Maine: Where the Wild Blueberries Are
Along with unrestrained lobster gluttony, when on Down East summer visits I eat the pellet-sized wild blueberries that are equally emblematic of the State O' Maine, as the brand of bathrobes and pajamas is still called (though the factory and outlet where we would stock up annually, heading north out of Rockland, is now an office development). They're sold pretty much everyplace along Route 1: gas stations, convenience stores, nurseries, and one-lawn-chair roadside stands that annoy summer travelers forced to crawl anyway as people like me pull over for a quick quart.
In fact on the way up I went through a quart in only the hour or so between Brunswick and Rockland, and then roughly a quart a day while I was there, with an a bonus afternoon pint thrown in on top of the morning's quart on the long trip back. The grainy, dry texture makes them somewhere between the cultivated blueberries we all know (and that I can consume by the pint but not the quart), which may be sweeter, softer, and juicier but not necessarily better.
Big harvesters put bees on their fields in the spring—taking care to put up bear barriers—and irrigate, but that's about it.
Irritating road-trippers like me, conspicuous and enthusiastic as we may be, are the exception. According to a state information sheet, to potatoes' $100 million. Maine claims to produce 99 percent of the country's wild blueberries, though they're also harvested in the similarly low, wet, cold fields of northern Minnesota (too bad Maine doesn't have wild rice)—and of course Canada, which is lately muscling in on Maine lobster and Vermont maple syrup, making pushy claims they've got more and better both.
The work of growing is simple, because most wild blueberries really are wild. Big harvesters put bees on their fields in the spring—taking care to put up bear barriers—and irrigate, but that's about it (the berries are also cultivated). Wild blueberries grow on low bushes, and blueberry fields look like barren green plains from a distance. Harvesting them means "swinging a rake," as a promotional video from Jasper Wyman's Of Maine, a company that claims to be the country's "leading grower, packer, and marketer of wild blueberries," says in a 1950s-school-movie-style voiceover. It sounds jaunty, but of course the work is back-straining and hard: the announcer says that "dedicated workers from all over America flock Down East" for the harvest, which "can be a lucrative source of income for those who do NOT shy away from such demanding demanding labor." Wild blueberries long provided a stable income to Native Americans in both Maine and Minnesota, but the industrial machinery and reassuring voice saying that new means of mechanical harvesting are on the march implies that even those jobs will start to disappear.
I went to the Wyman's site because of a discovery I made at a Maine institution I'd never visited but that our hostess, Mrs. Pilver, insisted we go to: Reny's, which claims on its websiteto be what she called it—"Maine's Favorite Department Store." It's a jumbled old five-and-dime-style discount store you just have to look through to see what's there (and yes, I remember the old L L Bean's, a place my grandfather would always stop on his way back from the potato fields of Presque Isle and Prince Edward Island). But it did have Wyman's made-in-Maine jams—and they looked much better than any others we'd seen, with wild blueberries listed first on the label rather than sugar, and half the calories (23 per tablespoon) of most of the others too.
Even better, it's good: almost all wild blueberries, perfectly distinguishable and with just enough pectin to hold them together as you spoon it out and spread it on toast, and with a fresh, uncloying flavor. No more traffic-stopping stops for green cardboard cartons of wild blues till next year! But a source to keep me looking forward to next summer.