It happened every Spring as I walked up the dusty one-lane road past Aunt Bett’s house. She’d yell out the back door:
The gooseberries are growing! Hurry! I see the robins!
And I’d take off in a run, straight up the mountain to the gooseberry patch.
I have always loved the taste of anything sour. Today’s children love SweeTarts, those little round sour candies made by Wonka. We didn’t have SweeTarts back in the mountains. In fact, lemons and gooseberries are the only sour treats I can remember from those days. Even today I can still sit in the finest restaurant in my fanciest clothes with glitz and glitter all around me and nibble on the slices of lemon that are served with crystal glasses filled with iced water. If anybody asks, I blame it all on gooseberries.
Nobody else that I knew liked green gooseberries, except the robins that lived in the trees of my Southern Appalachian mountains. If I didn’t heed Aunt Bett’s warning right away, they’d get to the gooseberries before I did because they sat in those trees and just waited for the first hint of pink. I had to get to them while they were still green. But Aunt Bett had other things on her mind when she shouted her warning to me. Green gooseberries are not ripe and are deliciously sour, but they are best for baking custards and pies. She knew that with every gooseberry I ate, I’d bring more back home to her. And I knew that I had Gooseberry Pudding Pie to look forward to if I picked the gooseberries. They had the most horrible stickers, but I yanked those gooseberries right off their bushes as fast as I could, eating as I picked. I couldn’t wait for her Gooseberry Pudding Pie.
Gooseberries, Ribes, probably were first grown in North Africa, but they are now growing widely in North America. Gooseberry bushes have harsh spines, destroying our hands in the picking, but they are so worth it. Unripe, they are little round green berries with lighter green stripes all around them. They are best for baking pies and custards because the pulp is firmer, but a lot of sugar must be added in the cooking. Ripe, they are a dusky red and have the consistency of grapes. The difference in flavor is remarkable too: the redder, the sweeter. I remember the seeds, tiny things, and I didn’t pay much attention to them as I ate, but I also remember that as they ripened it seemed the seeds softened, almost disappeared, so they weren’t noticeable at all. We used green gooseberries for baking and for my nibbling and red gooseberries were good for cobblers or for jams and jellies, becoming mushier and needing less sugar than the green ones. The reds were often used in salads. Some people made sauces from either of them, but I preferred them fresh, green, and sour.
I suppose they are little known in the world of soft fruits. I know I’ve never been able to order Gooseberry Pudding Pie in any fancy restaurant nor in any Mom and Pop diner. I’ve never seen them in grocery stores. People just don’t know what they’re missing. This little fruit, sour or sweet, is packed full of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium, and iron.
There is a difference between gooseberries and currants, you know, although they both come from the same family. Currants are thornless and they have smaller fruits that are quite tart but are less often eaten uncooked. Both grow well in cool moist soil, so the mountains were the perfect place to find gooseberries. They grew wild there, but Aunt Bett knew all about propagation, so she had a big patch of them growing along the ridge up on the mountain. Layer a limb in that cool damp soil and next Spring you’d have another bush. It was quite a patch and I went home with scratched and bloody hands every time. Of course, I left a few to ripen for the birds or in case somebody else wanted to fight the thorns so they could make jams or jellies, but I took more than I left.
I’ve read that there are now spineless gooseberry bushes, and I wanted to grow them here in West Kentucky. Sadly, the climate is too hot and dry. There will be no green gooseberries for me. I’d really like to see whether I could bake that pudding pie. I found a recipe that seems similar to what Aunt Bett baked and if you happen upon green gooseberries, you might like to try it, too. There are several recipes, but the one called British Baked Gooseberry Pudding seems to be most like Aunt Bett’s. Let me tell you, it was full of sugar inside and out, but it was so good and you can find the recipe right here.
Some Spring day when I’m back in the hollow where we lived, I’m going to climb up that mountain and pick green gooseberries. I think I might have to wear something like oven mitts to cover my hands and arms, but it sure would be worth it to eat my fill of those little green striped sour balls once again.
Country life has its conveniences. You sit on the veranda and you drink tea, while your ducks swim on the pond; there is a delicious smell everywhere, and . . . the gooseberries are growing. ~ From the short story Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov, Russian physician and writer.
Sharon Brown, native of the Appalachians of East Kentucky, is known for her articles about wildflowers, plants, and Kentucky culture and history. Enjoy Sharon’s other articles HERE.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Creative Commons (Eric in SF); image above right by SongofJoy. In-text credits in order of appearance: Creative Commons; Wikimedia; SongofJoy; Creative Commons.