“Okay. The house is on the corner of [classified] and [classified]. The owners gave permission for the tree to be picked, but they don’t get home from work until two. Before then, don’t even knock on the door because they have two yipper dogs who will go crazy. If the dogs are in the backyard, knock on the neighbor’s door and he’ll put them inside.
“The tree is really tall, and I think it might be grafted, which means the upper cherries would be better than the lower ones, so if you have a ladder you should bring it.
“But even if the cherries are all the same that’s okay because they’re really good, and so far there aren’t any worms. But in this heat they aren’t going to last long so you should go soon. Do you think you can go today?”
When I committed, an audible sigh of relief passed through the phone line. Another pregnant tree had been saved. But there was still much work to be done.
In a manila folder marked “gleaning,” Barbara Ross has collected info on more than 100 trees around Missoula, including 23 apricot, 52 apple, 16 plum and seven pear, as well as grapes, cherries and berries. When she’s out and about, she notices new ones (“how can’t you?”) with the subconscious fixation of a passing hunter spotting an elk herd on a hill from the highway at 65 mph. Ross sees the trees, knocks on doors and asks residents if they plan to pick.
If not, most are eager to have somebody else do it, saving them a mess—or, perhaps worse, a bear—in the yard. Although Ross seems tireless in doing what it takes to prevent food from wasting, she admits that it’s getting old.
“I have records of pickers from over the years, but calling them all is unsatisfactory. It’s getting to be too much work. It’s best if the tree’s owner puts a u-pick ad in the newspaper.”
When they do, she says, pickers come out of the woodwork with their bushel baskets, and taking the fruit home to their dehydrators, canners, freezers, cereal bowls and pie plates.
While much of the fruit on these quasi-abandoned trees is hardly flawless, Ross isn’t afraid of a little extra protein. “I’d rather eat a worm that’s been eating cherries than some toxic fruit from the store,” she says, “but most people want to pay money for flawless-looking fruit that’s covered in wax and poison, while the natural fruit rots on the ground.”
“I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from a worm in a cherry,” she adds. “Have you?”
As of today, the cherries have already come and gone. The apricots, by some cyclical freak of nature, never showed up. The “transparent apples,” as Ross calls them—mostly green and tart early-season apples that make great pies and sweeten in the dehydrator—are in full swing. Pears, plums and fall apples are coming on as we speak. September is the month when the trees are heaviest with ripe fruit.
While hundreds of apple varieties were once commonly grown, now 90 percent of commercially grown apples represent just 10 varieties. But in the backyards and alleyways of neighborhoods around Missoula, the older heirlooms still grow. While they might not have the attributes to support mass-marketability—like size and storability—these heirlooms contain a spectrum of nuance, and are a treat to the true connoisseur.
One connoisseur, unfortunately, is the black bear, especially in some parts of town, like the Rattlesnake. Drawn down from the hills and into neighborhoods by the smell of thousands of ripe apples, the bears’ presence in urban neighborhoods can create difficult conflicts.
Missoula’s Great Bear Foundation, dedicated to improving the lives of the world’s bears, runs a gleaning program in which volunteers ask owners of unpicked trees for permission to bring a crew and pick. This year GBF will be joined by Garden City Harvest, already well known for its urban farming and gardening activities.
Funded in part by the efforts of a graduate of my fall grant-writing class (registration open ’til Sept. 6!), GCH now has its own gleaning coordinator, who will organize university students and community members to help GBF remove those tempting dangling fruits. The apples will be turned into cider, which will be given away this fall. If you’re interested in joining these gleaning efforts, or if you live in a bearish neighborhood and you want some help picking your trees, call GCH at 523-3663.
There is nothing like cider made from a mixture of apples, and it’s a great way to put even gnarly specimens to use. And while you can get some pretty good cider out of some pretty ugly apples, there will be some too far gone for even the cider press. But none will be wasted.
The goners, Ross notes, are good for horses.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Stuck on the frozen food isle
Q: Dear CBA,
I’m currently “wintering” at the South Pole, Antarctica. We don’t get many fresh vegetables here and haven’t seen the sun for several months now. Most of our food comes from cans or is frozen. Do you have any suggestions on how to get proper nutrition here?
—Wasting Away in Antarctica, Help!
A: Dear WAAH,
Thanks for the reminder that while we frolic in our shorts and flip-flops, it’s hardly harvest season in some parts of the world. You can’t get much colder and darker than winter at the South Pole and, well, I’m glad I’m not there.
I think the most important nutritional recommendation I can offer is plenty of hot chocolate, but you’ve probably already figured that one out. A more useful tip would be to sprout seeds and eat them. Wheat, alfalfa, sunflowers, mustard, quinoa, beans and peas are just a few of the many seeds that are alive and ready to sprout, even at the bottom of the world. Each type of sprout has its own unique taste and appearance, but all contain the vitamins and enzymes of living food that are sorely missing from your diet.
I’d also like to point out that one of your own—a former Missoulian by the name of Michael Rehm—is a cook at Amundsen-Scott Station in South Pole, Antarctica. His website and blog, www.cookingsouth.com, is entertaining and worth checking out. Maybe you should ask him for some pointers. But don’t be too surprised if you get a response echoing the typical Antarctic method of coping: copious amounts of beer.
Also, a chick from the Falkland Islands who I met on the ferry to Alaska last summer says penguin eggs are pretty good…
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.