Local flavor: Community goodwill is found among fruit

On our walks this time of year, my son, Jesse, and I like to live off the sweet of the land.

Which is especially delightful because we generally aren't walking through woods and fields, but through the neighborhoods of Mt. Lebanon.

One route takes us beneath a big mulberry tree. When we get to the purple splotches on the sidewalk, we stop. I stand on my toes to pick the darkest, fattest berries. Jesse, who's almost 2, opens his mouth like a baby bird.

"Mo' Dad-dee. Mo!"

His mouth, and sometimes fingers, turn purple, too.

On a busy corner of Castle Shannon Boulevard, we pass beneath the branches of a grand sour cherry tree. Last June, it was loaded with bright red fruits. We kept walking by and nobody seemed to pick them, except for the birds and for passers-by like us, who can't resist pausing to filch a few.

Jesse puckers, but devours them, even not quite ripe. "Mo' berries, Dad-dee!"

This year, even though a nearby cherry tree is bare, this one is loaded with cherries. So as we walked by one evening last week, Jesse and I saw someone in the garage and stopped to ask if we might pick some (that is, some more) when they were ripe.

Sure, the man said, noting that he'd prefer that instead of just the birds eating them and pooping all over his cars.

I told him we'd be back.

I'd been inspired to go ahead and ask permission by a recent story in the New York Times about urban fruit foraging. It reported on a fruit exchange in Oakland, Calif., and Web sites such as neighborhoodfruit.com and veggietrader.com that enable people to find "public trees" (on public land) and swap, sell or otherwise share produce.

In some places, foragers and gardeners are donating excess produce to food banks. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank "gleans" from fields once farmers are done with them, and it is just registering, and urging other pantries to register, with ampleharvest.org, a national Web site that connects gardeners and food pantries.

I love the idea of people sharing, and not wasting, good food.

When I checked neighborhoodfruit.com, the only local listings were mulberry trees in Schenley Park and Hazelwood.

But my fruit foraging had an Internet angle, too: I'd mentioned to the man who owns the cherry tree that I work on the food section at the Post-Gazette and Sunday morning, I got an e-mail from his wife:

"Might you be the person who stopped by our house to ask about cherries? If so they are ready to pick. If not, well, they are still ready to pick but ..."

When Jesse awoke from his nap, I lashed an old step stool to his red wagon, and loaded on a bag of plastic containers, a bottle of water and Jesse, and off we rolled.

The couple, Jim and Pat Carr, were in the yard and couldn't have been more welcoming (especially to admitted cherry thieves). Mr. Carr even offered the use of a ladder.

As I started picking, Mrs. Carr told me how they'd planted this tree to replace an old one they'd had to cut down. She and her grandkids already had picked enough to make jam. But they always let neighbors pick some, too. And they don't mind it when strangers stop. One woman only took photographs.

"Pick as much as you like," Mrs. Carr said, and left us be.

When I was growing up (and foraging for everything from berries to wild asparagus), one house where I lived had a tree that bore sour cherries, which you rarely see at stores or farmers markets in these parts. They're so fragile, and their season is so fleeting. They're so delicious in cherry pies.

And it was such a beautiful, sunny evening -- a perfect Father's Day and first day of summer. Inches from the busy street, and serenaded by Jesse singing "Old MacDonald," I picked and picked, and quickly filled my containers as well as him ("Mo'!"). As long as I regularly popped (pitted) "berries" in his mouth, he was content to watch me and the traffic.

"Are those cherries?" asked a man walking with his wife and young daughter. "Yep," I said. "Try one. Take a handful." They seemed delighted.

I know other people who share the bounty of their fruit and nut trees (my friends Don and Carole have a roadside peach that I'm keeping an eye on, as I am with black raspberries here and there). When we published a rhubarb story and recipes this spring, several readers offered to give away rhubarb crowns. I thought about how more people could get into this kind of thing.

After about two hours, my sticky fingers had picked nearly two gallons of cherries, which I loaded, with the step stool and Jesse, back onto the wagon for the long, and uphill, trip home.

It'd be a while before I realized how much hard work awaited me in washing and pitting all of these cherries, most of which I immediately froze. I wound up refrigerating about eight cups for the rustic lattice-top pie I'd make (find the recipe at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105263645), when I had time the next day, for Jesse and his mom (and her friend Amy and his "Auntie" Barb).

In the meantime, it was a gorgeous evening for a walk and -- of course -- another stop under that mulberry tree.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930.


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