Saturday, April 2, 2011

Fruit Fever in the Far North

Alaska can and does produce fruit.  During the springtime, many people in our state grow thick patches of plump strawberries without even trying.  In the summer, brambles of thorny shrubs produce bushels of raspberries. When fall comes, blueberries burst out across the auburn tundra.  Alaska’s native fruit—blueberries, high-bush cranberries, rose hips and others—add juicy bursts of flavor to muffins and pancakes and the juices cook up beautifully into jellies and jams.  As little powerhouses of antioxidants and vitamin C, they offer numerous health benefits as well.
Even though we are blessed with such abundance, I still lust for something more: the full on, mouth-watering, syrupy sweetness of a tree-ripened peach or the sweet-tart crunch of an in-season apple.  I know that I am not alone in my fruit fever because I see evidence across our state of  others going to extremes to satisfy their cravings for farm fresh produce.  I have read of master gardeners here who successfully cultivate mini apple orchards and I have even seen, on one of the fabulous stops along the annual Anchorage Garden Tour, a single pampered nectarine tree, 5-feet high, living its life in a heated greenhouse, a single golden nearly-ripe nectarine gracefully dangling from a bough.  That day, all of us visitors oohed and ahhed as the host preened over his rare jewel.
When we cannot produce it ourselves, we visit our local grocers, searching the produce section for ripe, satisfying peaches, nectarines, apples, grapes, plums, apricots, cherries (oh, for the deep flavor of the perfect Bing cherry!).  Sometimes we find them there, carefully stacked in colorful pyramids.  We squeeze (gently, gently), we inhale, we squeeze again, we check the price (is it worth it?); we buy one, two, three to try.  And, if the fruit is good, the market’s stock will be sold out in hours as the word spreads through town:  “The cherries are awesome at Safeway today!”, “Have you tried the Braeburns at Costco this week?”  Frequently, we are disappointed; the apples are mealy, peaches hard, bananas chalky.  We complain bitterly to each other at work and at home and recall the fruit from our days living and vacationing in the Lower 48.  Nearly every week, all winter long, after my husband Matt and I finish grocery shopping, he bites into the first apple from our bag, and becomes wistful.  He tells me again, “When I was a kid, we used to pick apples off the neighbor’s tree that hung over the fence.  The apples just fell off the tree into your hands.  And when you bit into them, they were incredible.  Crisp.  Tart like you couldn’t believe.”  He sighs, peeling the label off the fruit’s blushed skin.  “We made ourselves sick eating so many of those apples.”
I have a different frame of reference.  I grew up in Ketchikan, picking blueberries under the rainforest canopy, soaking them in salt water to coax the worms out, freezing baggies full of berries that we’d eat off and on during the winter.  My mother also shopped locally, buying the only fresh fruits available, typically Red Delicious apples and Florida oranges that bore the evidence of the long, hard trip cross-country:  bruised, flavorless.  I preferred canned fruit in those days.   Especially, I was fascinated by the strangely transparent grapes floating in my bowl of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail. 
In Ketchikan, in the early 1990s, when I was back home after college, a van began appearing in town during the summer months.  The van would pull off the ferry that sailed north from Bellingham weekly, then drive north along Tongass Avenue to a large gravel pull-off overlooking the ocean.  There, with the van parked, its driver would set out a long table and open the back doors wide to expose the luscious treasure.  Fruit!  Fresh from Washington, Oregon, and California.  Fruit that had been picked ripe from trees just days before, loaded directly into this very van and transported straight to the Alaska Marine Highway terminal.  Fruit that hadn’t been picked green, stored in a warehouse for days and treated with chemicals to slow the natural ripening process.  I joined the throngs of fruit-seeking locals in line at the van and on the recommendation of friends who were in line ahead of me, bought a paper sack filled with six peaches.  I ate them all.  In one sitting.
From that day forward, I was a fresh fruit junkie.  I frequented the van every time it visited.  When I left Ketchikan and moved north to Anchorage, I came across fresh fruit being peddled at the Saturday Market or at farmers markets across town.  I could fulfill my habit relatively well during the summer, but when winter came, it was back to grapes from Chile, oranges from Florida, strawberries from Mexico.
Eventually, I moved to Valdez, and at work, I heard about Tree Things:  a fresh fruit delivery enterprise that served customers in Eagle River, the Mat-Su Valley, and the Copper River Valley.  Valdez, located at the very end of the Richardson Highway, was not on the list of stops for the Tree Things truck, but, by God!, fruit-fixated Valdezans in large numbers made the 170-mile round trip drive to the nearest delivery point, a paved turn-out on the shore of Pippen Lake, Mount Drum rising high to the east.
Tree Things is a mom-and-pop business headquartered in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  Pop makes bi-monthly trips in a semi truck up the Alaska Highway, bringing crates of seasonal fruit from orchards in the Northwest and California.  Unlike many of the fruit trucks and farmers market booths that had been my dealers in the past, Tree Things is almost exclusive.  You pre-order fruit and it only comes in bulk.  Pre-ordering is somewhat of an inconvenience for me, but bulk is no problem at all.  Even though my household is comprised of just me and Matt, we can put away an admirable quantity of product before it rots.  In the wonderful world of Tree Things, I order a 25-pound box of nectarines and peaches and a 20-pound box of cherries.  On the date of delivery, I or some generous person who is as fruit-happy as I am drives north to Pippen Lake, stands in line for up to a half hour (rain, wind, and mosquitoes be damned), claims and loads the boxes into the back of an SUV, and drives the hour and a half back to Valdez.
The fruit takes planning and effort to get.  But, oh my, is it satisfying!  Fuzzy sunshine-colored peaches, ruddy slick-skinned nectarines, glossy cherries, fat cantaloupe.  They look lovely on my counter, catching the sunshine streaming in through a window and they taste like a bite of Eden: juicy, sticky, perfectly ripe.  Every dollar is a dollar well spent, every mile driven a joy.
Last fall, Matt and I went on vacation.  We flew to Denver and drove west into the dry canyon lands of southern Utah to a small national park called Capitol Reef.  There, in the very heart of the park, we found something wholly unexpected: apple orchards.  Originally planted by Mormon settlers sent south from Salt Lake City by Brigham Young, the orchards became property of the United States in the late 1960s and have been maintained as an historical resource since that time.  The apple trees are laid out in grids along rivers that flow through the canyon bottoms.  They stand out brilliantly green and lush against the backdrop of the nude sandstone walls.  The beautiful thing about these groves of apple trees is that they are open for picking.  When the fruit is ripe, the orchard keeper opens the gates and all park visitors may walk the rows and, using a ladder and an apple-picker provided at the entrance, pick and eat to their heart’s content.  Needless to say, Matt and I were elated, ecstatic, overcome.  We hiked in that park for four days, awed by the red rock scenery, the deep canyons, the spectacular jagged cliffs, the heat rising off the slickrock, but in the end, we both agreed, gorging ourselves on those balls of fruit was the highlight. 
On our last day in the park, we visited the apple orchard once again to gather a bagful of Capitol Reef Reds for the road trip north (the apples are $1 per pound if you take them out of the park).  We plucked apple after apple from the sagging branches, carefully placed them in our bag, weighed them at the gate, and gratefully tucked our payment into the park’s lock box.  As we turned to leave, we met another couple eagerly heading into the orchard.  After a brief exchange of friendly words, we discovered that they, too, were Alaskans on vacation.  We found that for them, like us, this wealth of fruit—fresh, sweet, crisp—was the tonic they needed before heading back for the long, dark, frigid Alaskan winter.

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