Updated: May 11
Have you ever picked gooseberries? If not, here's what you missed —sore and bloody fingertips! I had never heard about these unique berries until one special day at middle school summer camp. During a nature hike, we were encouraged to pick these tiny red balls covered with sharp sprays of thorny needles. I remember watching the boys readily take to this task, and I was stunned to see them leaning far into these prickly bushes in some kind of unspoken competition. My girlfriends and I approached with greater caution, deciding that we first needed a sensible container with which to collect our red berry treasures. Our camp counselors challenged us to pick as many berries as possible so that the next afternoon we could make gooseberry jam. Always motivated by the prospect of praise, I walked ahead of my friends and made a sling out of the front of my shirt and tried to pick a gooseberry—ouch! Razor thin thorns covered the entire globe of the fruit, stabbing my fingertips, drawing blood. I tried again and again to remove these illusive berries by plucking them from underneath, trying to snap them loose far down the stem thinking I could ask for gloves back at camp to finish the job. Despite the pain, I filled my shirt pouch with these awful things until my fingers burned and were red from being stabbed hundreds of times. The berries in my shirt poked through the fabric, needling and scratching my stomach.
As promised, the next afternoon we all herded over to the commercial kitchen of the dining hall to learn the steps of making freezer jam. I took great satisfaction in seeing the mean-spirited berries dropped into a pot of steaming hot water, and I imagined them "screaming" like live lobsters put to boil. I hated the gooseberries and wasn't interested in cutting out paraffin wax circles with which to seal our canning jars. I looked up to see the head cook spooning berries out of the scalding water with a metal strainer, after which she deftly pulled the berries apart by their thorns with rubber gloves. The berries had submitted to the boiling water and now easily shed their skin to reveal a tiny blob of seeded jelly that plopped into a measuring cup.
"That's it?" Benjamin asked with a whine. "That's all that's in those dumb berries?"
We perched on stools around the long stainless steel counters, and we were each given a pair of gloves. We set about pulling the spiny skin away from each berry and emptying the meager contents into little containers. An hour later, the cook collected our cups of viscous jelly and poured our gooey harvest into a sauce pan along with pectin, lemon juice, water, and copious cups of sugar. We took turns stirring the simmering liquid with a wooden spoon, but we were not allowed to pour the hot fruit mixture into the glass jars. We affixed the wax and lids and put stickers on the jars with the names of our cabins. We proudly marched our canned confections over to the walk-in freezer. The next morning at breakfast, I couldn't spread a blob of the gooseberry jelly onto my toast fast enough, and it was worth the wait. I can still imagine it's sweet and tangy taste today, forty years later.
Was the homemade gooseberry jam the best thing I had ever tasted? Unfortunately no. But what made it taste so good was the hard work and pain we put into harvesting these fiercely protective berries. We had to go through the hard part to get to the good. Despite being an awkward gaggle of preteens, we learned the value hard work, we learned how to be patient, and we learned that if we're willing to press on through the hard parts, there is often an unexpected reward.
Do you press into difficult tasks, or do you often walk away to look for an easier path? Imagine we're talking about difficult people. Do you lean in and seek to understand, or do you pull back to avoid them? I pose these questions not just to you but also to myself. The next time you're faced with something or someone that will take a little extra effort, remember the gooseberry. If we just walk by them, we'll miss what they have to offer inside.