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  • March 9th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

Diet experts say sugar is bad for you–rots your teeth and makes you hyperactive–but if you don’t use plenty of sugar in a gooseberry pie, you’ll have a lip pucker that won’t relax for a week.
Gooseberry pie…it is the stuff of daydreams. Gooseberry pie with ice cream is what you don’t get where you go if you’re a sinner. Or maybe it is a sin, but what a sin! I love apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese, and cherry pie is what makes both Darlin’ Billy Boy and me salivate.
But gooseberry pie is in a class by itself. It is the Michael Jordan of berry pies. Gooseberry love runs in the family. My mother, who was from northern Wisconsin, was delighted to find that what she called “goozeberries” existed in the home country of her new husband, a Missouri farm boy.
But gooseberries are not the province of Wisconsin or Missouri alone—think Gooseberry Creek, a tributary of the Big Horn River, which lies mostly in Washakie and Hot Springs counties (one of Wyoming’s four elk herds is the Gooseberry). Chances are Native Americans pounded gooseberries along with dried meat and melted fat to make pemmican, an early version of today’s yuppie quick energy bar.
There are more than 60 species of gooseberry, covering every state. You’ll find gooseberries in almost every county in Wyoming and other Western states.
They make you pay for collecting them. The bushes are armed with spikes as keen as the point of a needle. You come home from a gooseberry gathering expedition with stinging fingers, looking as if you’d been arm wrestling with a bobcat. And they are not entirely good citizens—gooseberry can be a host for an invading Asian disease, pine blister rust, which can kill five-needle pine trees.
Among areas affected by the rust is Yellowstone National Park. Foresters have tried to control the disease by removing gooseberry bushes, but so far that hasn’t worked.
The state of Michigan actually classifies gooseberry as a noxious weed, which shows that the Taxonomy Police never ate gooseberry pie. Conversely, both Washington State and Wisconsin have varieties of gooseberry listed as threatened or endangered by the federal government. One man’s aggravation is another man’s pie….
Gooseberries are easily identified, even without geese around them (I’ve never seen a goose even close to a gooseberry bush). When I was a kid, everyone gathered greens. It was a ritual, partly social, partly necessity because no one had much money. You couldn’t afford to let any food get by. And spring greens were supposed to “clean you out.”
Back in the 1960s, the late Euell Gibbons was considered a genial nut by most, probably because of his Grape Nuts cereal commercials where he’d earnestly proclaim, in his red dirt Oklahoma accent, that “pahn cones ahr edibull y’know.”
But he revived interest in eating wild plants, an interest that, it seems to me, now has declined and needs reviving again. It’s a peculiar American trait to fight the land. We battle weeds and trees and brush and curse it as if it were nature’s plague instead of its bounty. In other cultures, hunter gatherers hunt and gather.
For every poison ivy in the wild, there is something we can feast on, either with our mouths or our eyes. And even poison ivy berries are an important wildlife food.
Realistically, we can’t live off wild things today. They’re merely a supplement to domestic food. But we shouldn’t dismiss or forget something that is free for the taking. If nothing else, gathering gooseberries on a sweltering day puts you back in touch with the land (and vice-versa).
And when you’re stabbed and scratched, bug-bit and overheated, you appreciate those tart berries in the bucket. You most appreciate what you work hardest for. There isn’t much work involved in picking out a few vegetables at the produce counter; it’s tougher to stumble through the woods after something to eat.
I know a man who loves a blackberry cobbler as he loves his family. Yet he cleared out a tangle of blackberry on his farm in the interests of neatness…and then bought tame blackberry bushes from a nursery. I’ve puzzled over that for years.
Virtually no one picks up hickory nuts, yet they are tasty and nutritious. They’re just hard to crack and pick. So what? If a hickory nut takes a little more work than a pecan or walnut, it’s worth it. Squirrels don’t mind and we shouldn’t either.
In the Southeast states persimmons are a wild bounty. Persimmon bread is excellent and a cold persimmon, eaten off the tree on a November hunting trip, is a sweet pause in the long day (everyone knows to wait until after frost to eat persimmons because if they aren’t fully ripe, they put a pucker on your mouth that makes you look as if you’d been kissing the business end of a working industrial vacuum cleaner). The only serious wild competitors for persimmons are opossums and there are more persimmons than possums.
Gooseberries are the earliest of the fruits because you pick them when they’re green. A ripe (purple) gooseberry is as bland and tasteless as a political speech.
Each wild edible has its peculiar pattern. A morel mushroom has a corncob pattern that catches the trained eye. But how often have you diligently searched for morels with no success, only to look down and find yourself standing in the middle of a patch? (And, yes, I know the answer is “Not nearly often enough.)
