild blueberry, like any true Mainer, is hard to find, takes a little effort once you do, but deep down is sweet as pie. Picking them, however, is not for the faint of heart. I already mentioned the mosquitoes. That’s what used to bother me most when I was a kid. Now that I’m a card carrying member of the AARP, what’s troublesome is that wild blueberries grow low to the ground, which means you have to either bend over or kneel down to pick them. Both of these methods require you, at some point, to stand up. Easier said than done, especially after picking for a couple of hours. Because that’s the other thing. Wild blueberries are tiny, so it takes a long time to fill a bucket. Plus, you made all that effort to get there, you want to come home with as many berries as you can.
The number one rule of berry picking, drilled into us by our grandmother: don’t eat the berries while you’re picking! They’re like chips; you can’t eat just one, so don’t start. During strawberry season, I go to the pick-your-own fields up to Dugall’s farm. I’ve seen folks there who are either unaware of this rule, or they’re just ignoring it. I told Everett, “If you really want to make money, you should weigh people before they start picking and again once they’ve finished.”
Now our grandmother, she could pick berries! Quarts and quarts of wild berries: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and wild strawberries, "les petite fraise du compaigne". (You don’t see those much nowadays.) How Irene and me struggled to pick a measly pint, while Grammy hummed along as she filled a mixing bowl full of berries. Then, of course, Irene and me would lose half of what we picked by the time we made it back to the car, carrying our containers at an angle, the way kids do.
No matter how bored Irene and me got, we never wandered far, because our grandmother had terrified us with her bear story. According to her, she once lost an entire morning's labor when a brown bear come out of the woods looking for a little snack. He was interested in the berries, not my grandmother, but she high tailed it out of there anyway, in case he changed his mind. Irene and me still get a giggle over that one.
We come out of the woods with a pretty good haul this year. We tucked our buckets into a couple of coolers we’d brought along and changed back into our “shopping in Bangor” clothes. Then we headed to the DQ for our reward: Peanut Buster Parfaits.
After picking blueberries all morning, Irene and me were a little creaky getting out of the car. As we walked to the window to place our order, I says, “Reney, you’re walking like Grammy.”
“Maybe so,” she replied, “but you’re limping like Walter Brennen.”
That’s the deal. Once you get past a certain age, you sweat, you sit, you seize up. There’s just no getting around it.
“Ida! Irene!” It was my co-worker Emily Palmer. “You find any good deals down to Payless?”
Irene catches my eye. “Not today, Emily.”
“No,” I add. “Pretty slim pickings.”
“That’s too bad,” replied Emily, stepping closer and taking a whiff. “Are you gals wearing bug dope?”
“Not us,” I says, winking at my sisiter. “We did get ambushed by a sample sprayer when we were walking through the cosmetics department in Macy. It’s that new fragrance by Clinique you must be smelling.”
“Oh, right!” Irene pipes in. “I think they call it ’Mata Hari’.”
That’s it for now. Catch you on the flip side!
(Listen to the podcast of Ida's column here.)