From an unlikely spot on a shelf at a big drug-and-convenience store, the jar beckoned; or rather, the label did: Chokeberry Preserves. Just another semi-exotic bread-spread (sour cherry, black currant, red currant) from Eastern Europe, but I immediately thought not of the Adriatic, but of a little town on the Great Plains–Gettysburg, South Dakota.
Gettysburg (I was a good ten years old before I realized it was not the site of the famous Civil War battle) was my mother’s home town, and for a week or two most summers during our family vacations my siblings and I imagined it to be our own–an idyllic small town where we could walk everywhere, where unlike the various much larger towns and cities the Air Force sent us to, we never felt like strangers.
The main immediately edible foodstuff grown around Gettysburg was corn, to which, in the height of summer, the accompanying chicken or hamburgers seemed mere garnish. But the summer fruits I remember from those days, the ones we picked off the trees and shrubs in the thicket behind my grandmother’s backyard, had a fairytale strangeness: not strawberries, but gooseberries; not apples but crabapples; not sweet, red, American-as-George Washington cherries, but deep, dark, bitingly sharp chokecherries.
The label on the jar at the drugstore shows clumps of small, dark purple-red fruits that certainly look like some sort of cherry. Maybe chokeberries are chokecherries in disguise, a European version of a South Dakota fruit. The price is a bargain–$1.19 for a pound. I bring a jar home and stick it in the fridge.
According to the OED, the chokeberry is the “astringent fruit of Pyrus Arbutifolia,” while chokecherry refers to the fruit of two North American cherry trees, Pyrus Borealis and P. Hyemalis. The Dictionary of American Regional English identifies chokeberries as plants of the genus Aronia and chokecherries as usually Prunus Virginiana, but indicates that the two names may be used interchangeably and for a variety of fruits. My jar’s label has no information about the scientific nomenclature of its contents. Only taste will tell whether this is truly the fruit I remember from childhood.
Or will it? I’ve tasted crabapples translated into jelly, gooseberries into jam, by my grandmother, but never, that I recall, preserved chokecherries. Maybe it was considered too much trouble to take the small fruits off their seeds by any means but teeth, or maybe Grandma did make chokecherry preserves, but thought them too tart for us kids, who didn’t particularly relish the rainy tang of her gooseberry jam.
Chokecherries were, after all, more a curiosity than a treat. And a challenge: my mother told us that when she was a child, folks claimed eating chokecherries along with milk could make you choke to death. Of course we tried it, only to discover that the combination leaves your mouth with what may be the ultimate sour taste.
“Chilling improves flavor,” says my jar’s label–odd, given the subsequent instructions to “refrigerate after opening.” Maybe what the phrase really means is “chilling makes palatable,” “chilling disguises flavor.” Anyway, the jar’s well chilled by the time I finally lift its lid and take a spoonful.
Suspended in the dark red-purple pulp are small, rough-skinned berries/cherries, seemingly whole, unscarred by seed removal. I spread some on unbuttered sourdough toast, take a bite–my tongue tingles and dances–then take more and spread it on another slice, imagining the jar just brought up from Grandma Toomey’s cellar.
A little later, still full of bread but craving more of that tangy, South Dakota-summer taste, I eat a heaping tablespoonful, washed down with cold, milky coffee. It would have been just the thing for one of those hot, thick August days in Gettysburg, to fortify me for a walk to town.
Leaving the comfort of my grandmother’s kitchen, the charm of her yard, where somehow she got flowers to grow that were made for damp English summers, not scorching prairie ones, resisting the lure of the crabapple and chokecherry jungle, I’d open the backyard gate and head down the street past the courthouse–a relatively big one because Gettysburg, small as it is, is a county seat.
A couple of more blocks brings me to the main street (I’m not sure whether it’s actually called Main Street), and the short business district.
There’s the old post office, where years before any of us kids were born, my grandfather once worked as postmaster. Then it’s on to Great Uncle Albert’s barbershop, where a pile of Sunday funnies and comics is waiting for us–Uncle Albert’s been saving them since our last visit a year ago.
A half-hour or so of reading and we’re ready to wander some more, and quench our thirst with a raspberry phosphate from the soda fountain at the drugstore. Maybe later we’ll join friends for a picnic and a swim at the park. Along the way, someone will say, “Aren’t you Florence Toomey’s grandchildren?”
Yes, that’s who we are.
And we’ve got lots of other family here, too: six cousins to play with; Great Aunt Minnie, Albert’s wife, who invites us to practice on her player piano and eat her succulent lard-laden sugar cookies; and over in the truly tiny town of Agar, Aunt Bert and Uncle Duke, who give us the run of the candy and soda shelves at their Pheasant Food Store, convincing us that for these few days in late summer we’re the luckiest kids in the world.
Right now, I feel lucky to have found this jar of Polish preserves–and to be strolling the streets of my childhood paradise once again.
Things haven’t changed all that much in Gettysburg, at least they hadn’t last time I was there in body, for the memorial service for my mother’s cousin Ralph Arthur a few years ago. Although my grandmother was long gone and her house had been torn down, the tangle of greenery behind her backyard was still there, and Gettysburg’s downtown was still alive, not yet done in by the local mall.
For the Gettysburg Centennial, someone made a postcard from an aerial photograph, no doubt taken in summer, showing most of the town–clumps of olive green trees dotting greenish-yellow lawns surrounding bright white roofs reflecting the sunlight–and in the background, yellow fields stretching toward the horizon below a narrow azure ribbon of sky. The courthouse is in the center of the card, and the crabapple-chokecherry thicket is plainly visible to its left.
The other day, I unearthed the postcard and pinned it to my wall. “What an ugly little town,” said a visiting friend.
I said, “I think it’s beautiful,” and, wishing I had some of Aunt Minnie’s cookies around, or Grandma’s sour dills, and that I could uncork the distinctive aroma of the Pheasant Food Store or of Uncle Albert’s barbershop, I offered them some chokeberry preserves and milk.
Kathryn Paulsen’s prose and poetry have been published in New Letters, West Branch, the New York Times, et al., and are current or forthcoming in Bookends Review, Riptide, and Saint Ann’s Review, among others. She also writes for stage and screen and earned an MFA in film at Columbia University. For fiction and playwriting she’s been awarded residence grants at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Ledig House, and other retreats. She currently lives in New York City, where she works as a freelance writer and editor, but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places. Her novels are represented by Sam Hiyate of The Rights Factory.
© 2017, Kathryn Paulsen