I’m being taunted by a taste that I’m afraid I’ll never truly get to experience: gooseberries.
Only this week, Bob Bruck, a forest pathologist at N.C. State University, told me about eating wild gooseberries in the North Carolina mountains. He described the reddish purple berries as “sweet” and “very tasty.”
I’ll get back to Bruck in a minute but first I need to tell about the closest I’ve ever come to tasting a gooseberry.
Last summer, my family spent a few days visiting my husband’s 84-year-old grandmother Marcile in rural Missouri. When we visit, we stay at the family homestead, a house where my husband’s family has farmed for more than 100 years.
I was snooping around the kitchen and came across an old recipe box. Inside were index cards filled with recipes handwritten by my husband’s great-grandmother. Several listed gooseberries as an ingredient, including gooseberry jam and gooseberry pie.
I had never heard of a gooseberry. One night over supper, I asked Grandma Marcile about them. She talked about the gooseberry pie with the layer of caramel that her mother baked for the annual town picnic. Then Grandma Marcile hustled out of the room and came back with a plastic bucket that she had obviously pulled out of the deep freezer. Inside, beneath a frosty layer, were shriveled green gooseberries.
Not wanting to offend her, I popped one in my mouth. It tasted of ice. I smiled and told her they were “interesting.”
The next words out of her mouth were these: “Bob and I picked those at Terry’s house. They have a bush in the backyard.”
Terry is her son who lives about 30 miles away. Bob was her husband. He died in 1998. That means those berries were at least 14 years old.
Despite my experience eating those frozen fossil berries, I suggested to my husband that we plant a gooseberry bush. He did some research and discovered that we cannot. It’s against the law in North Carolina to plant a gooseberry bush. In fact, a state law declares both gooseberry – and their evil cousin, the currant – “dangerous plants.”
As Bruck, the forest pathologist at N.C. State, explained, gooseberry bushes can carry a fungus that can kill or deform white pines. Around 1900, white pine trees were big business in the N.C. mountains and the timber industry couldn’t afford to have gooseberry plants helping to wipe out this valuable resource. No matter how tasty gooseberries are in jams or pies, they were outlawed. (State officials recently reviewed the ban but decided to keep it in place.)
Some states even have “eradication teams” that go out with bottles of Roundup weed killer to spray wild gooseberry bushes. North Carolina doesn’t go that far, so that’s how Bruck got to taste wild gooseberries here. White pines are rare on this side of the state, but the ban applies statewide.
“Why in eastern North Carolina they would ban it, I don’t know,” Bruck said.
If I ever want to taste these elusive berries, I’ll either have to be on the lookout for them the next time I’m hiking in the North Carolina mountains or we’ll have to visit Missouri during gooseberry season.
Or if I get really desperate, I know where to find some. We went to Missouri last week for a visit. I checked the deep freezer – that bucket of vintage gooseberries is still there.
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