If you want to get an earful, just ask David Stess how he feels about cultivated blueberries.
They’re “big and tasteless,” he rants. “All water.” “A joke.”
“I wouldn’t want to make pies from those,” Stess said. “I wouldn’t want to make jam. I wouldn’t want to do anything with them.”
It’s April, not August, so why are we talking about wild blueberries?
Stess, a 51-year-old photographer from New York City, has an exhibition opening Saturday at the Portland Museum of Art featuring his photographs of blueberry rakers on Maine’s wild blueberry barrens. He is intimately familiar with the differences between wild and cultivated blueberries (although not everyone would agree with his complete disdain of cultivated berries) because he has hand-raked wild berries himself every year for the past 25 years.
Stess passed through Portland last week on his way Down East to pick up 50 pounds of wild blueberries so he could, among other things, bake 10 blueberry pies over Easter weekend. He was looking to get his “pie technique” back before he has to bake one in front of the cameras to promote his exhibit.
“It’s like spring training for pies,” he quipped.
Stess has always loved berries. When he was a child in New Jersey, he picked blackberries, raspberries and strawberries in the woods near his home. When his family moved to Florida, he frequented the pick-your-own strawberry farms out on the edge of the Everglades.
Stess learned to cook at age 7 or 8 by helping his parents throw dinner parties for their friends. When he was 12 or 13, a cousin gave him a copy of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and now he makes a mean coq au vin.
“I’m a very good amateur cook,” he said. “I’m pretty confident. I can do pretty much anything in the kitchen.”
Stess’ attention turned back to berries in his 20s, when he first started photographing Maine blueberry rakers, and now some of his specialties are the wild blueberry pies and low-sugar jams he makes with the Maine blueberries he harvests every summer.
“They go right from the field to the jam jar in a matter of hours,” he said.
LOCAL CHEFS ON BOARD
The Portland Museum of Art decided to enhance Stess’ exhibit, “Blueberry Rakers: Photographs by David Brooks Stess,” by asking local chefs to share some of their favorite blueberry recipes, which will be sold in packets with the exhibit’s brochure/poster for $4.50 in the museum store. Each card includes the recipe on one side and one of Stess’ images on the other.
In addition to the recipes re-printed here from Sam Hayward (Fore Street), Steve Corry (Five Fifty-Five) and Stacy Begin (Two Fat Cats Bakery), Marika Kuzma will share Aurora Provisions’ recipe for blueberry barbecue sauce and Helen’s Restaurant in Machias offered its blueberry muffin recipe.
All those images of wild blueberries will probably make visitors hungry, so the museum’s cafe will be serving blueberry pie, blueberry brownies and blueberry-lemon tea bread for the duration of the exhibit.
Stess fell in love with documentary photography at the University of Miami, where he developed an appreciation for the work of Joseph Koudelka, who lived with nomadic gypsies in Europe, and Eugene Smith, who documented the ravages of Minamata disease in Japan — “these incredible guys who were weaving some of this world that they were photographing into their own life.”
“I really wanted to find a project that I could weave into my life and shoot it from the inside,” Stess said.
In the summer of 1988, on a road trip to Maine, Stess and a friend stumbled across a crew of migrant workers raking blueberry fields near Milbridge, and he found his project.
“I came up the next year,” he recalled. “They didn’t know what to make of me, but they signed me up. I suffered horribly that first year. I had the wrong clothing, and I sucked at raking, and I made like 50 bucks a day — in 12 hours — and I was killing myself. I couldn’t get the hang of it, but I knew that once I got the hang of it I’d be really, really good at it. It suited my physicality.”
Stess eventually became one of the top rakers on any crew he joined. Over the years, he learned a lot about wild blueberries and observed how the harvest has changed.
He’s seen berry colors that vary from albino to black to different shades of red and blue, and marvels at the sheer number of clones to be found in a wild blueberry field.
“You can really see that in fall, when the foliage turns,” Stess said. “There’s this patchwork of different reds and oranges, and each one of those areas is a different-looking, different-tasting wild blueberry. That’s why it has such a complex flavor. Some are sweeter, some are tarter, and that’s why they’re so good for jams and pies.”
Stess believes wild blueberries have their own terroir, that sense of place bestowed on a food by geography and climate. He’s noticed it in particular at one field in Cutler that produces organic berries for Ben Perrin’s Burke Hill Farm.
“It gets a fog in from the water, and the berries on that field just taste incredible,” Stess said, “richer in flavor and more complex. There’s also a well there that’s just about the best-tasting water I’ve ever had.”
Perrin, Stess said, started out as a migrant laborer and is now the largest certified organic blueberry farmer in the state. The first image in Stess’ exhibition is a 2-by-6-foot panoramic photo of one of Perrin’s crews (a crew that includes Stess).
“It’s probably the best hand-raking crew that’s ever existed there,” Stess said. “They come back every year, and they’re incredibly well-trained. They rake the best berries. They know how to handle them.”
The vast majority of wild blueberries are frozen after they are harvested, but hand-raked berries go into the fresh market. Hand raking produces a much better quality berry, Stess believes, because it leaves them more intact than machine harvesters — no bruising or smashed berries.
“Factory raking for the freezer, you’re just going as fast as you can,” Stess said. “This, you’re going as slow as you can. You’re just filling your rake up a tiny bit, and you’re gently pouring into old-school wooden boxes. You’re really moving in slow motion, and you have to wait until the berries are dry. They can’t be wet. There’s an incredible amount of care that goes into harvesting wild blueberries for the fresh market.”
A quarter-century on the barrens of Washington and Hancock counties taught Stess how to sweep and glide efficiently through a field, reading the terrain and “the direction of the berries.”
“There’s a real art to sweeping,” he said, “and that’s really been lost.”
Today, Stess says, on most fields you’ll see tractors working the barrens 24-7.
“What happened in American agriculture in the last 100 years has happened in Maine in less than 20,” he said.
HAND RAKING ON THE DECLINE
Indeed, the photographer says the number of hand rakers in Maine has “declined precipitously” for a number of reasons. Agribusinesses are trying to lower their costs, for one. And, like potato picking, blueberry raking is a skill valued more by older generations, Stess said.
“I’ve just watched a generation of young Maine kids who no longer want to do this, where their parents and grandparents used to rake for their school clothes,” Stess said. “And now you’re seeing that in the native crews too. The younger generation doesn’t want to come and do the work. I think when this younger generation of crew leaders is finished, it’s going to all go to machine. I think that’s just inevitable.”
He’s also seen the effects of climate change, as the season for harvesting wild blueberries has grown longer and longer. Stess always worked until the first killing frost, “which used to happen sometimes in August, especially in the high barrens.” Now, most years, the season stretches late into September.
So many Americans have little feel for where their food actually comes from and how it is produced. Stess feels that by working in the barrens, he’s gained some of that knowledge and now has a greater appreciation for where his food originated every time he takes a bite of blueberry pie.
He would like to expand his blueberry exhibition in the future by creating installations at other museums in major cities, places where children think blueberries come from a plastic-wrapped box in the grocery store. Stess said he wants to create a miniature blueberry field outside of the museums so people can see firsthand how the berries are harvested. He’ll sell wild Maine berries to museum visitors at a “farmers market.” And he’ll help kids make their own jars of blueberry jam to take home.
After more than two decades, Stess is thrilled that he actually managed to complete his project and now has a body of work that he’s ready to show to the world. He realizes how fortunate he is that he “caught this world as it changed.”
“And what’s really cool,” he said, “is the people I’ve grown to really care about (in Maine), they really recognize the value of what I’ve done because they’ve seen it disappear right before them.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: