Blueberries are native to this continent, having grown wild here since before memory. Native Americans called them star berries, after the tiny, starlike ruffle at the blossom end of each.
They were a scavengers' treasure until the early 1900s, when a clever New Jersey woman named Elizabeth White realized they could be cultivated on plots of land too poor for ordinary farming. Blueberries like acidic soil, and consumers like blueberries. A crop was born.
Neptune Farm, on a loamy stretch of delta land in southern New Jersey, was the site of one such early blueberry enterprise. The farmhouse itself had been built in the 1700s by Quakers, on land inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape tribe. Local lore has it that during the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. But by the time Torrey Reade came across the spread, in 1989, the blueberry fields had been abandoned for years. "There were weeds as big as shade trees," she says, "and poison ivy with leaves the size of your hand."
To Reade, it looked like paradise. An MBA with a Wall Street job, she was miserable living in New York City and had begun cultivating every spare inch of her urban landscape—windowsills, fire escapes, the rooftop. "I had this bucolic dream," she says. "I was looking for a garden." Instead she bought 126 acres of what she calls "a huge, abused, and neglected farm. I knew there were blueberries out there," she says. But for the first few years after moving in, she couldn't see them. Then she hired Jamaican immigrant farmers with machetes, and they revealed two acres' worth of 50-year-old blueberry bushes, still bearing fruit.
At around this time, Reade went to her 20th college reunion and ran into Dick McDermott. "We'd been sweethearts in college," she said, and their hearts were still tender. McDermott had worked as a painter, groundskeeper, and set designer in Minnesota—odd jobs that prepared him well for the diverse challenges of farming. He packed up, drove to New Jersey, and they've been together ever since.
The couple farms organically (and solar-electrically), growing asparagus in springtime, keeping honeybees to pollinate the blueberry bushes, and raising grass-fed lamb and beef on the remaining acres. It makes for a tidy, self-supporting system: The sheep and cows help fertilize the depleted soil and graze down the grass between the bushes.
And it pays off—in flavor. "There's a theory that organic fruits taste better because the plant has to muster its own defenses," says Reade. These same natural defenses are key to blueberries' clout among nutritionists. A fruit (or leaf) that's exposed to sunshine creates antioxidants to protect the plant's DNA from damage during photosynthesis, and the antioxidants benefit whoever eats the fruit. They show up, sunburnlike, as pigment, so a good rule of thumb is: The more colorful the fruit, the more healthful it's likely to be.
No wonder blueberries have been all the rage of late; at last we've found a super-good-for-you food that also tastes fantastic, whether eaten fresh or baked into sauces, cobblers, and pies. And blueberries are easy to use. Susan Spungen, a self-described "lazy cook" who created the recipes on these pages, says, "You don't have to peel or cut them, so they lend themselves to impromptu summer baking."
But culinary fads don't mean much to a farmer. The bushes at Neptune Farm keep on cycling through their ancient schedule: turning crimson in fall, blossoming each spring, growing heavy with fruit as June rolls by.
For Reade and McDermott, summer is a time less for exuberance than exhaustion. "It's arduous," says Reade of the blueberry harvest. But just when she thinks she's had enough, she pops into her mouth a swollen-ripe, dusky-dark, sweet and fragrant berry, and finds it's not so hard to carry on after all.