A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

On Villaging: FRUIT FOR FREE

By Helen Zuman

I first went fruit-hunting in July 2002, in Davis, California, with a college friend who’d moved there a few years earlier. He already knew a number of promising spots—including, most notably, the lush central green of a local cohousing community, Village Homes—and, together, out walking and biking in the fierce, dry heat, we found more.

Two finds, in particular, still glow with rapture in my memory: sidewalk-warmed ornamental plums (so ripe they’d nearly liquefied) and sun-dried white figs that tasted, I swear, like donuts (it’s true, I hadn’t had an actual donut in quite a few years).

Three years later, in Chico, California, I once again found myself exploring a new city, on foot and by bike. This time, the farmer I was working for acted as guide—he directed me to some of the spots he’d once haunted, and advised me to focus on the older parts of town, whose tree planters had viewed fallen fruit as a gift, not a nuisance.

As I hunted, I learned not to look up, or sideways, but down. I realized that anything ripe would have started to drop—and that it was easy to spy even the darker colored fruits against the dull tones of concrete and asphalt. Plus, I was less likely to veer into trouble, while biking, if I kept my eyes near, if not necessarily on, the road. 

When I left Chico, I relinquished the Central Valley’s abundance of loquats, kumquats, Meyer lemons, oranges, peaches, and plums—but held on to my habit of scanning the ground for hints of food. Which is how, in spring 2007, on my way to work at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, I came to make the acquaintance of what I would later learn was the juneberry.

Shifting my gaze from fruit-stained sidewalk to fruit-laden tree, I saw that the skin of the riper berries—colored purple—was matte, not shiny, and that the bottom of each berry flared out, rather than puckering in. (In my limited experience, shiny fruits with puckered bottoms tend not to agree with the human constitution.) So I popped one in my mouth—and found that it tasted like a cross between a blueberry and a grape, and that it was purely sweet, with no bitter edge. (Also in my limited experience, fruits we humans shouldn’t be eating tend to tell us so, once they hit our tongues.)

Eventually, I learned that English speakers call this fruit the serviceberry, or juneberry (since it ripens in June)—and, back in New York City (my hometown), began seeing them everywhere. The juneberry, it seemed, had hit it big with the designers of such hip new destinations as the Hudson River Greenway, the High Line, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. For years, I marked the run-up to summer with rigorous harvesting expeditions, and bouts of blissful grazing. (Using my freshly activated fruit radar, I also noticed, for the first time, a number of mulberry trees that had probably started dropping fruit long before my family’s 1977 arrival in Brooklyn. For the best pickings ever, try the steep strip of state-owned land between the Atlantic Avenue end of Brooklyn Bridge Park and the BQE.)

Meanwhile, I kept having awkward-to-vaguely-hostile encounters with passersby, in which they asked (while watching me chomp berry after berry), “Can you eat those?”—or told me, outright, that I was poisoning myself. Clearly, I was not the only one who’d grown up believing that fruit came exclusively from the produce aisle of the grocery store.

In Beacon, over the past four years, I’ve encountered (hallelujah!) far less concern for my welfare as a fruit eater—and far more ambient fruit. In addition to a bounty of wild berries (juneberries, wineberries, mulberries, black cap raspberries), I’ve noted a significant number of neglected pear and apple trees. A diligent hunter could go from June to October—or even November—without purchasing fruit. 

Early last June, I happened to be walking south, on the West Side of Manhattan, one Wednesday afternoon. I really wanted some fruit, but didn’t feel like braving the nearest Amazon/Whole Foods. And then I remembered—juneberries! On the bike path!

While grazing, I wondered: Had anything changed, since I’d first found these berries in New York, ten years earlier? Was some well-meaning jerk going to stop and start squawking about fruit poisoning?

Just then, a runner spotted me, slowed to a walk, and said, “Juneberries!” Then he moved to a different branch of the same tree, and grazed, for a few minutes, alongside me.

Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). Get in touch via email (madgelma@hotmail.com); read more at helenzuman.com.