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MARTHA SEZ: Confessions of a reformed scrumper

September 8, 2017
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

When I was 16 or 17, living in Northern Ireland, my friend Penny Turner introduced me to a variety of commercially made hard ciders, some better than others.

The brand called Scrumpy's was the worst, unrefined and sulphurous tasting-no relation, by the way, to the beverage by the same name currently produced in Flushing, Michigan.

Scrumpy, as I have learned, is a term from West English dialect for any rough hard cider. A scrump is a withered apple, or any withered up thing or person, as in Q: Who started that vicious rumor about Rosalyn Baker? A: Those two old scrumps sitting over there in the corner.

At first, scrumpers were people who gathered windfalls from other people's orchards, but later the term came to refer to apple stealers in general.

The verb to scrump can be used with a direct object: Rosalyn Baker was up in Sam Johnson's tree scrumping apples.

It can also be used without a direct object: The Wilson boys were out that night poaching, thieving and scrumping.

Like my mother before me, I have always been a borderline scrumper, although some will maintain that I am more hardcore. I love picking wildflowers, nuts and berries. In the past I have gathered St. John's wort flowers which, infused in oil, produce a bright red liquid with legendary healing properties. Right now I have my eye on a patch of ripening elderberries. I don't even like elderberries, but, even so, sometimes I boil them into a syrup that is reputed to ward off the flu.

When my daughter was younger and of necessity forced to ride with me in the car (Mom! You're veering off again!) she would slouch down in the seat mortified as I pulled off the road and waded into the underbrush after some desirable wild plant. Years later, on family walks, her own daughter toddled into neighbors' gardens after flowers she coveted. She called them floodies.

"It's a floody! Hi, floody!"

"Emma! Don't pick Mrs. Garcia's flowers!"

That apple didn't roll far.

Now I am looking at scrumping in a different light.

Near my place of work there is a peach tree grove, owned by my employers. These trees, which never before produced fruit, are profligate this summer, their branches so heavily laden they had to be shored up with planks to prevent the weight of the fruit from splitting the trunk. Many peaches fell before ripening because the tree simply couldn't support them.

At first, others didn't notice these peach trees, but, with my keen scrumper's eye, I saw their condition early on and began to keep a vigilant watch over them.

Gradually the peaches swelled and ripened, their cheeks turning red, and sure enough, just as I had feared, people began showing up with capacious sacks, tubs and buckets and began to scrump with brazen abandon, often taking fruit before it had a chance to mature.

In an article about scrumping by Felicity Cloake ("The Guardian," 2 Nov. 2009), the author asks whether it is all right to take fruit if one asks permission first.

"When I raised the subject," she wrote," my host was horrified. How, he asked, would this be any different from me spying a swimming pool from the road and asking the owners whether they'd mind me doing a few lengths, given they weren't using it? ... What if they were planning to harvest the fruit later, but felt obliged to let me have it? In vain I argued that I would have brought them a jar of quince jelly later as a thank you. Surely that would have been OK? He shook his head, as if this was the craziest idea he'd ever heard."

I agree with her host. I have turned from my wickedness and will scrump no more. Yes, to take an apple or a peach or two is normal; after all, the temptation is hard to resist. But to show up like farm workers ready for harvest?

Several scrumpers pointed out peaches littering the ground in various stages of decomposition, implying we were at fault for letting the fruit go to waste, but please note they were not gathering windfalls themselves, except one who asked to take some home for her chickens.

All this - and the trees are not even mine. I have no claim to them whatsoever. I fervently pray that peach-tree avarice is not turning me into a curmudgeonly old scrump before my time.

Have a good week.



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