I’m late – my worst habit – to pick up my son, Theo, from his part-time day care, and instead of following me to our car, he takes off toward the woods that surround the Little Red Schoolhouse on Maine’s perimeter. He runs up to his buddy, Amelia Feeley, who is almost 5, picking berries from an unfamiliar shrub. “Wait, stop! You only pick berries with Mommy; only the ones I say are OK!” I shout, chasing after him, fearing the kids are ingesting some beguiling but highly toxic berry.
But Amelia’s steadfast mother, Emily Rines Feeley, her 1-year-old son, Sammy, at her hip, tells me not to worry. She already knew they were blueberries, with the self-assuredness of a native Mainer (her late father was a beloved, longtime mayor of Gardiner) who has wild blueberries – simply blueberries, the true, real blueberries to people here – in her blood. So we all enjoy a sweet, spontaneous summer snack, as Amelia and Theo gorge themselves on berries, whose ripening colors range from jet indigo, to violet and lavender, to dusty cornflower blue. They know to avoid the yucky sour green ones. Sammy beams, gobbling up the plump berries his mother and sister feed him.
Somehow blueberries taste better picked and consumed right on site. Fat, sweet blueberries were among the first whole fruits my 3-year-old Theo enjoyed during his second summer in Oregon, where he was born. Just before we moved back east to Maine, two years ago, we picked one final, tiny harvest from two scraggy high-bushes I’d transplanted, the ones whose branches turned stunning orange-red against the gray rains of autumn.
Though Theo still prefers devouring these meatier ones by the pintful, he’s almost as happy with Maine’s toddler-height but harder-to-grasp, more antioxidant-rich native berries. We gather them on hikes in the Belgrade Lakes, across Great Pond from where I used to pick with my late Grandma near her rustic “Blueberry Cottage,” which the family has since sold. Grandma and I would whisk together batches of wild blueberry muffins, made with Jiffy mixes bought liquidation-cheap at Marden’s in Waterville.
Theo and I finally had our “Blueberries for Sal” moment, picking and eating (hardly any made it home) from the low-bush sea of blue dots in a groundcover of rust and green leaves at the public barrens that the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust stewards. The harvest ripened early this year. After a planned, restorative burn of the grasslands in April 2013, the tiny, taut berries released like so many grapes.
But it’s tedious to fill a bucket without one of those hand-rake dustpans. Even with a tined scoop, we realize it’s back-breaking labor; that’s why the highly perishable wild (well, “stewarded”) berries cost what they do, and command an even higher premium for organic, since most commercial ones are cultivated with fungicides, herbicides and pesticides.
For the past two summers, we’ve bulk-ordered certified organic, hand-raked ones from Continuous Harmony Farm in Lincolnville. Gina Longbottom, who owns Fives Islands Lobster Co. in Georgetown, coordinated orders for our Brunswick buying club in mid-June; the ultra-fresh specimens arrived Aug. 7 last year. I got a $35 10-pound starter box (increased to $38 this year). This year, I ordered 40 pounds (don’t tell my husband) to freeze, can and dehydrate for winter.
Maine is by far the top wild blueberry state, producing some 66 million pounds, or almost 90 percent of the country’s harvest. And for decades, migrant workers from Mexico, other Central American and Caribbean countries (Haiti) have raked this lucrative crop that annually drew them so far Down East. At least 1,000 workers, including many First Nations from Nova Scotia and Passamaquoddy here in Maine, set up multigenerational camps around the Washington County barrens during the August harvest. We will teach Theo where the bulk of our berries come from, and to cherish and advocate for the all-too-often invisible hands of the people who feed us.
With his economist father, we’ll also debate the benefits and costs of mechanized harvesting. As our biggest blueberry producers – Wyman’s, Cherryfield Foods – switch to less expensive, less risky tractors, these coveted seasonal farm jobs are drying up. We’re losing the proud hand-raking tradition maintained by fewer and fewer commercial outposts. Even the Passamaquoddy tribe-owned Northeastern Blueberry Company in Columbia Falls, the country’s fourth-largest grower and once an outlier, is now mechanized. (Rocky, hilly barrens along granite ledges still require hand-raking.)
We want Theo to embrace the rich diversity, the languages, cultures and cuisines that the blueberry rakers and other immigrants and refugees bring – even temporarily – to our otherwise homogeneous state. We’re heartened to see organizations banding together to assist them: the Blueberry Rakers’ Center with its on-site food pantry and medical services provided by the Maine Migrant Health Program; and the three-week, state Department of Education-funded Blueberry Harvest School, run by Milbridge nonprofit Mano en Mano, which last year served 130 kids, ages 3 to 13, whose Mexican families might live in Florida, Texas or Mississippi and follow the “Eastern Stream” of crops north through the picking season.
Food is central to the migrants’ experience here. The Blueberry School uses local produce in meals, takes students on field trips to organic Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro and charters a boat so they can fish for mackerel. Their parents might enjoy authentic tacos from the Vazquez Mexican Food RV that parks around the Wyman’s blueberry barrens camp in Deblois. We hear the Vazquez family opened a new, more permanent location at a house in nearby Milbridge, where we hope to dine with Theo someday soon.
CORN, CUCUMBER AND MAINE BLUEBERRY SALAD
This recipe comes from Bowdoin College’s top-ranked cafeteria, known for its use of produce from an on-campus farm. It was inspired by a popular seasonal salad served alongside lobster rolls at the Bite Into Maine truck in Cape Elizabeth. Adjust the ratio of corn, cucumber and blueberries to taste.
Yields eight 6-ounce servings
6 ears freshly-shucked corn, lightly steamed, roasted or grilled, and kernels removed
1 English cucumber, chopped
1 cup fresh Maine blueberries
1/4 cup red onion, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
½ teaspoon lime zest, grated
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Maine honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine corn, cucumber, blueberries, onion, cilantro (reserving 1 teaspoon for the dressing) and jalapeño in a bowl.
Whisk together lime juice, zest, olive oil, honey, cumin and the reserved cilantro.
Gently toss dressing with corn mixture. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Allow to marinate for up to 1 hour, refrigerated or at room temperature. Serve with tortilla chips, or paired with lobster rolls, grilled chicken or fish.