I am riding in the backseat of the car with my mom and my aunt to go fruit picking–
nectarines, my favorite fruit. Out the window, in the fields the big sprinklers on wheels look like they are standing still and just the water is moving, but if you look really carefully you can see the big wheels slowly turning. I wonder how long it takes the sprinkler to get all the way across. I remember my dad saying they get the water from the lake, and if there wasn’t a lake, it would be desert all around, and if there were no lake, there probably wouldn’t be a town here either.
Last time we went out for harvest, we were driving in the middle of a long line of cars, all following each other. My mom said it was called a caravan. Sometimes the first car would stop and everyone had to pull over to the side of the road and roll their windows down or jump out and decide if we were still going the right way. One time they realized we weren’t going the right way, and everyone had to turn around. My mom said it was a wild goose chase. Some people were frustrated, but my mom thought it was just another adventure.
This time it is just me, my mom and my aunt in one car. We have good directions, and arrive early in the day. We park between the nectarine orchard and a huge mint field, get out of the car, and fall in love with our surroundings. The air is hot and sticky and the smell is pungent and strange, absolutely amazing. The fumes from the mint field are wafting into the orchard and blending with the earthy smell of overripe nectarines. My mom and aunt call the combination heavenly–their favorite word, other than “groovy”—and this time I agree, this really is heavenly. The people who were working in the orchard are all done for the season and are gathering their tools, their big wooden crates full to the brim. They are leaving, and we have paradise to ourselves for as long as we want to harvest. I think we will stay here all day.
My aunt sees that I don’t have any shoes on my feet and there aren’t any in the car for me. She is mad and complaining to my mom, but my mom isn’t worried. She says I am old enough at age five to learn from my own mistakes and that it was my responsibility to bring shoes. I guess I didn’t realize the ground would be covered in gooey nectarines. They are going ahead without me, laughing. They aren’t going to let me ruin their fun. There are nectarines everywhere I step, some whole and some spread out splat. All the time I can hear them dropping from the trees and hitting the ground. Some fall louder than others, especially when they are really close. Sometimes it is soft and gentle, like a tree whispering, There you go, easy now, you’re too big for my branches, roll along.
At first, I am uneasy about stepping with bare feet into the thick layer of fallen fruit. I try to step lightly to keep my feet from getting too yucky all over with sticky orangish-brownish muck, but I have to give up. Now that my feet are completely covered and the brown line of mush is rising closer to my ankles, I’m starting to enjoy the feeling of the squish under my feet.
My mom and aunt notice that I have joined the group. “Aren’t they delicious?” they ask.
I hadn’t even eaten one yet–I have catching up to do. I pick the first nectarine I see. It comes off so easily, like it's falling into my hands, and I almost drop it. It's whole and complete and smells so good I know it will taste delicious. I take a big bite and the juice squirts everywhere, running down my chin. I am so messy, but I feel wonderful. It’s hard to believe we are surrounded by so much abundance, and for free.
My mom and aunt like to pick the nectarines off the ground just after they fall, and eat them right away. They say nectarines are the best when they are so ripe and heavy that the tree can’t hold them anymore. I like picking them off the tree better, so I don’t have to figure out which one had fallen last to the slimy ground and wipe it off before eating it. They seem more perfect straight from the tree, and there are so many that I can reach. It seems kind of funny to pick them off of the muck floor when there are so many still in the trees. Maybe their plan is to first salvage the ground fruit and then move into the trees. I don’t know how they are going to keep up—the fruit is falling so constantly. I think they are mostly eating the ones already fallen and saving the firmer fruit in boxes.
They don’t like to waste food, so much so that they will rescue dying food. I guess that’s what we are doing here. Soon, we will bring the harvest home for processing. We set out the picnic tables in the front yard and unpack the car full of boxes of fresh fruit. We get tools from the kitchen and start sorting, slicing, dicing, and pitting. The ripest ones will be baked into a crisp for the evening’s desert. The firmest ones are saved to be eaten fresh, and everything in between will be frozen, dried or canned and shared with family and friends.
My mom and aunt were members of the gleaning program for as long as I could remember as a child while we were living in central Washington. When the commercial pickers were finished harvesting for the season, the excess was made available to the group of gleaners. It was a natural desert, irrigated into a rich agricultural area, dense with farmland and orchards. There was a wide variety of crops, from potatoes to apricots, during many seasons, but the end-of-the-summer-fruit was always the most memorable.