You don’t need to look for blackberries–they find you. If you’re in a patch substantial enough to provide cobbler material, you’ll know it by the scratches you suffer. Gooseberries are different. The bushes often are solitary. The usable berries are green like the rest of the plant, and they hide coyly beneath the leaves.
The bushes have a raggedy appearance that catches the experienced eye. They’re not an open-ground plant; they prefer woods. Not mature woods, either, because they’re an understory plant and mature woods have a sparse understory.
Once I gathered gooseberries in a dank thicket that swarmed with mosquitoes. They stabbed me here, they stabbed me there, they stabbed me everywhere. After the sharp skewer of the gooseberry thorns and the sweet prickle of the insects, I was as lumpy as a flophouse mattress.
Never have I enjoyed gooseberry pie more. Beyond the intrinsic goodness of the pie, there was the knowledge that I’d paid for it–not in cash, which is easily come-by and increasingly worthless each day, but in blood and hide and sweat and pain and itch.
Save for a few chickens and the occasional package of hamburger, our freezer is storehouse for the bounty of the land. I hunt what I eat and I eat what I hunt. Frozen game birds nestle beside packages of deer or berries and nuts. Everything in the freezer has its price, not in cash, but in effort.
It’s a truism that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Gooseberries may be free for the taking, but they have their price. Berry picking is hard work. You run the gauntlet of poison ivy, stinging nettle, briars and heat rash.
We, as a society, are insulated from the hard reality of the land–even some who till the land. Few anymore whack off the heads of their chickens and gut them, still hot from stolen life. They don’t stun a hog with a sledge and slit its throat. Instead, they call someone to haul the animal to market and it returns as neat packages, neatly labeled. No muss, no fuss.
It’s easy to dislike the gore of country life and imagine only the glamour when all you see is the glamour. Vibrant young couples in television commercials rise in the dawn, luxuriously sniffing robust coffee and it looks so romantic you want to sacrifice everything for a few acres where nature will shower you with her bounty.
No commercial husband or wife is shown scratched and sweating, perhaps speckled with blood or itching with bird lice that are fleeing the dead critter she is plucking. That’s disgusting.
The rise of animal rights and anti- hunting sentiment is an understandable outgrowth of our distance from real nature. It’s no wonder that animal rightists get all gooey over the sanctity of animal life. They’ve never known tooth-and-claw life and death and never will. It’s too harsh, too unsettling. Another axiom? No wild animal ever died in bed.
As much as the animal rightists deny it, we all are hunter-gatherers both by genetics and by tradition. We have canine teeth to rip flesh, but like our wild cousins, the bear and raccoon, we can eat almost anything, vegetable or animal.
Many have forgotten our heritage. If it isn’t pre-packaged, we are suspicious. Still, what we once were niggles at us. We grow gardens or stick potted herbs on the windowsill. It isn’t killing a deer for the table, nor even thrashing through a gooseberry patch with a rude bucket, but we still want to know that we can do for ourselves. And gardens are non-threatening. Lettuce doesn’t quiver when it dies.
Remember those greens-gathering outings of my childhood? When was the last time you saw a modern farm wife gathering edible greens? Now, if anything is gathered from the roadside, it is aluminum cans for recycling…so the gatherer can use the money to buy cans of spinach. We’re one long step removed from our roots, so far from them in fact that we can’t feel the lusty sap.
Set aside the gooseberry pie with ice cream (if you dare) and ponder the gooseberry as a symbol. Consider that the gooseberry is a tangible reminder of what we once were. It is of the land and, like nature, it is prickly.
Gooseberries are hard to deal with, but the rewards are worth the effort.
If you make that effort.

Wild harvest cookbooks are noticeably short on gooseberry pie recipes…except for one. My late friend Werner Nagel, a conservation pioneer, collected down home recipes 50 years ago and included two gooseberry pie recipes in Cy Littlebee’s Guide to Cooking Fish and Game (Missouri Department of Conservation, Box 180, Jefferson City MO 65102, $3.50)
You also can find 19,000 gooseberry pie citations by Googling, but here is my mother’s version from Cy Littlebee, tried, tested and savored often: Use 1 ½ cups sugar, 1/3 cup flour, ½ teaspoon cinnamon. Mix with 3 cups gooseberries. Pour berries into pastry-lined pie pan, dot with 1 ½ tablespoons butter. Cover with top crust. Bake 425 degrees 35 to 40 minutes.
And while that recipe calls for serving warm with cream, I’d opt for serving warm heaped with vanilla ice cream.

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1 Comment

  1. Carrie Jo

    March 9th, 2017 at 10:39 am


    Mmmm, sweet (& sour) memories!

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