It is planted near the edge of the property, left to fend for itself in a shady spot by the garage -- a neighbor to bald tires and flaking doors banished years ago. There are two or three bushes of it. Never a neat patch.
The gooseberry is the first berry to leaf every spring, seduced by the hint of a warm day. It can rush into production as early as the last days of April. Its bloom is barley noticable, but within days its branches are loaded down with fruit much like small grapes, when raspberry buhes are only beginning to show some color and the earliest strawberries are about getting ready to bud.
The gooseberry's cousin the grapevine is the biblical symbol of abundance and longevity, and braided grape leaves -- scented when fresh, spectacular when turning -- form Dionysys' crown. Gooseberry leaves -- minature grape leave -- turn a rust red in September, then shrivel and drop in a few days, and the bush is a heap of branches with vengeful spikes half an inch long pointing in every direction.
The gooseberry is not a favorite. The very word goose implies something silly, and people are not sure if it is all right for them to eat berries so named. "Isn't it the kind of fruit paupers gathered -- a scarcity staple?" I once heard a medievalist muse. "I can't recall its being mentioned as a fruit served in the palaces."
No one in history is known to have courted his beloved with a basket of gooseberries; no poet I know has sung the gooseberry's praise. Over the centuries, botanists have ignored it's potential, leaving it unhybirdized and unimproved. Cooks and bakers have paid little attention to its taste. No doubt, it is a lesser berry -- one the progress has left behind.
As the gooseberry's branches tend to touch the ground, their tips send down roots, and before the season is over a circle of sapplings surrounds the mother plant. It is propagation by ambush -- the stealthy conquest of the weak. "But I don't let it spread," I find myself assuring visitors concerned about those thorny, scratchy things taking over. "I always cut it back."
I used to try to give away gooseberry saplings but found no takers. "Why are you trying to get rid of them?" people responded, as suspicious as if I had offered a litter of kittens. When I explained that new plants root themselves all the time and that I don't like to throw out a fledging bush, they admonished me to be stern and to keep those brambles under control.
I planted the first bushes seven years ago, after I had been told that they wouldn't do well in Washington. According to the experts, sour fruits require a dry climate; high humidity encourages a mold to grow over gooseberries as well as currants and sour cherries. I thought it was a challenge to raise gooseberries, and when my experimental pair of saplings thrived, growing them became a matter of pride. I have since exchanged gooseberry plants with a neighbor -- her berries have a lavender hue -- and we have become friends.
"Have you ever eaten gooseberries," I ask guests, trying to sound nonchalant. "They are different." But I am ready with my concession statement: "Oh well, it's an acquired taste."
I an used to rebuff; I have learned how to accept defeat.
People make preserves, jellies, tarts, fools and pies out of gooseberries, but each concoction is an excuse for sugar and cream -- and a putdown for the gooseberry. Those of us in the know have no doubt that a gooseberry must be eaten raw, directly off the bush, preferably when it's sour and puckers the lips. "These berries aren't quite ripe," I have heard many a foolish gourmet announce. "They are still too green. We should have waited for another day. At the very least."
But if we wait and let the mauve of maturity spread over the fruit's translucent green, the taste turns mealy and sugary. A technically ripe gooseberry is a disappointment.
There is however a perfect moment -- as hard to capture as all perfection and lasting no longer than one afternoon -- when streaks or specks or stiples of mauve appear, but green is still the dominant color. The taste is indisputably tart, yet with an assertion of sweetness -- a reference to a rare wine we sipped long ago, a dialectic of lime and cherry, a tiny feast of irony.