“The California wild gooseberry, red variety (Ribes menziesii), is certainly a desirable variety, and is said to be superior to crabapples for jellies, etc. The plant is exceedingly ornamental when loaded with its reddish-gold fruit.”
-Pacific Rural Press (1893)
I first ate wild gooseberries in the mountains of Oregon as a boy. Sometimes, when my dad and I went trout fishing or when we were staying in the mountains, my aunt would forage for wild berries to make fresh pies or jam.
I ate myself sick in the woods on more than one occasion, shoveling down strawberries and huckleberries by the handful. They were smaller in size than their store-bought cousins, but they burst with superior flavor.
Coastal southern California always seemed like a wasteland by comparison. Trout were small, few and far between. What few wild berries did grow in my local weed patch were sparse and puny.
Not only were the gooseberries around Santa Barbara smaller, they were wrapped in an armored shell that bristled with an especially dense coating of evil looking spikes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a meaner looking gooseberry than those found in the southern Los Padres National Forest.
A person today may still possibly receive some mild medicinal relief from the bark of a willow tree. Then again, they could just crack the lid on an ibuprofen bottle and swallow a couple of pills.
Not all traditional wilderness knowledge is still relevant. I think, sometimes, that foraging around this here neck of the woods is an eccentric pursuit inspired by a romanticized view of the past.
Nowadays foraging is a leisure pursuit of the well-off rather than an existential necessity of hardscrabble times. It’s largely wisdom long since rendered obsolete by the march of civilization, but I like to think some of it’s worth hanging on to.
The Sisquoc River pioneers of Santa Barbara County would probably think it’s ludicrous to waste time and energy hiking into the woods to pick gooseberries, when today we have fully loaded supermarkets, refrigerated shelves stuffed with over-sized blueberries and gargantuan strawberries, and everything available on demand at all times of the year and most hours of the day.
Wild gooseberries, I think pioneers would say, are too much effort for too few calories to be of much worth nowadays. But if the value is found in rare flavor rather than generic nutritional density, then a good ol’ fashioned gooseberry harvest may still be worth while.
Gooseberries are a sweet-tasting wild edible I like to eat right off the plant even though each berry doesn’t offer much. I introduced my children to them when they were only a few years old, and while the novelty of tasting a wild fruit in the woods was initially exciting, their enthusiasm quickly evaporated.
Gooseberries contain more spines and hard and bitter-tasting seeds than sweet juicy pulp. Having been raised on ridiculously large and sugary domesticated fruit, my kids clearly thought I was crazy and soon lost interest. Nearly everybody else has no interest either so they have plenty of company. There are certainly good reasons why very few people, effectively nobody, eat wild gooseberries around here.
There is yet, however, no supermarket substitute for the uncommon and complex depth of flavor these wickedly spiny little berries hold.
And in that deep burgundy, wild pure juice may be found a reservoir of traditional, natural wealth that perhaps has not been devalued and rendered obsolete by the 24/7 cornucopia of postmodern civilization.