We did this in 2013 and we did it again this year! So from here on, this is the same article that we posted last summer…
Serviceberry is a distinctly under-appreciated fruit. For proof, simply note that you have never heard of it. A couple of Americas ago, when most people farmed and lived in the country, serviceberry was an important seasonal food. It goes by many other names that will also be unfamiliar to you, including shadberry, juneberry and Saskatoon. Many varieties of the small, graceful tree that bears this fruit are native to the cooler zones of North America.
In spring, white, star-like serviceberry blossoms can be seen all over the hills of our region, before those of any other flowering tree. Most people assume they are apple or cherry blossoms. Our local, wild variety of serviceberry tree is quite lovely in other ways, with silvery bark etched with wavy dark lines and an unusual curving aspect to its trunk and limbs.
The berries themselves (actually, they are pomes, more closely related to apples than true berries) are densely abundant and turn many shades of red, blue and purple when ripe. They resemble blueberries in appearance, texture and sweetness but have a pronounced almond flavor from their slightly crunchy seeds. Native Americans ate them fresh and dried, and pounded them into the portable rations of fat and dried meat called pemmican.
In spite of their fine flavor, dramatic appearance and ease of cultivation, serviceberries have no commercial life or cultural presence in this part of the country. No one can persuasively say why (they are a hell of a lot better than gooseberries). Varieties native to the upper Midwest and Canada (juneberries, Saskatoon) are slightly more established as agricultural products and as vehicles for pie, jam and preserves.
Smaller varieties of serviceberry, usually with multiple, slender trunks, have become popular landscape trees. The designers of the High Line Linear Park in Chelsea and the Greening of Greenwich Street in Tribeca planted serviceberry on the southern stretch of the High Line and at the intersection of Harrison Street, respectively. Surely, these landscape architects were enthusiastic about the spectacular June display of the berries, as well as the earlier blossoms and the tree’s bark and form. No one ever thinks to eat the berries, but they are delightful.
In an unusual, perhaps unique, act of urban foraging, Bubby’s has produced what may be the first serviceberry pie to be baked from Manhattan-grown serviceberries in maybe 300 years. Who knows. But it was really gorgeous and pleasantly unlike any pie we have eaten.
There is one more reason to like serviceberry that we are eager to share; its name comes with a really cool story. Although “service” berry is almost certainly a corruption of the European name (sorbus) for a related tree that early colonists would have recognized, later Americans lost awareness of this connection and invented a plausible and much more entertaining explanation for how it came about. It was said that, in the days before mechanical excavation, the flowering of the serviceberry coincided with a thawing of the frozen earth sufficient to permit the interment of bodies that had accumulated over the winter. And these burial services would surely have been enhanced by the service blossoms themselves, the only flowers available in rural areas at that time of year.