The apples on the ground don’t match the oversized fruits we picked at the one-hundred-acre pick-your-own apple farm the weekend previous or most of the fruit I find in grocery stores. These ones are freckled with brown spots and the surfaces are uneven. “There’s not a lot of meat from these guys,” Alison says, flipping a hand at the animals’ leftovers, “so that was my one pie.”
But she remembers it.
Toward the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan prepares a dinner from food made entirely from meat, vegetables and fruit he has harvested himself. He knows it’s not practical for every day but, he writes, “no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real.”
Being able to say “I made it myself” has always appealed to me. I’m an easy touch at bake sales, especially when the chef is counting the sticky change and can tell me exactly what’s in the butter tarts. Pollan sums that up nicely in his prologue. “The pleasures of eating … are only deepened by knowing.”
That pie Alison made would have been all the more pleasurable, knowing the work it took to produce it. Alison didn’t plant the tree. It was here when she and her husband bought the house in the late ’90s from a couple who must have loved gardening. Flower beds, fruit trees and interesting shapes to the landscaping would have taken years of work to create. But, judging by the tree’s height and Alison’s recollection of that couple’s age, they wouldn’t have planted it either. So three families have watched it grow, I say, asking her what was here when they moved in. “The apple tree was here; there was a cherry tree in front of the shed.” She hesitates, drawing a breath and bracing for my reaction to her next comment: “which we cut down.” She looks away then tries a recovery. “It wasn’t doing very well, it was dying, I think, so …” She deflates with a big breath out. “Feeding right into your thesis.”
I nod in understanding and look as if to see what’s no longer there.
Alison points to a second cherry tree at the back of the property that’s doing fine. It’s well past the roof lines and, without the fruit on it now, I wouldn’t have guessed it to be a cherry. “We don’t really pick those cherries either,” she confesses. “It’s a feast for the raccoons.” And the neighbour, she tells me, complains bitterly about the mess in her yard.
Alison looks almost guilty. I offer a sympathetic smile. I am trying to keep an open mind. Who isn’t busy? We’ve calibrated our modern world with a lot of distractions and obligations.
We shift on the bench; I push a half-eaten apple from under my feet and Alison sweeps a leaf aside. Maybe we all feel guilty about wasting food or knowing more about wine pairings than how to grow and use a grape.
Alison turns to the grapevines climbing the sides of a brown-stained pergola. The vines are two thumbs thick. They must have been here for decades. But there is no fruit to be seen. Grapes can live and keep on producing for a long time, so I’m curious. Enter the raccoons again, Alison explains. The grapes were so delectable to the mask-wearing beasts that the ground was littered with scat every morning, a big city concern, particularly in yards where young children play. The grapes had to go. They’ve been replaced by wisteria. I look closer and see the stumps six feet up, the floral vines winding around them.
As she tours me through the garden, Alison tells me she grew up in Montreal with a green-thumbed mom and a yard with a crabapple tree and raspberry bushes. Then she points out another plant: “Oh, we have this guy. This guy has some fruit, some sort of a berry.”
It’s probably a weeping mulberry, I tell her.
“Yeah, maybe,” she nods. “We eat those because it’s very convenient. You can just pick them off and eat them.”
Maybe? I’m a bit baffled. “So you eat them but you don’t know what they are?”
“I think someone identified them,” she backtracks, looking down. “My mom came . . . ”
Food Secure Canada, Ontario’s Home Economists and Harvard University are among the many organizations lobbying for programs to improve food literacy. A Conference Board of Canada report on improving food literacy called What’s to Eat? incorporates an understanding of how food is processed as part of that literacy. Each organization talks about the wider issue of knowing what’s good for you. I’ve spoken to many offspring of immigrants who admit they don’t know half of what was planted in their grandparents’ yards or how to use it. It is a collective loss. “It’s too bad,” Alison says.
Val Colden strides into the yard. She is also a volunteer and trained to lead harvests, a “Supreme Gleaner,” as Not Far From The Tree puts it. The supremes run the picks, make sure everyone is safe and carry the equipment in and the fruit out. They also compete for opportunities. I am introduced to quite a few supremes during my tours, and Val is particularly thorough. She’s also been with the organization since its inception.
After explaining the drill to Alison, Val heaves equipment into the yard: pick poles, canvas bags, a hand-held weigh scale, paper yard waste bags and white plastic buckets with body harnesses — so pickers can keep both hands free. I recognize Val’s lettuce-green T-shirt embossed with a taupe sketch of trees making a canopy for a distant city. It’s an original from NFFTT, already vintage for a seven-year-old organization. Val pulls it over her hips, unsnaps her bike helmet and gets the equipment ready. Two more women slip into the yard. Debi Brennen and Heather O’Shea say their hellos, drop their bags on the table and take a look at the tree. Val starts filling us in on the instructions. The pre-pick speech is mandatory. Clean up the windfall first, never use a ladder without someone spotting, don’t do more than you can, keep the fallen fruit separate. You can take it home if you want, but we can’t donate it.
I remember the raccoon scat and think I might give it a pass too.
The Fruitful City: The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest by Helena Moncrieff. © 2018 by Helena Moncrieff. Published by ECW Press Ltd.