To a New Englander like me, there are two sure signs that summer is truly in full bloom: stacks of fresh corn in every seaside village and quarts of blueberries piled as high as an elephant's eye. You can't drive along a country road anywhere in Massachusetts without passing a little fruit stand mounded on one side with corn and on the other with thin wooden punnets of blueberries, newly picked and all yours for 99 cents a quart.
Some of my happiest memories of summers at Cape Cod recall the days when my brother and I would wade out at low tide to scrape mussels off the rocks and pile them in our sand buckets. While my father cleaned and steamed them in white wine, garlic, oregano and a smidge of olive oil, my brother and I would run out to the back yard to pick tiny, sweet blueberries from bushes that edged a stone wall next to the high tide estuary. My mother would then whip up a batch of homemade blueberry muffins for dessert.
When I settled in New Mexico over a decade ago, as soon as the heavy heat of August came ambling in, I would go looking for blueberries. To my astonishment, if there were any at all, they'd be found tossed in a dark corner of the fruit cooler crushed into minuscule plastic containers the size of a folded handkerchief. Sadly, the little orbs, just this side of shriveled, sat miserably in a fuzz of mottled blight. I couldn't believe it. Back east, more than 300 million tons go on the market each summer. What happened to the ones grown in New Mexico? Well, I soon found out why they're hard to come by here.
It's not that local farmers don't want us to enjoy the delights of fresh blueberries, they just can't grow them. According to David Abernathy, the greenhouse manager for Santa Fe Greenhouses, "Blueberries only grow well in acidic soil. In New Mexico we have an alkaline soil, so the bushes can't get the nutrients they need. Plus, we don't have enough water." Bob Berry, the staff arborist for Payne's Nursery in Santa Fe, concurs and adds, "the altitude and the short growing season are also determining factors."
However, in the last couple of years, fresh, succulent blueberries have begun showing up in supermarkets all over New Mexico. Probably, the key reason is the blueberry's remarkable health benefits. In their book Superfoods Rx, Dr. Steven Pratt and co-author Kathy Matthews identified 14 "superfoods" such as broccoli, pumpkin, yogurt, turkey and oats. Packed to the gills with nutrients, these foods, according to some scientists, can protect us from type II diabetes, dementia, heart disease and even some cancers.
The authors also singled out three "major superfoods" that with "just one serving ... provide(s) as many antioxidants as five servings of carrots, apples, broccoli or squash." You don't have to guess what tops the list. It's blueberries; salmon and spinach being the other two in this elite list. Pratt and Matthews contend that if your diet consisted only of blueberries and spinach every day with salmon several times a week, well, Pop-eye and Superman would have nothing on you.
Whether you eat them like candy to better your health or just want to butter up a great muffin, you can't go wrong with a blueberry.