Day one, our starting point. Let’s call it absolute zero. I move with my husband and three sons from South Africa to an echo-empty home in small town Nova Scotia. All our family possessions (including utensils, cookbooks, and anything soft to sit on) remain locked in a shipping container last pinpointed off the coast of Angola. For the evening’s meal, the first in our new home, I borrow a pot and acquire two boxes of what my boys call “Canadian pasta.” I boil, drain, add the magic sachet of cheese powder — and voilà!
The kids are thrilled. “Just the right color of orange,” Alex says, and then asks, “Why can’t you buy this stuff in Africa?”
Yes, your food columnist christened her new kitchen with that old Kraft standby — and ketchup. In retrospect, I think this humble meal an appropriate launch to my new culinary and literary venture. Fluorescent mac and cheese pervaded my youth and student days, and to me represents all that’s right and wrong about our North American diet. Meal-in-a-box also reminds me that I stake no moral high ground in food-and-family department. I aspire to slow, organic, homegrown fare, but I’m not above ultra-convenience.
On the other hand, watching my boys slurp orange macaroni, crouched on a bare floor in an empty house, spurs me toward my goal: healthy, local, whole food that kids love. During August in Nova Scotia, seasonal and delicious can mean one food only: blueberries.
Maine grows the bulk of U.S. blueberries, but Nova Scotia — Maine’s neighbor across the Bay of Fundy — ranks as Canada’s blueberry capital. In fact, wild or lowbush blueberries are one of few food crops native to this corner of the continent. As a sixth-grader in eastern Ontario, I’d wield my bike through the fields near our house in search of low-lying greenery and dusty blue fruit. Sweetened by the August sun and just far enough from parental view, the blueberries I picked tasted wild, of roving afternoons, dirt, and budding self-reliance.
To find wild blueberries this summer in Nova Scotia, I enlist the help of a plant-whisperer named Janet. Born-and-bred in the Maritimes, Janet has coaxed an extensive, enchanted garden from the rocky forest around her home. She knows where the blueberries grow. I need only to roundup some buckets and some boys.
“Thomas?” I find him engrossed in an episode of Beyblade. “Thomas, come on. Let’s hunt the wild blueberry.”
Thomas loves to wander and forage — a natural hunter-gatherer — and can devour blueberries by the bowlful. Berry-picking wins over TV! Alex requires more convincing but eventually yields: “Okay, I’ll try it…” he says in that world-weary tone of a six-year-old coerced into certain boredom. Jon won’t budge; he doesn’t like blueberries and can fathom no reason to pick them. Two out of three scores a win in our house.
Janet leads us to a scrubby patch of woods off the highway. “It’s grown over since I came here last,” she says. “Don’t know what we’ll find.”
We find tire tracks, a frog, throngs of spindly poplars, and after fifteen minutes, two blueberries. Thomas alone is thrilled. He pops them in his mouth like Sal in the picture book, Blueberries for Sal. A further hour of tramping through brush, scouring ankle-high leaves for fruit, and we’ve barely covered the bottom of our bucket. My respect soars for those who’ve relied on these pea-sized berries for survival: early settlers, aboriginal people, and massive black bears. Picking is tough work, and for meagre, albeit delicious, calories.
By kid standards, however, this “hunt” brings home the prize. Thomas maintains warrior-like focus, and defends his berry-patch against us rival pickers. Even Alex is swayed. “This is more fun that I thought,” he says, rolling wayward berries from his palm to his mouth. Both boys return to the car with smiles on their blue lips, but the adults seem ready for siesta. Foraging among lowbush leaves, I decide, might best be left to the young, the limber, or the lucky. We’ve had a tasty snack, but the smattering of berries in our bucket won’t fill a single tart, much less a pie. My thoughts turn to U-Pick.
Commercial blueberry growers recognized long ago that highbush varieties produce plumper fruit and, conveniently, tend to blossom at eye level. These indigo berries lack the flavor-punch of their feral cousins, but they’re easier to pick and I don’t need a plant-whisperer to find a patch. Just a few clicks on Google points me to a bustling farm in Nova Scotia’s fertile Annapolis Valley.
A hot, dry summer has vexed most farmers across North America, but blueberry growers are laughing. Blueberries love heat, and large farms can supplement rainfall with irrigation. We arrive to find acres of bushes so laden with fruit that I fill a quart-sized bucket without moving my butt. I feel like Captain B. McCrea, that bloated space-commander in the movie Wall-E; I need only lift one hand and food falls like a gift from the sky. The rhythm — pluck, drop, pluck, eat — and sheer abundance mesmerize Thomas and Alex. I hear nothing for over an hour but the clap of the bird scarer and an occasional, “Wow, Mom, look at this bunch!”
We leave the farm with 33 pounds of fruit. That’s the weight of a four-year-old child — in blueberries alone. Most will go straight to the freezer, but not all. We have baking to do. Although pie is the family favorite, I’m also keen to explore local, traditional recipes. In the (borrowed) cookbook,Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens: A Collection of Traditional Nova Scotia Recipes and the Stories of the People Who Cooked Them, I find Blueberry Grunt. Essentially blueberry stew with dumplings, the original Grunt was steamed in a covered pot and served as the main meal. In recent years, the dish has gone upscale and à la mode, and has found its way to dessert menus of local restaurants.
Thomas and I opt for the authentic recipe. He measures the berries, stirs in sugar, dumps the dumplings… and we wait. The name Grunt is said to derive from the sound of berries bubbling or steam escaping the lid of the pot. We listen through 15 long minutes of cooking — the recipe bids us not to peek. Only at the dinner table, however, do grunt-like sounds emerge. The dumplings turn out tasty but hearty; “pioneering” springs to my mind.
“What do you think?” I ask Thomas.
His jaws, pasted together by flour and blueberries, work hard to form an answer. “Uu-mm,” he manages, and one giant swallow later, clarifies: “Good.”
Alex approves of the stew but spoons the dumplings into a solid mound at the edge of his plate: “Uh, no thanks.”
Jon, steadfast, emits an unequivocal, “Ewww!”
Like our housewarming mac and cheese, Blueberry Grunt serves up kitchen tradition from a single pot. While our Grunt won’t feature on a gourmet menu anytime soon, and I’ve yet to improve our family’s two-out-of-three blueberry-eating score, I hope our effort to forage and create from scratch have inched us closer to my culinary high ground.
Check out our blueberry adventures and favorite food books on Pinterest.
1 quart blueberries
1/2 cup sugar (or more)
1/2 cup water
Put berries, sugar and water in a pot, cover and boil gently until there is plenty of juice.
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon shortening
1/4 – 1/2 cup milk
Sift flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a bowl. Cut in the butter and shortening and add enough milk to make a soft biscuit dough. Drop by spoonfuls onto the hot blueberries. Cover closely and do not peek for 15 minutes. Serve hot.