Food for Thought . . . or Memories

Do you have a food that you associate with a particular time in your life, or a particular person?  These are ground cherries and this year I grew them in my garden. They immediately take me back to my childhood and my paternal grandma.

Ground cherries have a unique flavor – somewhere between a pear, a strawberry, and a watermelon. And they’re more juice than pulp so when you pop one in your mouth and bite it’s like popping a balloon of juice. So delicious.

They grow on compact bushes and form in little Japanese lantern-like hulls that hang in clusters all along the stems and under the leaves. As they ripen, the hulls dry out and either fall off or can easily be knocked off. When you brush by, you can hear the swoosh-swoosh of the crepe paper hulls and the dull rattle of the berry inside.

When I was growing up, Grandma finished the ripening by spreading the fruit on cookie sheets and putting them on the floor beneath a china cabinet. And that’s where we grandchildren – or at least me – would go in and sneak a berry or two when we thought Grandma wasn’t looking. She always gave us a couple, but they were so good and so tempting. And so easy to simply peel back the hull and pop that berry in our mouth. Grandma made pies with her harvest so she wasn’t keen on our secret nibbling. Because of course she knew.

Growing my own ground cherries opened my eyes to another side of my childhood memories. I was thrilled when my plants started growing. The seeds are miniscule and I had no idea how big the plants would get, because I don’t remember ever seeing the plants at Grandma’s. That was the first ‘revelation’. They had to have been there somewhere, but even after seeing them in my garden, I still can’t picture them in her yard. She had beautiful clematis growing by the back door and I think some peonies out by the garage, but I don’t recall many flowers around the house and definitely not a garden plot. So where were they and how did I miss them?

She never had us help pick them so as mine ripened I realized how much time she must have put into gathering them. It’s not hard work, other than bending to look under leaves and picking fruit off the ground, but the fruit ripens quickly and sporadically. I checked my plants twice a day because what wasn’t ripe in the morning was ready to pick in the evening.

Here’s part of this year’s harvest.  Last week I finally peeled all of them, and then another revelation of Grandma. It wasn’t hard work but time-consuming here too. I can picture her at her dining room table shelling the berries, or even more so, she and Grandpa in front of the television working on them together. And the thought that it takes 4 cups to make one pie. I have no idea how many pies Grandma made each season, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple. Did the pilfering of berries make a difference? I doubt it, but realizing how much time and how much fruit went into those pies makes me appreciate them – and Grandma – more.

I ended up with about 6 cups of cherries. Enough to make a pie, but I found a recipe for ground cherry salsa that takes only 1 cup. This will allow me to save and savor them longer. And I did share some. I had lunch with my cousin Judy and gave her a handful. At first she wasn’t sure what they were but then it was, ‘Are these what I think they are?!’ and her smile. She immediately went back to Grandma’s too, and she thought the berry bushes were back by the garage. We spent part of lunch time talking family recipes and she left saying, ‘I can’t wait to tell Marty (her brother) about these.’

Last weekend I was home for a class reunion and shared some with one of my sisters. I wish I had a picture of her face when she opened the bag. Again, the surprise and then the pure joy of holding these heirloom fruits that aren’t found in the produce aisles, and that carry the weight of so much memory. She immediately popped one in her mouth.

And of course now that I’m a Nana, I’ve shared and introduced the flavor to my grands. Even though I have my grandma’s cabinet, my cookie sheets of ripening ground cherries were on my dining room table. The boys loved them. They’re not as sneaky as me. They politely ask if they can have another one. Or they grab a handful and politely ask, ‘May I have all of these?’ Luckily I’m not making pies this year.

The bushes are almost finished producing and I already have plans to grow more next year. It’s not only the ground cherries themselves that are important, it’s also all the memory that’s attached. Sitting here writing about them connects four generations. My sisters and I were fortunate enough to live within walking distance to both sets of grandparents – our paternal grandparents were literally around the corner.

My grands don’t live quite that close, but most are within a few miles. As they get older and get busier I want to make sure they maintain a sense of connection not only to Hubby and me, but also to the generations that came before. The older local grands are only 3 and 4 years old, but old enough to understand when I mention that I had a nana and papa too. And when we share a handful of ground cherries and I tell stories and talk about sitting on the floor in Grandma’s back room with her cookie sheet of ripening fruit, there’s something sweet, nurturing, and binding in that exchange.

So what food memories does your heart hold?

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2 Responses to Food for Thought . . . or Memories

  1. Donna Wylie says:

    I remember my mom’s lemon meringue pie with graham cracker crust. The lemon part was so pure tasting. Didn’t like the meringue, so I pushed it off with a butter knife and gave it to my younger brother, Jamie.

    Mom always took it to my Great Grandmother’s birthday family reunion celebrations in August. I knew as soon as she put it on one of the long wooden tables, I’d better grab a slice before I went through the serving line.

    Before my mother passed away, she gave that recipe to my brother’s wife, Linda, who is an amazing cook.

    • Donna – can’t believe I didn’t reply! I love your story about your mom’s lemon meringue pie . . . and the meringue lol. I hope your sister-in-law makes the pie often so you can have a slice. Isn’t it wonderful how particular smells and tastes from the kitchen conjure up so many emotions and take us right back to ‘home’. A blessing.

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