Zen and the Art of Picking Blackberries

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Magenta fingers are a dead giveaway. My boss inspects my hands, shakes her head and says, "You're pressing too hard if your fingertips are that color."

I want to lick away the evidence. But I know my only qualifications for working in Dorothy Turner's blackberry fields in Freehold Township, New Jersey, are my desire to learn all I can about farming and willingness to do what I'm told. So I nod and continue picking the variety of berry called Chester, pressing the fruits just enough to test for ripeness, examining each berry to make sure not one speck of red can be found, checking to see if the spot where stem was attached to vine is white, not bell-pepper green. No unripe blackberries need apply for admission to Dorothy's farm stand, at the east end of her property.

No journalists, including those like me with a hankering for rich soil and good produce, will be excused for mistaking an unripe fruit for ripe. Anything with an imperfection gets tossed. I find myself grateful for all the Kermit Lynch dicta I've absorbed about when to pick grapes for wine, and make a practice of plucking and discarding past-prime blackberries—or spent tomatoes or cucumbers—from vines or stems so they don't sap the plant of the nutrients needed to feed and fortify the remaining fruits.

I tell Dorothy this is my favorite part of blackberry-picking, the deep-sea dive
that yields low-
lying treasures.

The past few years, I've been spending many days off from my newspaper job hounding Dorothy Turner, owner of The Farm. Its plain-Jane name suits its purpose: to be the place locals go to get everyday produce grown without pesticides or chemicals. Born in 1917, The Farm first was worked by Dorothy's grandfather and then her father. It's guided by organic principles and practices, but it doesn't have certified organic status. Like many other longtime farmers, Dorothy isn't much interested in securing a bureaucratic nod.

She is all farming, all the time. I beg her indulgence, because she's one of the best farmers I know. She's also a good teacher and a straight shot with instruction. I now lift up the brambly bottom vines and push back the clusters of leaves to find the best blackberries. The closer to the soil, the sweeter the fruit, the denser the concentration of berries, the less damage from excesses of heat. I crouch low and do a slow-motion breast stroke through the brush to find a shock of plump, black-purple fruits hiding an inch above ground.

I tell Dorothy this is my favorite part of blackberry-picking, the deep-sea dive that yields low-lying treasures. She smiles; she knows. Everything I say, she knows. But she's patient with my endless chatter about my discoveries. As I finish picking on this mid-August morning and haul my pints of Chester up to the stand, I remember what John Samaha, a farmer who also works acres in this area of the Jersey Shore better known for its Bruce Springsteen landmarks, once told me: "Most people pay money to be entertained while farmers watch the sun rise. Other people buy time at gyms to work off what they eat while farmers exercise working in fresh air. I'll take farming."

I pick up my step as I head down to the western end of Dorothy's 10 acres to pick at Triple Crown North. The Chesters I've been picking are a tighter, often smaller variety of blackberry; the Triple Crowns are in-your-face and brawny, the gridiron equivalent of an offensive lineman. But they can be sparse. As the season winds down, the hunt for ripe berries becomes more challenging. I get 16 pints of Triple Crowns and know they will be sold at the stand by late lunch. Shoppers stopping by at 3 o'clock are invariably out of luck.

But I think they could do black-and-whites for dessert. This is what I dub the pints I package with both "black" and "white" cherry tomatoes, nicknames for a couple of the newer varieties grown on The Farm. As Dorothy shows me how to pick ripe blacks ("They have a deep, dark rosy blush, but there can be some forest green around the top—dark green only") and whites ("They're light yellow, much lighter than the Sungolds when they're ripe, the lighter the better, but they can't have green streaks on top"), we taste. We taste a lot. Dorothy may not like what she calls "mixtures" for dinner—an assemblage of disparate ingredients tossed and fussed into one dish—but she's always ready to consider differences in tastes among her tomatoes.

"Try these Tammy Gs," she says to me, and I taste a grape-shaped cherry that's got more in common with a true San Marzano than the now-ubiquitous tomato candy sold in supermarkets. "Isn't that good? You can pick some of those for the stand, if you'd like."

Yeah, I'd like.

The Farm is located at 3 Gully Road, Freehold Township, New Jersey. 732-462-2134. The Farm starts its season with peas and various greens, including arugula, stir-fry Asian greens, and leaf lettuces, and then moves onto beans, rabe, and early summer crops. Its specialties are high-summer blackberries and heirloom tomatoes.

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Andy Clurfeld is an investigative reporter based at the Asbury Park Press (NJ). A Pulitzer Prize finalist in Public Service for 2010, she's reported on agriculture since 1977 and served as a restaurant critic for various publications since 1990.

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