A Detroit Jam

Posted by jdg | Friday, June 25, 2010 | , ,

It's not hard to find a good mulberry tree in a city; the challenge comes in finding a good place where you can go and safely harvest them with your kids without worrying about little pickers wandering off into a road or something. I knew of plenty of perfectly good mulberry trees along sidewalks near our house from the stains the berries leave on the soles of my boots, but it took a bit of investigating to find enough of them in safe, out-of-the-way places to do some proper gleaning in the city with the kids.

Our not-so-secret apple-picking spots are safe (they're well off any road). But we only knew of a few mulberry trees in desolate spots where we could hop out of the car and pick a few at kid height.


The real score came when we discovered that the parking lot of an abandoned hospital near downtown was full of mulberry trees. The parking lot has only one way in and out, so I was able to park the car sideways to block it and ensure that we would have the entire parking lot to ourselves. The only other person we saw was an old trainspotter watching and recording the cars that passed along the nearby tracks from Canada. 

Several of the trees had branches that were perfect for kids to reach. We brought a ladder, but didn't even need it. The trees were full of fruit and it didn't take long to fill our pails. Mulberries are delicious: sweeter and less tart than blackberries but similar in appearance. Also: no briers. With a rich, dark juice, mulberries are full of antioxidants. Their skins are very delicate so they do not transport well, and outside of the Middle East I think they're rarely sold commercially. Gleaning is the only way to get mulberries around here (they don't have u-pick mulberry farms, obviously), and we were happy we only have to drive a couple miles to do some serious picking.

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All of this picking was done some distance from the stainless-steel encased modernist hospital (built in 1972), now dingy and neglected and not that far from the abandoned train station. The hospital struggled for years and its ultimate demise came at the hands of a corrupt Detroit businessman who used the taxpayer-funded HMO he ran as a personal bank account. He frequently enjoyed vacations to the Virgin Islands, China, and Japan on his company's dime. When he went to Las Vegas he preferred to stay at the Bellagio. 

For years this hospital served the health needs of Detroit's poorest citizens and closed a few years ago for lack of funding. The surrounding neighborhood still has signs directing you to the nearest hospital; don't go there in an emergency though. This is all you'll find:

Last summer, I happened upon the hospital just after the security guards employed to protect it had abandoned it to the scrappers. The side door was wide open and the crude no trespassing signs hadn't even been put up yet. Inside the hospital was still intact; as far as I could tell, the scrappers hadn't even taken all the copper. They must not have noticed that the anesthesiology department still had tanks of gas and many of the cupboards were still well-stocked with various exotic-sounding drugs. I found scalpels and needles and other implements still sealed up in sanitized packaging. All of the big medical equipment was also still there:

The lobby had an incredible mural:

The surgery floors were more interesting than the patient floors, and there was even a morgue in the basement that was under three feet of murky water. Unfortunately I wasn't wearing my wellies. Oh yeah: all the patient records were still there, too.

Hey, give them a break, they boxed up some records (they just forgot to take them).

Yeah, and I didn't really want to know what was in these hazmat bags:

A year later, taggers have "beautified" the roof, windows have been broken by suburban explorers, the doors have finally been secured and I'm guessing very little of the stuff in the photos above still remains (except, of course, the stuff that should have been removed when the hospital closed). Don't even think about trying to see it for yourself; right now the hospital is being protected by something even more terrifying than security guards:

Everybody knows there's nothing scarier than a creepy baby doll. With all that criminal waste inside, it also seemed shameful to let all those mulberries drop along the edge of the concrete parking lot. Again, one of the best things about living in Detroit is that sometimes there's just nobody around to say you can't do something.

We left with six purple palms and three purple faces. With what we were able to glean from this site and a few others around the city, we ended up with about five quarts of berries:

At home, we washed the berries carefully (looking for bugs and worms), cut off the little green stems with scissors, and boiled them down in a typical jam ratio of fruit to sugar (I found these were pretty high in pectin and set easily). After adding the lemon juice and cooking for about twenty minutes, we canned them and ended up with one pint and five 8oz jars of Detroit Mulberry Jam. A week later, that pint is already almost gone). It is really, really good stuff:

[I know I'm going to get e-mails about the potential lead/toxins in these berries. I have no response other than that they came from multiple sites and sometimes we just like to live on the wild side and do dangerous things like drive on the highway and put a spoonful of mulberry-lead jam on our PB&Js; also before you write, make sure you know the total conditions under which those Chilean blueberries at the grocery store were grown]