In fact, the nectarine-mint experience remains one of the favorite stories to tell among the sisters. Their eyes light up at the thought of it. They also no longer live next to such a plush landscape, so they like to reminisce.
Twenty years later, after that barefoot day in the orchard, I am working at a discount grocery store in a small city in the pacfic northwest. In most ways it is an opposite experience from my early childhood memories. This store is feels galaxies away from that heavenly place. Some food products are so far removed from their origins that they are hardly recognizable as once being part of a plant or animal, like microwavable pork rinds or artificially dyed pop-tarts with screen-printed princesses. But there is an important common thread. Here I am again rescuing dying food, in this case selling it cheaply on its way off the market.
It’s a different kind of gleaning. Shoppers typically start at the really sketchy stores where all the barcodes are marked out with a sharpie (a step up from dumpster-diving) and see what they can score. Then they end up here, at the Grocery Outlet, which is a little more fresh and legitimate, but there are still some things that we don’t consistently have. Eventually they might have to make a trip to the really posh grocery store to get the items they have yet to find thrifty, but are still on their list shopping list.
In the grocery business, food is more often than not the topic of conversation. Right now it’s mangos because the store happened to luck out on a good batch that are decent and smell like something real. But they are starting to get ripe a bit faster than usual, so we have to mark them down so they will sell before they become too ripe for the shelf. People in line are raving about how good they are, and a co-worker bagging for me is talking about how much she loves mangos, especially dried, and her roommate just got a dehydrator. She thought it would be really cool to dry her own mangos.
I want to say, “Do you have a mango tree? Because if you don’t, that is the most RIDICULOUS thing I’ve ever heard! Do you know how long that mango has traveled, how green it had to be picked, and what trouble people went through so that you could eat it fresh and juicy? And you’re going to dehydrate it?”
Sometimes I feel like Barbra Kingsolver on a rant, but I stay pretty quiet about it until the customers were gone and then I try appealing to her smarter sensibility. I tell her if you want to take advantage of your roommate’s dehydrator, great, but you should probably go harvest something. Unfortunately mangos don’t grow around here, but indulge yourself in some plums or berries–that’s where we live. Eat as much as you can stand fresh; it’s good for you. The more recently it was picked, the more life energy and nutrients are retained. Of course there is a limit to how much fresh fruit a person can consume. People also like to eat fruit well after the season is over, which is the purpose for preservation, along with not letting it “go to waste” while saving money and having fun. Dehydrating is intended for post harvest when your freezer is stocked, you can’t handle eating any more raw, and you’re tired of making crisps and pies.
My co-worker is a sweet girl, and smart. I’ve seen her perform amazing poetry, but she’s a rich kid and totally clueless about food, so she didn’t really understand the point I was trying to make. She basically told me that a plum isn’t a mango, and she likes mangos better when they are dried. I questioned whether the dried mangos that she likes are better because they were tree-ripened to begin with, their essence preserved in the process, and whether the prematurely-picked-struggling-to-ripen mangos at the store would be disappointing.
She said, “Hey I’m excited about my project so don’t rain on my parade.”
Especially in the city, it is more apparent how disconnected we are from the natural process, instead accustomed to the mechanized process of food production. I am perplexed that people in this area buy blackberries, especially in the summer. I wonder if some people never go outside, or perhaps they don’t make the connection that those hardy vines climbing all over town with black berries on them are the same edible berries as the ones found in the hard plastic container that says “blackberries” on it. The ones in your backyard are healthier, tastier, and free. The whole Northwest is smothered with them. Take advantage.
Some goods in this world are either really expensive or absolutely free, like spices. You can pay an exorbitant amount for some dried-up scentless powder or walk around the neighborhood and find all the fresh rosemary, sage, thyme, and mint you want without paying a penny. Herbs and spices grow like weeds, some of them invasive, needing to be cut back. Harvesting them is doing everyone a favor.
I realize now what a rare opportunity we had in my early childhood to have unlimited access to tree-ripened fruit at its prime, for free. If I buy a nectarine in the grocery store, I am always disappointed. They are hard and tasteless and don’t ripen properly. Sometimes I’ve gotten lucky at some random fruit stand, but I usually try to stick to the local fruits. People often say the same thing about tropical fruits from some exotic place. They say, once you’ve indulged straight from the tree, it’s hard to bring yourself to buy it from the store. When I buy bananas and avocados, I wonder what I’m missing. I haven’t been fortunate enough to travel to tropical lands and experience many of the fruits I would like, and I wonder what effect it would have on me. Once you eat from the tree of knowledge, there’s no going back to innocence.