The next time I pull my arms through my "Life is Good" sweatshirt, I will remember the day I met Olga Polkhovskaya on a blueberry farm overlooking Lake Erie, just after sunup.
Like clockwork, immigrants from Belarus and Ukraine spilled out of a half-dozen cars and vans onto the dewy sweetgrass where fruit farmer Alan Rassie was waiting with a stack of plastic crates. With the help of many hands, Alan and his wife, Jody, will ultimately harvest 28 tons of nickel-size berries this season from the ten acres they planted on their family's grape farm back in 1983. Today, Olga was the first in line.
"Her husband died one year ago," whispered a woman who introduced herself as Galena, as Olga disappeared into the shoulder-high shrubs. "She has 14 children..."
For now, it seems, Olga's Belarus is a world away. Downwind from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Belarus took most of the fallout when the reactor failed in 1986 â€“ the radioactive plume that blanketed the region contaminated 20 percent of the country's farmland; many people died and others still suffer from the long-term effects of the radiation exposure, though politicians and scientists continue to debate the numbers. Eight of Olga's children still live there; she could afford to bring only six of them with her to the United States.
The long, slow whistle from a Conrail train bound for Chicago, carried by the breeze, interrupted our conversation, but these workers are paid by the pound, so they kept on picking.
Galena bantered back and forth with her friends as they moved along parallel rows. Fluent in Russian and Polish, Galena is taking English language classes offered by a friend. She tells us she moved to this country several years ago and now works at St. Vincent Health Center, a local hospital. We learn that her younger children go to Jefferson school, and that her family bought a house on the same block where my husband, Rich, grew up.
Galena recently returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, where her mother and several other relatives live. The blueberries in Oregon are the low-bush kind, and like those that grow wild in the Ukraine woods, they are much harder to pick, Galena jokes, showing how difficult it can be to bend over at her age.
"Here, life is good. Much easier!" she laughed, translating for Olga, whose eyes softened while her smile revealed the glimmer of a shiny gold tooth.
Alan Rassie walks among the blueberry plants, chatting with the workers. On Saturdays he brings doughnuts.
Alan's father emigrated from Lebanon to the United States in 1948 after World War II, when his country became engulfed in the Arab-Israeli War. His brother, Alan's Uncle Jack, had come much earlier, in 1916, when he was only 14 years old. Alan is all business until he begins talking about his uncle's journey to Ellis Island. "It was pretty rough. He didn't think he would make it," said Alan of his uncle's dangerous voyage across the Atlantic, his voice breaking up, "until he saw the Statue of Liberty â€¦"
After working in New York for awhile, Alan's father and uncle eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where they ran a popular restaurant. When Alan's father retired from the restaurant business in 1978, he moved to the Lake Erie Concord grape belt to be closer to his wife's family, which had a long tradition in the fruit packing industry. Before long, the Rassies were running a bustling grape farm, that, under Alan and Jody's management, has grown to 50 acres, ten of them devoted to blueberries and three to wine grapes.
The small farming operation, though thriving, faces many challenges as the Rassies diversify in order to become more competitive. But generations of immigrants continue to find seasonal work there, along with a fresh start to their new life in America. Another woman named Olga has picked berries on the Rassie Farm every year since she was a little girl. This season, she brought along her teenaged daughter, Julia.
Blueberries at Rassie Farms are all handpicked and sorted. Wholesalers ship Rassie's blueberries up and down the East Coast, but this batch will be turned into blueberry wine, a sweet, specialty beverage bottled by Arrowhead Winery a half-mile from the farm. Good thing -- the day we stopped, the flavorful wine was on back-order.
Although Rassie Farms does not offer pick-your-own berries and the season has ended by now, customers can buy blueberries in 2-pound packages, sealed for easy freezing. Rich and I stashed 18 bags in our freezer to last us through the winter. Packed with antioxidants, blueberries make the perfect topping for my morning oatmeal, and are a staple for my favorite muffins, coffeecakes and pies.
I can vouch for Jody's pie recipe -- my family and friends agree it's the best they have ever tasted. (TIP: I use cold apple cider instead of icewater in my crust.)
Jody Rassie's Blueberry Pie
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
4 cups blueberries
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon light rum
favorite pie crust recipe, (single or double crust)
1 tablespoon skim milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In large mixing bowl combine well sugar, flour, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and orange zest. Add the berries, juice and rum and toss gently until berries are well coated.
2. Line bottom of 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Pour the berry mixture into the unbaked shell. If using a double crust, cut slits into the top crust, brush with milk and sprinkle with remaining sugar.
3. Bake 10 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake an additional 25 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.
Rassie Farms is located at 8259 Singer Road in the small, lakeside community of North East, Pa.
Mums by Paschke, off Exit 45 of I-90 in North East, Pa.
Arrowhead Wine Cellars and Mobilia Farm Market Rt. 20 & I-90 at Exit 45, 12073 E. Main Rd., 814-725-5509
Heritage Wine Cellars, Rt. 20 & I-90 at Exit 45, 814-725-8015
Arundale Farm and Cider Mill, 11731 E. Main Rd., Rt. 20, 814-725-1079
Lake Shore Wine Company, Rt. 89, 1120 Freeport Road, 814-725-1585
Mazza Vineyards, 11815 East Lake Road, Rt. 5, 814-725-8695
Penn Shore Winery and Vineyards,10225 E. Lake Road, Rt. 5, 814-725-8688
Presque Isle Wine Cellars, 9440 West Main Road, Rt. 20, 814-725-1314
Burch Farms Country Market and Wine Shop, 9210 Sidehill Road, 814-725-0747
Lake Shore Railway Museum, Wall and Robinson Streets, North East, Pa., 725-1911
For info, call the North East Area Chamber of Commerce, 814-725-4262.
Story by Lisa Gensheimer. Photos by Rich Gensheimer.
The Culinary Tourist appears twice a month in Gather Essentials: Travel. Explore all 50 states with award-winning documentary producer Lisa Gensheimer as she discovers the fun, food and people she meets along the way. Whether you're visiting the home of a faraway friend, stopping for directions at a roadside market, or on holiday in an exotic location, richly layered experiences await. Read more about Lisa's work at Main Street Media. Click here to read more of her stories and to join Lisa's Gather network.