A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
June 22, 2011
What a surprise it was to stand under the tree in the backyard one morning and look up at little misshapen berries, turning the first blush of ripening pink. We’d moved into the apartment last September, after the last of any berries had already fallen from the tree, and being inexperienced botanists, had written the tree off as just another rambling Brooklyn shrub that managed to make it to adulthood, to spite polluted rain and urban sprawl. But here it was, growing berries. Fat and dark purple, like stretched-out blackberries. Armed with a berry and a leaf, I tried to look up the fruit online. Searches for “ugly blackberry” or “black berry growing on tree” turned up nothing. In hopes that it wasn’t poisonous, I ate the fruit.
The flavor was sweet and ripe, almost like bubblegum and so full of juice it burst open like a water balloon as I bit into it. After waiting a few hours without experiencing any death-like symptoms, I went outside and plucked berry after berry off the branches and ate them straight from the tree. I was reminded of being twelve, of standing along the fence in my childhood garden and grabbing raspberries, blackberries, and currants from bushes and stuffing them straight into my mouth.
When I couldn’t eat another berry, I’d pick a container full and freeze it, so that as fall approached, I could still sit in front of the television, popping frozen berries in my mouth.
A berry is never as nice as when it’s picked directly from the bush, and even nicer when its unexpected. Mulberries, say my neighbors, are what’s growing on the trees. I had always imagined mulberries to be sour, prickly things. I don’t know why – I’ve never even eaten anything mulberry flavored nor even seen a mulberry live. And now I have more mulberries that I know what to do with, so every morning I step outside and shovel a new, ripe batch into my mouth.
As I lay reading in my hammock today, I stared up at the sky through the mulberry leaves and spied a bunch of grapes intertwined in the bush. And in the corner of the fence, a crabapple tree. What bounty in Brooklyn!
Inspired, I jumped up from my hammock, brushed away a nap just about to settle, and walked to the plexi-glass wrapped liquor store down the street.
Last summer, my grandfather and I had bottled raspberry and blackberry liqueur with fruit from his garden. We spent our mornings picking fruit and measuring cubes of sugar and rum and our evenings sampling finished bottles from our experiments the summer before. He reminisced about his childhood and we talked about our family and how it has grown. He is taciturn, my grandfather, and for us to sit for hours in the kitchen washing berries, was simply an excuse to be together. He sent me home with a few bottles of raspberry liqueur, a box of German kandis sugar and a book of recipes.
I bottled my first liqueur today. I didn’t use a recipe, just asked my hands to remember how many raspberries I’d funneled into each jar, how much sugar, vanilla, and rum. And with every mulberry I dropped into the glass, I thought about how proud my grandfather would be that I was bringing Germany to Brooklyn. And how much he’ll like chatting over a glass the next time I see him.