This is a review of The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff and The Edible City by John Rensten. This review is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
I’ve jumped ahead again, but I just couldn’t resist reading The Fruitful City by Toronto-based author Helena Moncrieff. I’ve recently moved to Toronto, so I was really pleased to be able to add a book about nature in Toronto to my reading list. And, because I’d read The Fruitful City, it only seemed right to read The Edible City by London-based chef and urban forager John Rensten.
The Fruitful City focuses, as the name suggests, on fruit in the city, and specifically on fruit in Toronto. The Edible City covers London and its surroundings, but looks at a broader range of fruits, plants, and fungi. Besides both being about food in the city, these books also have beautiful covers and contain gorgeous illustrations.
Moncrieff first became interested in urban fruit when her daughter started volunteering for Toronto-based nonprofit, Not Far From The Tree (NFFTT). The idea behind NFFTT is simple – volunteers pick fruit from privately owned fruit trees (with the owner’s permission) and then distribute the fruit between the homeowner, the volunteers, and Toronto’s food banks and community kitchens.
I’ve often walked passed sidewalks dotted with fallen, rotting fruit and thought, what a waste. But NFFTT isn’t just about food waste. As NFFTT founder Laura Reinsborough states in a short video for Collaborative Cities, it is also about opening up the private to the public. Not only do other people get to enjoy a private asset, such as an apple tree, but it also creates a sense of community and trust when people open up their backyard to strangers.
Moncrieff takes part in an NFFTT pick. The apple tree she is picking is in a backyard on the same street that she lives on. She has never met Alison, the homeowner, before, yet Alison welcomes her into her yard. As Juby Lee, project coordinator for a similar fruit picking organisation in Hamilton, puts it: In this time of liability, when people could say ‘stay off my property,’ it’s a very sweet relationship… Here is a private space that you would never have access to and here’s a moment when the homeowner says ‘come on in.’
I would never have thought of fruit picking as a way of breaking down the public-private divide and creating a sense of community and trust, but clearly it is. It made me re-think urban nature and urban space. I’ve always loved urban parks because they are such egalitarian spaces. They are spaces for everyone. Spaces where it is okay to linger without purpose and strangers who would not normally greet each other on the street, are moved to smile and say “good afternoon”.
Gardens and backyards are part of the city’s natural fabric, but only the birds and the raccoons get to move freely there. It’s been a long time since I had a backyard, but now that I live in the suburbs of Toronto, I have a largish one. I’ve enjoyed having a space to be outside, without really having to leave my house, and I love sitting by the patio doors in the morning, reading and watching the birds and squirrels. But I definitely wouldn’t be happy to see a stranger in my yard as I sipped my morning tea. It’s a private, closed-off space that only me, my husband, and the neighbours whose balcony overlooks it, can enjoy. But what if we opened up our gardens to strangers? Not just to volunteer fruit pickers, but to the surrounding community and passers-by.
That was what Francesco did. Francesco was an Italian immigrant to Toronto who, craving fresh food, free from pesticides and fertilisers, planted his small plot of land with vegetables and fruit trees, including a fig tree. Francesco’s son tells Moncrieff that the fig tree probably came from a branch smuggled into the country. Indeed this seems to have been a fairly common practice and cuttings were shared between members of the immigrant community.
I’ve written elsewhere about the parallels between the rhetoric surrounding non-native species and the rhetoric around immigration. In Richard Jefferies’s Nature Near London, native trees and shrubs symbolize Englishness, or rather, a particular view of Englishness. Writing about the hawthorn Jefferies states: The hawthorn is a part of natural English life – country life. It stands side by side with the Englishman, as the palm tree is pictured side by side with the Arab. Of the plane tree, on the other hand, Jefferies states: it is unsightly. It has no association. No one has seen a plane in a hedgerow, or a wood, or a copse. There are no fragments of English history clinging to it as there are to the oak.
Moncrieff tells the story of Francesco’s fig tree, a story that makes the connection between non-native plants and immigrants literal. I did find an article discussing figs as invasive species in California, but I doubt they’ve made huge inroads in Toronto, considering they need so much human intervention to survive the colder seasons. Fig trees require a warm climate, something Toronto doesn’t offer in the winter. In order to ensure the tree survived the winter, Francesco would bury his tree, and then haul it out of the ground again in the spring. When it became too big to bury, he wrapped the tree and kept it warm with heaters. Francesco’s fig tree added to the over 10 million trees in Toronto and became an integral part of the community.
