Living close to The Source in Pittsburgh public schools and private life Follow me on Twitter @ SourceLiving

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Have You Ever Heard of “Ground Cherries” ?

I’ve asked about a dozen adults and 200 children that question this past week. Only the children had any idea, of course. They’re vines, sort of like tomato vines but shorter and stouter and sturdier, that produce what look like miniature tomatillos, and when ready their husks are brownish-yellowish and the fruits tumble to the earth. You unhusk them and pop these small-grape-looking, honey-plum-tasting, plumper-cranberry-feeling deep golden juicy fruits into your mouth. The tiny seeds burst and melt on your tongue like sand made from fig seeds. The unripe ones are green and much more tart. 

They’re great browsing food to accompany your trip through the garden aisles, after passing the raspberry bushes, fragrant herbs and friendly sunflowers. And now, along with a stolen $800 lock box plus its many tools and a wheelbarrow from one school garden, all the vines are gone.

Last week, 6-9 year-olds ripped the ground cherries out, along with corn stalks (a variety suited for popcorn), cucumber and melon vines. To get ready for Winter, we hand-tilled the soil and “broadcast” oat and pea (cover crop) seeds across the beds before raking them in. Different cover crops can feed nitrogen to the soil, crowd out weeds, help to regulate the soil’s structure and moisture, and attract beneficial insects.

I knew the ground cherry feast scattered around these kids would distract them to the point of near-uselessness when trying to turn over the beds. So I gave them a choice… “Do you want to each eat a few at the end of the lesson (which wouldn’t happen, there’d be rivalry and haste galore), or do you want me to make you jam to have on crackers next week?” Farmer Audrey asked enticingly. “JAM!” Unanimous. “Ok, well then can you eat them while you’re gardening?” “NO!” So you should you save them all for the jam, and harvest them like farmers would and save them for later?” “YES!”

So I guess now you’ve heard of ground cherries. I just made some ground cherry jam… 

4 cups of sugar and 1/2 cup water brought to a boil, simmer 2 minutes, add 8 cups husked ground cherries (that took hours) and bring to a boil again, simmer 5 minutes, cover with a towel in the fridge overnight, boil and simmer again for about 15 minutes the next day (and then, if canning, place immediately in hot jars following canning guidelines).

Last night I made potato leek soup for the class that harvested fingerling potatoes and leeks last week… Today, they harvested and hand-shredded kale and herbs to a simmering pot of soup, then ate it hungrily and took home extra potatoes along with recipe cards.

These kids eat crap in the cafeterias. Preserved, packaged junk food, mostly. And not much can be done about that in many schools unless something major changes at the federal level. I won’t get into that policy issue right now (though I researched it my senior year of college). What organizations like Grow Pittsburgh and we garden coordinators provide is a chance to learn about the true value of food - not just enough edible calories, but the full experience, from soil to sink to cutting board to plate to family dinner table.  

One class today dug up beets to make salad in the classroom and picked green tomatoes to pickle. After everyone got a lesson on pickling green tomatoes (including a Sailor Audrey With Scurvy impression… brines can retain nutirents while preventing spoilage, and sauerkraut was the pickle of choice that ended up providing vitamin C to crewmen on one round-the-world-journey in 1770) and a demo on shredding beets, the majority of students whisked up a dressing with their fresh herbs to serve to their classmates over shredded sweet fuchsia ribbons. A smaller group of advanced students learned to pickle green tomatoes and test pH.

Everyone loved the food. Every. One. Some had never tried beets before. And they were thrilled to be sent home with a recipe card for “Root Veggie Ribbon Salad” and dressing, complete with all sorts of fun variations to try. So even if they’re eating “Cutie Pies” and microwaved pre-packaged chicken fingers for lunch this week, at least they might go to the farmers’ market and make some salad at home this weekend.