Talking Berries with Ms. J

Ms. Johanna sits on the ground in a far corner of the garden. She wears a wide brimmed hat fashioned from a brown paper bag, the crown formed by a combination of silver duck and yellow “CAUTION” tapes, and stabs a long butcher knife into the thick carpet of mugweed.

Half way over I call out, “Hi, Ms. Johanna.”

It doesn’t stop her from whittling away at the ground.

This spit of land runs about a quarter of a city block in East New York, one of the poorest and predominantly black neighborhoods in the city. The footprint of the lot once held three fine homes that, after falling upon hard times, were demolished in the 1990’s as part of a failed urban renewal campaign. Then speculators flowed in and tried to take whatever was left, including the house Ms. Johanna grew up in. How she sent them packing is a profanely hilarious story.

She came upon the vacant lot on one of her walkabouts after she retired. Bamboo and trashed choked, it seemed a perfect place to park her considerable energy. She brought a machete the next time she came around. By summer’s end, the soil had been replenished and mulched Four raised beds overflowed with herbs, some beans, corn and berry bushes. That was twenty-two years ago. Now 82, she’s still working this portion of earth pretty much by herself.

“Ms. Johanna?” I say when I finally reach her.

No pause in the knife, she’s polite, friendly, but not overly. “Yes?” she says and I’m pretty clear that she’s agreeing with what Greg thought when we met last week: What’s this white woman doing here?

I introduce myself, ask if I can sit down. I tell her Greg told me how the City’s GreenThumb program had tore all the plants up last year without notifying her first. Said they needed to bring the garden up to new rules about how more of the community had to be allowed to plant instead of just her. They left nothing but a 10 foot portion of a winding path edged with grape hyacinths, iris and native herbs.

They took her rocks and the pile of broken toys, her memorial in honor of gone children. An arbor, rare varieties of butter and purple hyacinth beans, broad leaf thyme favored by Caribbean cooks, Japanese lace, lilacs, mature rosemary and bay leaf shrubs. All gone.

I tell her I think the garden is important to write about. I hope she doesn’t mind if I do.

She sits back on her arthritic knees to take my full measure. There’s nothing old about her round face, her eyes in particular spirited. “Greg tells me it’d be good to talk to you, get people to understand what happened here because I’m tired of other people getting credit. I don’t need credit. I just don’t like other people saying they did it and not do it.”

The musical cadence of Ms. Johana’s Tired Need Do

That’s about as much approval as she’s giving me for now. I take my place beside her and begin pulling mugweed.

“Don’t pull nothing unless I tell you to, or you ask me,” she says, not trusting anyone to know what’s a weed and what’s one of her plants. Like the wilting white stalks near a burning bush. They’re what remains of her garlic patch.

Garlic blossom (left) and broad leaf thyme (right)

“One time there were these sanitation men standing around and one comes over and asks me, ‘Miss what are those?,’ pointing to my garlic. And I say ‘garlic.’ And he says that can’t be, it doesn’t grow like that with that kind of blue flower on top. I look at him and I say, ‘how can you tell someone that’s growing it that it isn’t garlic? What do I have to do? Stand in Macy’s window and tell you?’ And he says, ‘boy you have a fuse.’ ‘Yeah, it’s called nitroglycerine dynamite’ and take one out, wash it and give it to him. ‘Now you see this?’ meaning the flower. ‘You chop it and put it in oil and you use it in salad. And you chop the stalks up and use it in sofrito and the other part you use like regular garlic.’ And he says, ‘how much they are?’ I say ‘$5.’ He bought four. Comes back next week and says, ‘I gave it to my wife and she used it all up and told me I better come back and try to get more.’

We have a great rolling-from-side-to-side laugh over that one.

A few hours later, with half the path cleared and some along the fence, I tell her I have to go and help her up. Not that she needs help.

Brother Peter Mohammad, the head of Community Board 7, consulting with Ms. J. She doesn’t like her photo taken.

Two weeks go by before I make it over again. By now, all eight beds can barely contain their rambunctious crops. Ms. J sits on a yellow painted bench under the cherry tree. It’s hot and there’s been no rain. The garden needs a good watering. I’ve brought her bottles of water frozen in old seltzer bottles.

“Try some of the cherries,” she says and I pick a few for us to share. An old tin can beside her brims with the morning’s pickings, raspberries mixed with blueberries; blackberries mixed with tiny strawberries.

“Let me tell you what to do with these,” she says even before I settle beside her. “You go buy those small round biscuits in the store and you cut one open. Butter both sides then put some of whatever berry you want on, smush the top a little down over them. Not a lot, just some. Then you take your cast iron pan and fry it.”

“What in?”

“Oh, whatever,” she says, sounding like she’s giving me a pass on asking a stupid question. “Butter. Oil. Whatever you got. You just want it crisp. But not too crisp. Then you wrap it up in wax paper and you can put it in your pocket and take it anywhere. I’m telling you, gooood, oh so good,” she laughs.

I am so hungry as she sends me off to cut dead branches off the crepe myrtle tree.

From left: Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries

Ms. J’s Berry Biscuits

I thought I was so smart baking biscuits from scratch. What a swell way to gussy this recipe up for you! For once, they came out just right.

Unfortunately, upon being cut in half, they crumbled like I should have known they would. I then followed Ms. J’s directions and went out to the market to buy biscuits. Truth is, the recipe doesn’t need gussying up.

1 package best quality store bought biscuits

a handful of berries

about 3 tablespoon butter (I didn’t have enough butter and used coconut oil which added a nice sweetness.)

Confectioner sugar for dusting

Cut biscuit in half and butter both slices. Place a layer of berries on one side. Press them in a little to stick. Cover with the other half and lightly press down without fully squashing the berries.

Melt butter in a skillet.

Carefully slide the biscuit into the butter and cook for about 2 or 3 minute. Flip over. (At this point, some berries may fall out. That’s ok.). Fry for another 2 or 3 minute.

When the biscuits are nice and lightly crisp, remove and drain briefly on a paper towel.

Dust with confectioner sugar and wrap tightly in wax paper before they’re completely cool. Store in the refrigerator. The biscuits will keep for about a day. Considering they make a great breakfast, snack and after dinner dessert, they won’t last much longer.