His fig tree was known locally as ‘the mother’ and Francesco was generous in sharing the fruits of his labour with others in the community. So much so that when Francesco died and his house was sold to a new family, people in the neighbourhood chided the new owners for cutting down an ailing apple tree. Canada, perhaps more so than any other country, has a strong association with a particular tree – the maple. Maples are able to survive in Canada’s climate. It is maples that give the north east of America it’s amazing fall colours. Yet Francesco’s fig tree represents another side of the story. Francesco was one of the many immigrants that have shaped Toronto. His fig tree wasn’t designed to withstand harsh winters, but Francesco lovingly cared for it, so that he and his neighbours could retain a taste of their home country.
My grandfather was an immigrant to Britain from Hungary. I’m told he made a mean goulash, and that he grew the most delicious tomatoes. But, as Moncrieff points out, many garden vegetables, such as tomatoes, have to be replanted each year. Once the gardener moves on, little trace is left of what was once there. Trees, on the other hand, endure: leaving markers across our cities of who came before and a taste of what they ate.
Another aspect of the growing interest in urban fruit is food literacy. As Moncrieff admits, when her daughter first started volunteering with NFFTT, she was skeptical about whether the bags of mulberries and serviceberries her daughter was bringing home were really edible. Since reading The Fruitful City I’ve become more aware of fruit growing in people’s gardens and in my local park, but most of the time, I haven’t a clue whether it’s edible or not.
This was bought home to me even further when reading The Edible City. John Rensten takes urban foraging to a whole new level. Not content to pick a few apples or pluck a few berries, Rensten eats plants I would never even have suspected were edible, never mind incorporating them into my diet on a regular basis. The list of plants he forages include hogweed, magnolia petals, beech leaves, ox-eye daisies, and pine leaves. Rensten believes this diet helps to keep him healthy, since wild foods are more nutrient rich than the limited varieties of fruits and vegetables typically sold in supermarkets. Indeed, since reading Rensten’s book, I’ve become more aware of just how limited the offerings in supermarkets are, even in the big box supermarkets I shop in now I live in North America. I might be able to eat salad year round and buy dragon fruit if I feel like it, but I suddenly feel much more limited by my inability to identify the edible plants in my surroundings.
Not only has foraging transformed the way Rensten eats, but it has also transformed the way he sees and interacts with the city. As he puts it:
It’s not really about free food, or even the diversity of tastes and textures and the opportunities these present, it’s the places where I find all my treasures, pockets of the city that seem invisible to almost everyone else.
Parks are a big source of the wild food Rensten forages and London has plenty of options to offer when it comes to parks. One park Rensten visits is Victoria Park, which was the first public park in London’s East End. The park was built after a petition was sent to Queen Victoria, asking for a green space that would improve the lives of the 400,000 slum dwellers living in the area. The park became a vital space for London’s working class and it continues to serve an important function today:
For obvious reasons, my life couldn’t be more different from that of a late Victorian ‘East Ender’ but it’s clear that our parks still serve a similar purpose, providing a place to play and relax, a cleansing environment in an otherwise frantic, work-oriented city. Without these green spaces I would be unable to tolerate living here at all.
I would agree with Rensten. Even if I don’t use my local park to supplement my weekly shop, it’s a space I go to almost everyday, for fresh air, exercise, and to clear my head.
Reading these two books definitely made me think about the food I eat and start to notice the fruits and berries around me, as well as wondering whether the green plants I pass are in fact edible. I’m not sure I’m about the turn into a full-time forager (even Rensten advises against any wholesale transformation of ones diet, instead advising dipping a cautious toe into the world of wild food), but my interest in finding food in the city and becoming more food literate has definitely been piqued.
I see a wild apple crumble in my future…
N.B. I wrote this post in the late summer, hence my references to seeing fruits and berries around. Shortly after I’d written the post, I went on a guided walk in a local woods and our guide pointed out some mushrooms. She said it was rare to find them now because people come to the woods with baskets and pick all the mushrooms. She then spent a few minutes discussing the downsides of the local food movement. While it might seem like a great idea to eat locally foraged food, it’s actually having a big impact on the species being foraged, such as mushrooms. She encouraged people to pick all the invasive species they can (wild garlic, for example) and leave native species alone.