All Around the Mulberry Tree
By Joy Moses-Hall
Sunday, June 24, 2018
It’s a cobbler year for mulberries.
Out in the backyard, dark red dollops rain down like pinata candy at every breeze. The lawn is mulched with a magenta mess. Mulberry pawprints track squirrels from tree to tree. It’s harvest time in the cul-de-sac.
Mulberries have a a regal history as the stuff that silks are made of, in that silkworms feed exclusively on the leaves. White mulberries were imported to the United States years ago in the hope of silken startups, but the worms fizzled while the trees flourished. Many of these crowded out the native red mulberry and in other cases the white mulberries interbred with reds, leading to indistinguishable hybrid varieties. But here, in the backyard, is a red.
Red mulberry leaves have a variety of shapes, from serrated sock, to mitten, to glove, even on the same tree. To a worm, they are all weblicious. One thousand silkworms can digest 100 pounds of leaves, then spin a pound of hair-thin silk cocoons as they prepare to congeal from caterpillar to moth. The silk itself congeals from a protein in the worms’ saliva that immediately hardens into a fine thread. A single strand of pupa silk can be a half mile long, and nearly as strong as spider webbing, half as strong as steel thread.
Unripe berries hanging below the leaves look rather like fat silkworms. Worms aren’t the least interested in the fruits, and North Carolina is not a home to silkworms, so it is the berries, not the leaves, that are attractive on our tree. The finished fruit looks and tastes like blackberries and, aside from an inseparable little stem on each berry that cooks down to a figment, they make perfect fruit foods.
Mom could make jam out of any fruit food — wild grapes, mushy apples, bruised peaches, excessive pears — and it was all jell-icious.
It could take a whole day to jam, even with all of us stirring the pot: jars had to be sterilized, fruit and sugar had to be boiled at just the right temperature and duration, jars had to be sealed with a flashing of paraffin. Big fruits had to be skinned and seeded and sweetened and simmered. Grapes were squeezed one by one between finger and thumb until the pulp pelted out with a pleasing splat. Berries were just tossed in the pot, but picking the fruit in the wild took hours.
Mom invested even more effort. Just to carry a hot pot of bubbling crude over to the line of jars required her to grip her way down the counter, swinging her braced but paralyzed legs, pausing after each swing-step to advance the pot along. Cutting across the kitchen would have been even dicier: a controlled tumble into the wheelchair, teasing the blistering 25-pound stockpot onto her lap without a splash, driving across the kitchen, somehow hoisting the pot to the counter, pushing herself up, and resuming jam.
All that just to forestall a small purchase in the jelly aisle seems ridiculous, but of course the larger calling was to send alms to the karma grid. It was the kind of effort that became second nature. To her, having legs paralyzed by polio was a trivial adventure compared to the great variety of intellectual and spiritual quilts to be woven in a lifetime.
She found great satisfaction in wedging a nose-to-tail gleaning between harvest and compost, in a pleasing transformation of a blemished but benevolent bushel of berries to a tumbler of toast topping. She was re-gifting a throwaway and its something-from-nothing spirit to the human fiber. And, she proved to herself, yet again, as a 3-limbed tiger in a 4-limbed world, that she herself constantly gleaned something from nothing. It was an affirmation of one of her favored roles, that of a plucky pestle pusher, a ramekin rajah, a swashbuckler chef, a berry big shot and a cobbler queen, with more on her mind than walking limitations.
There are no silkworms in the backyard on a mulberry mission, no silks to spin into satins and scarves, no sapien spirit to serve. It’s just a mull-icious year for jams and cobblers.
Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a PhD in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.