the back yard diet


So, I live in Southern Middle Tennessee on about two acres of ancient farm land divided into large lots with typical ranch-style houses and big front porches. A wet weather creek runs at an angle across the whole of our property bordered by a highway, a barbed wire fence, and a stand of Bradford pears and hickories. Lately, my fence row, dotted with ragged black locusts in various stages of growth, has transformed into an incidental orchard thanks to the birds and the bees. I am now the proud caretaker of a monster blackberry bush with smaller bushes growing in the tangle of ivy, thistle, and Queen Anne’s lace. Down on the highway end of the fence row, I found a substantial tree with silvery trunk and giant berries. For some reason, I couldn’t come up with the species, although it was obviously native, part of the life cycle of the insects around here. I looked up the berry tree on the internet and discovered I had a mulberry tree almost at full harvest, its giant berries turning from red to nearly black.

I picked two ripe mulberries, soaked them in water, gave one to my nine-year-old, and reserved one for myself. The burst of sweetness surprised and delighted us. The meaty berry flesh released a massive storehouse of sweet juice, and we wondered why store shelves, especially here in the South, weren’t loaded with containers of mulberry juice. The massive berry delivers an experience somewhere between a grape and a raspberry, but its structure mimics a cherry, with a long stem at the center. Even the flesh around the stem reminds me more of a cherry than a raspberry or strawberry. The fruit is unlike anything we had ever tried.

Mulberry is good for a number of ailments; as it turns out, the juice is an anti-oxidant. More than that, according to several sources, the Mulberry tree produces reservatrol, a substance known to lower blood sugar. The trick is to pick the leaves and the berries just as they become ripe and use them in a salad. I’m growing Romaine lettuce and green bell peppers, too, so that will make a nice mix. I’m sure you could toss leaves and berries into a blender with some Greek yogurt and create a healthy smoothie. One source I read claimed that mulberries can actually darken and condition hair. I thought of combining mulberry juice and coconut oil, which just might be the best hair conditioner known to modern woman.

But my ultimate goal for mulberries is a cobbler. Since antiquity, the peach cobbler has reigned supreme with cherry and blackberry following. But mulberries deliver the sweetness of cherries without the tough exterior that boils down to an almost candied state when baking into a cobbler or crunch consistency. I am thinking that mulberries might create the absolute most amazing cobbler ever consumed, and it is only through ignorance of our own back yard stores of food that we have forgotten the town named for the tree, Mulberry, Tennessee, from which Davy Crockett hailed, a man known for traversing the wilderness and living off the land while fighting Creeks and Brits and Spaniards.

Mulberry, the town, stands in Southern Tennessee, a gorgeous, wild place with dark, brooding forests, large farmhouses, and impromptu cemeteries dotting the highways with mostly Revolution-era vets and Confederate dead.

I celebrate my fledgling fence-row orchard with its twelve upstart blackberry bushes, its poke salad, and its single mulberry tree. After a spring of very few honey bees, I saw them the day I discovered the mulberry, buzzing and working the fence row where no chemicals destroyed the pollen they need. On a longer walk, I heard their vibrant violin music, like a thousand cellos warming up in the orchestra pit, flitting around the wild blackberries, thistles, daisies, and the start of a new mulberry, all dotting the narrow road that dead ends at the forested hill. I was amazed that the entangled, thick, wild sprawl of “weeds” could hold the keys to health, and yet these thickets are the very target of homeowners with an obsessive-compulsive need to kill everything that refuses to grow symmetrically, as if symmetry had anything to do with living. The same natural process that forms the symmetrical chambers of a sea shell also produces the intertwined, chaotic mess of sumac, wild ivies, and Spanish moss draped across old oaks, and there is a beauty, however untamed it may be. It may turn out that the most dangerous scourge of the Earth was subdivision of land, for it is the need to perpetuate the illusion of control of nature that has poisoned our land, our people, and may well endanger the bees and other fragile living things that create the diversity of plant life God designed to heal our bodies.

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Writer, mom, reformed culinary disaster. Maker of legendary potato salad.

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