It took a lot of self-convincing to get me out to pick beach plums by myself last weekend. I had been hearing how plentiful they were at Maidstone Park for about two weeks, but I was reluctant to go out alone, I guess, because berry-picking has, for me, always been a communal activity. (Beach plums fit into the berrying category, right?)
The hilly pastures on the farm in the Catskills where I spent my childhood summers had been left to go back to nature: There was only one cow around, and blueberry bushes proliferated. As kids, we picked as many berries as we could, eating them along the way, as our parents warned us against stomachaches. My grandmother would make a deep-dish sponge cake with blueberries at bottom, which she nonchalantly called a pie. There were so many berries on the hills that my grandfather would fill a big pail of them occasionally and walk the four miles or so to sell them to the nearest hotel.
When I came to live here, my husband took me to a place at the intersection of Side Hill and Deep Lanes in Amagansett where he knew there were blackberry bushes. East Hamptoners, he told me, had made an adventure of going on Montauk for blackberries — as well as grapes — in years gone by, and he remembered doing so with his grandfather. I haven’t looked for blackberry bushes in a long time, nor have I seen local blackberry jam in the farmers markets, but I imagine Montaukers still find them in favorite, or perhaps secret, places.
After we built a house in Amagansett, cranberries became the target. It was, after all, on Cranberry Hole Road. I remember exulting in beautiful fall days when we went across the surprising dunescape to the cranberry bogs, with wild mushrooms, bearberry, and prickly pear cactus along the way. I would plunk right down in the wet, boggy ground to make the job easier.
In those days, old-timers were at it, too. And we would sometimes come across men and women from Eastern Europe who were knowledgeable, and brave, enough to go out among the straggling pines to collect mushrooms. My husband’s Aunt Phyllis was known to wear a whistle around her neck when she went to gather cranberries by herself — just in case anything unfortunate befell her.
This was in the early 1960s. We had been given an old, small cranberry rake — a piece of a checkerboard wood with jagged teeth cut along one end and a muslin cover at the other — as a housewarming present, but treated it as a valuable antique rather than a practical tool.
Although I loved to gather beach plums, I never took to the process of making jelly. I left that to others. We sent a homemade jar of cranberry jelly to our congressman in Washington once, Representative Stuyvesant Wainwright, with a message about why the property the fruit had come from should become a national park. Eventually the state agreed, and much of it became Napeague State Park.
I didn’t wear a whistle around my neck when I went to get beach plums at Maidstone Park last weekend. The bushes are close to the road, and, having been told that ticks didn’t seem to be in abundance, the only thing I worried about was poison ivy, which, as you no doubt know, is an absolute scourge along the bay beaches. I went out covered neck to toe.
Disappointed at first that the bushes seemed thoroughly picked over, I persevered until I found some high bushes with branches full of clusters. Two men with unrecognizable accents came along, headed for the beach, and asked what I was doing. I explained; their interest was obviously piqued, so I warned them severely about the poison ivy. When I got home, I set down the basket without touching its bottom, which must have brushed the ivy, kicked off my shoes, got out of my clothes quickly, and scrubbed my hands with brown soap. (Miracle of miracles, I escaped without infection.)
The beach plums — about four quarts of them — went to a friend who has made myriad jars of jelly over the years but hadn’t felt up to doing any picking lately. It had been a beautiful afternoon. I’d recommend the pursuit of wild berries to anyone. But don’t ask me where my secret cranberry bog is, because I won’t tell.