The Hood River valley produces two-thirds of Oregon’s annual yield of 800 million pears. That’s well over half a billion pears. That statistic unequivocally earns the humble pear a king’s crown in this fruit-rich valley.
But why pears?
As a chef I seek variety, and as a personality, I tend to sniff out to the underdog. As I witness flatbed trucks stacked high with those telltale white plastic crates rolling down Highway 35 these days, I have to wonder: what about all the other luscious fruit that comes out of this valley? How did pears become such a thing? Plus, as any Game of Thrones fan knows, there is no meaning to a throne without a contender for it.
Evidence of challengers to the king of the valley lay all over my own neighborhood, but it took this foodie 15 years of living here to discover it.
One day last summer, my daughter wandered in through the back door. She had created a hammock with her shirttail and in it was a mound of so many blushing yellow plums that is was straining her grip. The look on her face was of accomplishment, although not the kind of hedonistic delight that can beam from the face of a six-year-old when they have procured something truly valuable to them (like a lollipop from stranger.)
My look of astonishment gave her pause: am I in trouble? Rather than reassure her, I could only stutter out: “Where on earth did you get those?!” She answered: “From our yard mom, there is a tree behind the trampoline.” I was incredulous, dumfounded and then giddy. And then happy tears started flowing. She glanced at me sideways, spilled them out onto the table, and let the screen door slam behind her.
Actually, plenty of folks in Hood River and environs have fruit trees on their land or in their back yards, most of which they had no hand in planting. Most of them are aware of them however. Having a random fruit tree in the yard can puff you with pride and create a smug sense of belonging to the pastoral life without ever having to pull weeds in the baking sun or shovel poop. You pretty much get to sit there and watch it ripen.
It became my new hobby to snoop around the neighborhood looking for plummy new acquaintances. My greatest find was a dark, unclaimed beauty just a dozen yards from the road I travel every day, perched on the edge of a cliff above the Hood River. The view must have inspired her because her branches were heavy with a richly-hued red fruit that gave in to a gentle squeeze but bounced back to form. Jackpot! And there I stood with no bucket to catch my coins as they came pouring out of my fruity slot machine. I glanced over my shoulder like a teenager contemplating shoplifting. When the coast proved clear, I ran home to grab a bucket so I could strip her clean before anyone else noticed what I was up to. (I can be just as stingy as your average mushroom forager it turns out.)
That year was a test of my family’s ability to muster enthusiasm for plums on my behalf. I admit to having let my drive to exhaust the creative possibilities override my sense of fairness. But, it did yield them some fine neighborhood-to-table meals.
When the summer heat set in this year I felt prepared. I had a handful of solid plum recipes and I even remembered to take my bucket with me on my jaunt to my secret tree. When I poked my way through the blackberry bramble that formed like sentries around her, I crouched down and peered through the leaves. From top to bottom, only a few scarred, dull lumps were dangling deep inside the branches. They seemed desperate to fall to the ground and have the whole mess over with. I had been anticipating more like the look on an orphan’s face when a fancy car pulls up (“pick me, pick me!”).
Now deep in the briar patch, my bucket destined to stay empty, I allowed a little self-pity. What a fickle lover this beauty had proven to be! Perhaps a similar feeling to what the wannabe orchardist who planted all the plum trees in my neighborhood long ago had succumb to on their first, second, and third disappointing harvest. Of course, for them, the consequences must have been far graver.
Who can say why my raven beauty withheld her gifts this season. (Actually, my neighbor Arthur probably could—he knows everything about everything Hood River.) Probably the same reason plums do not sit on a throne next to pears in the Hood River valley. Apples do. Cherries, peaches, plums, and blueberries are their courtiers, all vying for position but destined to be merely landed gentry.
And then there is the blackberry bramble—uncultivated, unruly, and unstoppable. While undervalued as a commodity in this valley, they are wonderfully wild and accessible to all as they can be plucked with success from every ditch and neglected slope.