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For a long time now, I’ve engaged in the practice of making up a new answer every time I get asked, “What’s your favorite food?” It shifts depending on my mood, the people I’m with, and maybe what I had for breakfast that day.
But what I really want to be asked is, “What food do you most enjoy eating?” It sounds like the same question, but it’s not. “What’s your favorite food?” is about taste. It’s about texture and flavor and makes you feel like a critic. “What food do you most enjoy eating?” is about experience.
What food do I most enjoy eating? The answer is a small, blue berry that’s been ubiquitous throughout my life: The blueberry. To me, there are two types of blueberries – lake blueberries and pool blueberries.
Pool blueberries are round, artificial, and full of juice. They evoke images of cousins, and bathing suits, and jumping from foot to foot because the patio is so hot and your feet are bare and if you stand in one place for too long you’ll burn yourself.
For as long as I can remember, my grandma’s backyard has been associated with summer and family and grilling and splashing and blueberries.
Seeing her backyard covered with snow is like visiting a ski slope during the summer – it’s disconcerting. Every winter I become increasingly confused as my brain tries to project images of water sprinklers and bare chests onto the white ground and chaise lounges where a stone bench now sits. Winter is not for blueberries. Winter is for hot chocolate and marshmallows and rosemary chicken and round coins covered with gold foil.
Blueberries are meant for the summer.
During those days at the pool, there were other traditional “Grandma Foods” set out on the grown-up’s table. Hummus and chips, cucumber spears, cherry tomatoes and ranch dressing,... These were the adult foods. Brave was the girl who would walk up to the table and take something without asking politely first.
Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would be picked up and placed on the lap of some relative. Then I could eat to my heart’s content. But, eventually, the novelty would wear off and I would slip off the lap and run off toward the pool again.
Blueberries were also at the grown-up’s table, but they weren’t grown-up food. There was always a big bowl of blueberries sitting on the kitchen table inside, or at the kid’s table outside. Blueberries were the perfect size for grabbing and squeezing until the juice popped out, shocking and delighting the eight-year-old girls who sat happily devouring berry after berry.
As much as I loved eating them, sometimes my favorite thing to do was to press on the berries until they popped. I think at some point, some silly adult drew a face on a blueberry; from then on, I delighted just as much in squishing the helpless, fat little “people” between my chubby fingers and watching their blood run down my fingers as in actually eating the food.
Perhaps because of that story, my family’s blueberries were never just eaten. They were experimented on, used to test throwing capability and agility, and generally abused by all of us. When I was eight, there were ten of us cousins at Grandma Sue’s house; the youngest was two and the oldest fifteen. Summer get-togethers at the pool were perfect, and blueberries made the day.
The summer I was looking forward to fourth grade, I went to sleep-away camp for the very first time. In one short month, I fell in love. Pine trees, dining-hall songs, communal campfires, sailing, swimming in a lake, zip-lines, horses, wood cabins, and two-minute showers took a special place in my heart. This love would mature, develop, and age with me. Some of the magic would fall away as I grew old enough to see past it, but the spirit of the thing never went away.
Many things have changed since that first summer, but some didn’t – and, I imagine, never will: Squirrels. Pine trees. Pine needles. Rocks. Green and white logoed T-shirts. And blueberries.
These camp blueberries were unlike any I’d ever seen before. The biggest ones were half the size of the blueberries I was used to, the smallest ones were barely big enough to taste. They were never sweet, often hard to find, and rarely ripe enough. I loved them.
Over the course of that first summer, I estimate I spent ten hours looking for blueberry patches all over camp. Some were easy to find – the big bushes had distinctive leaves and were effortlessly spotted. But those rarely had berries on them, what with a hundred hungry girls walking by every day.
The most satisfying patches weren’t patches at all. A sprig tucked away here, a couple of branches growing under a root there… I never discriminated. I had no concern for safety or health. There were no pesticides here, no artificial growth hormones, and I was too young to care that my prizes were often covered with dirt before I picked them up and brushed them off.
I’d gather ten, twenty blueberries at a time and then hold them in a fist above me, my head tilted backwards, opening my hand a little bit to let them drop, one by one, into my open mouth. This image is one of the most enduring I have of camp.
A few weeks ago, at synagogue, there was a fruit plate out on the table. Spying some blueberries, I grabbed a few and popped them into my mouth. Slowly, I crushed them between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, savoring the juices. I closed my eyes and smiled. Images of bathing suits and sprinklers, canoes and friendship bracelets, played like a slideshow in my mind. I was home again.