|Third generation picker, Atom Fischler, feeds a ripe blueberry to his grandpa|
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 2, 2011)
Picking fruit is one of our family's favorite pastimes. Our fruit-picking fervor is obvious by the stains on our fingers and the smiles on our faces.
We're as passionate about the start of each fruit's season as most Americans are about the onset of their favorite sports. Hang a bucket from our necks and point us in the direction of some early Sharp blueberries or white-flesh peaches and we're as excited as ticket-holders on the way to the stadium.
In Central Florida, late April through May is blueberry season. This year, that most-anticipated period coincided with a visit from our daughter and son-in-law. Jenny and Brett are (for the moment) our only children who don't live in Florida. They live in Massachusetts, where forsythias and daffodils are blooming but blueberry season is still several months away.
Two days after I picked them up at the airport, we woke up early, packed the van with our assorted gear and headed over to Mark's Blueberries in Minneola. We've lived in Groveland for 20 years and, if memory serves, we've been gathering fruit at Mark's blueberry fields for that entire time.
Picking berries has always been a whole-family event. As soon as they were old enough to walk on their own, our children learned to follow rudimentary u-pick rules:
•Pick only ripe fruit.
•Don't break plants in the process.
•It's OK to eat a little as long as you pick mostly for the bucket.
•Don't dump a bucket over, especially when it's full.
Diaper-clad toddlers, like my grandson, are just beginning to understand these lessons. At 22 months old, Atom is in the "green berries are yucky" stage of learning. He listens attentively to directions like "just pick the blue ones," then proceeds to pluck whatever berry he can grab. He has the concept down, but it needs fine-tuning.
My children were equally oblivious when they were little, but repeated exposure to foraged food sped up the learning. When they were little, we went road-trip-crazy, picking our way cross-country and back and forth between Cape Cod and Florida.
Whenever we traveled, we sought out local u-pick farms. During those trips, we picked all kinds of edible delicacies, including apricots, figs, peaches, apples, cherries, assorted berries and tropical fruits. One farm worthy of repeat visits was Westmoreland Berry Farm in Colonial Beach, Va. It's a long, tedious drive from Florida to New England, and it helped to stop along the Rappahannock River in the northern neck of Virginia to gather quantities of red raspberries, plump blueberries and sweet peaches.
Memories of those long-ago times drifted back to me with Jenny and Brett visiting. Returning to Mark's with our children and grandchild reminded me of the days when our own kids were little and we spent so much time outdoors enjoying one another's company while picking fruit.
On Saturday, Amber and Atom joined us at the blueberry field. Together we trolled the rows in search of the largest, sweetest, most flavorful fruit. When Atom tired, we took turns holding and talking to him.
As usual, Amber was her industrious self, picking only the cleanest, sweetest fruit. Jenny was less fussy, as was I. To me, it's all about filling my bucket. I care less about variety and size than I do about quantity. Fill it up, take it home, start eating — that's my philosophy.
My husband is a grazer. He likes to mosey along in search of that elusive bush no one else has found. For him, each blueberry-picking excursion is a quest for that perfect find: a bush heavy with clusters of tasty, ripe berries. Despite our diverse picking styles, we managed to score enough fruit on Saturday to last until Wednesday, when Mark would reopen and Jenny and Brett had to leave.
The plan for Wednesday was to pick berries before heading to the airport. Amber, Atom and Jenny's brother Tim joined us at the field, and together we gathered more than 20 pounds in less than 45 minutes. When we returned to the house, Brett added three boxes of blueberries to his already bulging bag, and before long, another batch of fresh-from-Florida fruit was en route to New England.
I was sad to say goodbye to my daughter and son-in-law but I was glad to send them off with a taste of home. The flavor of love makes everything sweeter. With Mother's Day around the corner, it pleases me to know one of our most basic family traditions is being carried on by the next generation. A family that picks together sticks together, and in Florida, during May, that means blueberries.