Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Of Books and Berries
By Donald Grant Mitchell (Ik Marvel) (18221908)
[Born in Norwich, Conn., 1822. Died in New Haven, Conn., 1908. My Farm of Edgewood. 1863.]
FROM the time when I read of Mistress Doctor Primroses gooseberry wine, which the Doctor celebrates in his charming autobiography, I have entertained a kindly regard for that fruit. But my efforts to grow it successfully have been sadly baffled. The English climate alone, I think, will bring it to perfection. I know not how many ventures I have made with Roaring Lion, Brown Bob, Conquerors, and other stupendous varieties; but without infinite care, after the first crop, the mildew will catch and taint them. Our native varieties,such for instance, as the Houghton Seedling, make a better show, and, with ordinary care, can be fruited well for a succession of seasons. But it is not, after all, the stanch old English berry, which pants for the fat English gardens, for the scent of hawthorn, and for the lowering fog-banks of Lancashire.
No fruit is so thoroughly English in its associations; and I never see a plump Roaring Lion but I think of a burly John Bull, with waistcoat strained over him like the bursting skin of his gooseberry, and muttering defiance to all the world. There is, too, another point of resemblance; the fruit is liable to take the mildew when removed from British soil, just as John gets the blues, and wraps himself in a veil of his own foggy humors, whenever he goes abroad. My experience suggests that this capricious fruit be planted under the shadow of a north wall, in soil compact and deep; it should be thoroughly enriched, pruned severely, watered abundantly, and mulched (if possible) with kelp fresh from the sea-shore. These conditions and appliances may give a clean cheek even to the Conquering Hero.
But it is not so much for any piquancy of flavor that I prize the fruit as because its English bloat is pleasantly suggestive of little tartlets (smothered in clotted cream) eaten long ago under the lee of Dartmoor hillsof Lancashire gardens, where prize berries reposed on little scaffoldings, or swam in porcelain saucersand of bristling thickets in Cowpers Wilderness by Olney.
Is it lonely in my garden of a summers evening? Have the little pattering feet gone their waysto bed? Then I people the gooseberry alley with old Doctor Primrose, and his daughters Sophia and Olivia; Squire Burchell comes, and sits upon the bench with me under the arbor, as I smoke my pipe. How shall we measure our indebtedness to such pleasant books, that people our solitude so many years after they are written! Oliver Goldsmith, I thank you! Crown Bob, I thank you!
Of strawberries I shall not speak as a committee-man, but as a simple lover of a luscious dish. I am not learned in kinds; and have even had the niaiserie in the presence of cultivators to confound Crimson Cone with Boston Pine, and have blushed to my eyelids when called upon to name the British Queen in a little collection of only four mammoth varieties. With strawberries, as with people, I believe in old friends. The early Scarlet, if a little piquant, is good for the first pickings; and the Hovey, with a neighbor bed of Pines, or McAvoy, and Black Prince, if you please, give good flavor, and a well-rounded dish. The spicy Alpines should bring up the rear, and, as they send out but few runners, are admirably adapted for borders. The Wilson is a great bearer, and a fine berry; but with the tweak of its acidity in my mouth, I can give its flavor no commendation. Supposing the land to be in good vegetable-bearing condition, and deeply dug, I know no dressing which will so delight the strawberry as a heavy coat of dark forest-mould. They are the children of the wilderness, force them as we will, and their little fibrous rootlets never forget their longing for the dark, unctuous odor of mouldering forest leaves.
The first was at an inn in the quaint Dutch town of Broek: I can see now the heaped dish of mammoth crimson berries,the mug of luscious cream standing sentry,the round red cheese upon its platter,the tidy hostess, with arms akimbo, looking proudly on it all: the leaves flutter idly at the latticed window, through which I see wide stretches of level meadow,broad-armed windmills flapping their sails leisurely,cattle lying in lazy groups under the shade of scattered trees; and there is no sound to break the June stillness, except the buzzing of the bees that are feeding upon the blossoms of the linden which overhangs the inn.
The second dish was at the Douglas Hotel in the city of Edinboro; a most respectable British tavern, with a heavy solid sideboard in its parlor; heavy solid silver upon its table; heavy and solid chairs with cushions of shining mohair; a heavy and solid figure of a landlord; and heavy and solid figures in the reckoning.
The berries were magnificent; served upon quaint old India china, with stems upon them, and to be eaten as one might eat a fig, with successive bites, and successive dips in the sugar. The Scotch fruit was acid, I must admit, but the size was monumental. I wonder if the stout landlord is living yet, and if the little pony that whisked me away to Salisbury crag is still nibbling his vetches in the meadow by Holyrood?
The third dish was in Switzerland, in the month of October. I had crossed that day the Scheideck from Meyringen, had threaded the valley of Grindelwald, and had just accomplished the first lift of the Wengern Alptired and thirstywhen a little peasant girl appeared with a tray of blue saucers, brimming with Alpine berriesso sweet, so musky, so remembered, that I never eat one now but the great valley of Grindelwald, with its sapphire show of glaciers, its guardian peaks, and its low meadows flashing green, is rolled out before me like a map.
In those old days when we schoolboys were admitted to the garden of the head-master twice in a seasononly twiceto eat our fill of currants (his maid having gathered a stock for jellies two days before), I thought it most-a-splendid fruit; but I think far less of it now. My bushes are burdened with both white and red clusters, but the spurs are somewhat mossy, and the boughs have a straggling dejected air. With a little care, severe pruning, due enrichment, and a proper regard to varieties (Cherry and White Grape being the best), it may be brought to make a very pretty show as a dessert fruit. But as I never knew it to be eaten very freely at dessert, however finely it might look, I have not thought it worth while to push its proportions for a mere show upon the exhibition tables. The amateurs would smile at those I have; but I console myself with reflecting that they smile at a great deal of goodness which is not their own. They are full of conceitI say it charitably. I like to upset their proprieties.
There was one of them, an excellent fellow (if he had not been pomologically starched and jaundiced), who paid me a visit in my garden not long ago, bringing his little son, who had been educated strictly in the belief that all fine fruit was madenot to be enjoyed, but for pomological consideration.
The dilettante papa was tip-toeing along with a look of serene and well-bred contempt for my mildewed gooseberries and scrawny currants, when I broke off a brave bough loaded with Tartarian cherries, and handed it to the lad, withHere, Harry, my boy,we farmers grow these things to eat!
Of raspberries, commend me to the Red Antwerp, and the Brinckles Orange, but to insure good fruitage, they should be protected from high winds, and should be lightly buried, or thoroughly strawed over in winter. The Perpetual, I have found a perpetual nuisance.
The New Rochelle or Lawton blackberry has been despitefully spoken of by many; first, because the market-fruit is generally bad, being plucked before it is fully ripened; and next, because in rich clayey grounds, the briers, unless severely cut back, and again back, grow into a tangled, unapproachable forest, with all the juices exhausted in wood. But upon a soil moderately rich, a little gravelly and warm, protected from wind, served with occasional top-dressings and good hoeings, the Lawton brier bears magnificent burdens.
Then, with baskets we sally out; I taking the middle rank, and the children the outer spray of boughs. Even now we gather those only which drop at the touch; these, in a brimming saucer, with golden Alderney cream, and a soupçon of powdered sugar, are Olympian nectar; they melt before the tongue can measure their full roundness, and seem to be mere bloated bubbles of forest honey.
There is a scratch here and there, which calls from the children a half-scream; but a big berry on the lip cures the smart; and for myself, if the thorns draggle me, I rather fancy the rough caresses, and repeat with the garden poet (humming it half aloud):