MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Rosaceae (rose) family
Also known as chokeberry, black chokeberry, barrenberry, chokepear
Aronia berries taste vegetal like a grass stem, then sour like a crabapple, with a tannic pucker that rivals raw quince and deep-purple juice that stains teeth like wine. Aronia’s folk name—in many places still the name they’re best known by—is “black chokeberry,” earned by what you do when you eat them.
Member of the rose family and native to the Eastern half of the United States and Canada, aronia grows wild in good or poor soil, in meadows or bogs or roadsides or the edges of oceans and lakes, a cold-climate bush that loves full sun. It has been farmed in Eastern Europe and Russia for wine making, food coloring, and dessert flavoring since the mid-twentieth century, but only recently have American consumers shown any interest. Today, the co-ops and health-food stores where aronia might be found usually sell it as superfruit: nature’s medicine, chewable by the handful if you can stand the taste.
Aronia berries are high in polyphenols, the phytochemicals with antioxidant properties advertised to prevent cancer and banish wrinkles, allowing us to imagine an invisible serum that can slake, slough, or soothe the rust from our oxidizing, time-sensitive bodies. Anthocyanins give the berries their deep color and antioxidant load, while tannins contribute a dry, overpowering taste so strong that most people cut aronia berries with milder fruit to choke them down. Tannins often accompany anthocyanins, which means darker fruit tends to be more astringent. To get the most nutritional benefit, take aronia straight. The operative rule here, as it was in my childhood home: the worse it tastes, the healthier it must be.
* * *
My mother’s best scheme to convert me to her health rituals is a fruit smoothie. She starts with leafy greens in a blender, pours hot ginger tea over the greens to cook them slightly, then adds blueberries, two tablespoons of ground flax, and a banana, and blends until liquefied. The blender we use to make this drink shares the name of the hope we place in drinking it: Magic Bullet, or “something that cures or remedies without harmful side effects.” I often confuse magic bullets with silver ones, which do something else—kill mercurial monsters efficiently.
Lately, I’ve replaced the blueberries in my mother’s recipe with aronia berries. I would believe they are three to four times healthier than blues even if their packaging didn’t say so, because they immediately assert their potency: they stain everything they touch with a deep purple that’s not like blood but reminds me of it. When I smash an aronia berry between my thumb and the kitchen counter, I make ink that doubles as a nutritional supplement.
My husband, Sam, tastes my aronia smoothie and grimaces. He wants to know what happened to my smoothie skills. You get used to the taste, I say. You start to like it.
I don’t believe aronia berries will keep my cells unoxidized and disease-free, but I do believe that by preparing and ingesting these so-called superfruits and willing myself to complete this ritual every day, I have created conditions for good health. When I catch a cold, or when my immune system begins to attack me, it won’t be because I have abused my body, but because I have one.
* * *
Every morning, I drink an aronia smoothie and gather my pills. One Tic Tac–sized generic for allergies. Two cellulose sacs, clear so I can see the beige vitamin powder inside. Tablets of green-tea extract to clear my head, and tryptophan to calm my inner weather. One gigantic blue-black pill (magnesium for smooth digestion) and one average-sized green (nettles to curb histamine). Two mustard-hued turmeric prophylactics that might reduce inflammation and might do nothing at all, but have no side effects, so why not? Finally, four brick-red pills, mesalamine, to forestall a range of symptoms from ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease whose treatment, and only cure, includes removing the colon.
When my depression or allergies or inflammation returns, I will, through this ritual, relieve myself of responsibility. I did everything I could, I’ll say. All I can do.
Lately, my medicines are working. My compliance, as doctors might describe my willingness to follow this smoothie-and-pill routine, has been 100 percent. Lately, I feel just fine.
When I feel well—on days when my body’s only flaws are the ones dreamed up by my vanity—these pills seem worth the chore of swallowing them. The gagging. And the money. When I don’t feel well, I can blame my lack of compliance.
* * *
Current evidence-based medical advice says that antioxidants like those found in aronia berries might improve health when ingested as a naturally occurring element of a balanced diet. Even then, the fruits and vegetables themselves may deserve the credit, or the benefits associated with antioxidants might be accessible only in concert with other natural elements in fruits and veggies. Supplements that isolate and concentrate particular antioxidants—as if they are pure ore extracted from the waste rock of fruit—have no proven benefits and may even harm. What we know for certain is what we’ve known for ages: a diet high in fruits and vegetables is healthier than a diet that isn’t. The faith my mother gave me in food as medicine is well placed, but when it comes to superfruits we should all remain agnostic.
An alternative guide to food as medicine—one that lingers in our collective imagination despite a slew of evidence that contradicts its advice—is the Doctrine of Signatures. This ancient method of identifying the medicinal properties of the vegetable kingdom observes a plant’s shape, color, odor, or habitat and relates these characteristics to the human body parts and conditions we imagine these plants resemble. Lungwort’s mottled leaves look like sick lungs, which signals that it aids respiratory diseases. Eyebright’s white-lashed flowers indicate that the plant will help sight. Stinging nettles echo the sting of allergies, so we use them to reduce our histamine response. Eat carrots to see in the dark; eat bread crusts to make hair curl. In Christian cultures, God formed these “signatures” to help people identify how to heal themselves, but the Doctrine of Signatures appears with or without that ideology, and with or without that name, all over the world throughout human history, from ancient Rome to English herbalists of the Middle Ages, from Renaissance physicians to modern-day Israeli folk medicine, from Native American medicinal traditions to ancient and modern Chinese medicine. This relation between plant and human parts is underpinned by a shared understanding between healer and patient that the human body ends not at our skins but extends into nature; that what is in nature is also in us. It is not so much a list of prescriptions as a way of seeing and making sense of how a world that harms our bodies can also heal them.
To many people today—and plenty in past eras—the Doctrine of Signatures is laughable. Mere pseudoscience. And yet I haven’t stopped believing my eyes. The resemblance between small round aronia berries and pills, between dark-purple aronia juice and lifeblood—they make sense. A visual rhyme that reinforces my faith in aronia’s hidden attributes, a way to look for a cure when I don’t know how to cure myself. I know these berries aren’t magic. I know they aren’t medicine. But I feel better.
* * *
Superfruits might be sold for their medicinal characteristics; their high-density nutrients may promote good health and longevity; and their righteous glow has certainly been documented by advertising—but superfruit is a marketing pitch, not a medical term. Truly medical food, as the FDA defines it, is food that has been processed and formulated to treat a particular ailment, like malnutrition, and is administered under medical supervision. Medical food is not your doctor’s advice to eat a balanced diet or consume superfruits to manage particular symptoms.
We eat superfruits anyway. Some of them are even tasty! But why do health-focused Americans eat acai and goji berries from abroad instead of aronia from our own backyard?
Exoticism sells. Plus, “chokeberry” is bad branding. Not only is the name unappetizing, but chokeberry is a common plant unremarkable in appearance and seemingly useless as food. The Potawatomi tribe of the Great Lakes has long known chokeberry’s medicinal properties—in Native American Medicinal Plants, Daniel E. Moerman documents their use of chokeberry infusions for colds—but that knowledge wasn’t valued by immigrant colonizers as they spread across the Midwest, and it wasn’t passed down in any mainstream way to their descendants. Only recently have commercial marketers replaced the “choke” in favor of the more alluring “aronia” (from the plant’s scientific name, Aronia melanocarpa). And only after “aronia berry” replaced “chokeberry” did marketers find eager North American customers.
Though aronia berries are also called barrenberries and chokepears, they are not chokecherries, a Prunus species with dark fruits that look like chokeberries but have pits like cherries. It is possible to confuse the two. They share the astringency and antioxidant load that gives both species their choke, but whereas the entire chokeberry plant can be consumed without consequence, parts of the chokecherry plant are poisonous. Do not eat chokecherry leaves or seeds. They contain compounds that the body turns into cyanide.
* * *
What I remember most about my mother’s illnesses, whose symptoms were largely invisible because they came from migraines—“just another tired mom,” one doctor diagnosed—are her diets, which hovered at the edge of our suppertime routines. Sardines, broccoli, fiber, flax. We did not have to eat those things but watched her eat those things, taking them into her body like a cure.
In my favorite childhood memory, it’s 3:00 p.m. on a Tuesday the year I’ve learned how to read. I am sitting on the floor with a stack of Sears catalogues in my lap, sealed in a quiet that’s like the quiet I feel right now, writing this.
I am reading. That’s all.
When, as an adult, I first told my mother about this, she cried.
She cried because she was not there.
She was not there because, by the time she was thirty, the migraines that had felled her occasionally since childhood began to strike her down every week. I remember her home from work at the clinic, her bedroom curtains pulled against the sun, an ice pack clouding her forehead and eyes, the nausea and pain larger than she could support and stay upright. I remember a tunnel of bedclothes with my mother inside, still and quiet and breathing, waiting to be released.
My father was also not there. He was at a construction site. He’s never said he feels sorry for this. Why should he? He would have felt guilty for not working.
My mother is sorry, my mother is sad, because every hour she retreated from us in pain is an hour stolen from her. She is still totaling that theft.
I tell her I was happy alone; her headaches gave me time to read and dream. This does not diminish her loss.
Mom says, still, year after year: This is the year I will get my health under control. One of the main methods will be a strict diet of ever-changing eliminations. She just needs to be good. She just needs to be better.
She is good. She is better.
And then she’s not.
Sometimes I think she’s trying to cure herself with diets because diets are impossible to follow perfectly, so when she slips up she can rest the blame for her illness on herself. Not God. Not science. Compliance. The regimen that will restore her health. The argument she makes to a body that won’t listen.
* * *
“Don’t give her that,” my mother scolds. This month she’s vegetarian. My father has handed me the best bit of fat off the roast he just pulled from the grill.
I put the meat in my mouth and chew, black sear on juicy fat and tender shreds of muscle. The best piece.
He looks at Mom with a tight smile that says this is none of her business.
“That stuff is going to kill you,” she says.
I reach for another piece. I taunt her with my eating.
I am not a child when this happens. I am thirty, the age she was when migraines knocked her out. I feel a flash of fury like a child, though, because here again is the moving standard of health I cannot meet.
Copyright © 2021 by Kate Lebo