Thursday, July 24, 2014
A Blackberry Summer Like No Other
Considering that as a kid, I didn't like blackberries except in jelly or maybe cobbler, my fascination with blackberry picking eludes even me. Strawberries, I actually like, but hate to pick. Go figure.
When I was young, my dad liked blackberries, so I assume picking them may have been some vane attempt to win his overt approval. He would eat them with milk or cream (depending on how Granny was skimming the milk) for breakfast. But I haven't picked them for him for years, unless it's an occasional quart or perhaps I serve a cobbler when there's a family meal. The approval I sought always eluded me, but I never quit picking.
I don't remember anyone showing me how to pick them either. I know my granny picked them with long sleeves and a sun bonnet and dire warnings about "chiggers," which were supposed to infest your arms and hands and itch like the dickens. I pick in shorts and a tank top and always have. Chiggers are apparently like fleas and mosquitoes and don't find me appealing. I do, however, wear high top work boots since I moved to North Carolina -- not because of the briars, but because of copperheads, even though I've never seen one when I was picking.
As long as I can remember I've grabbed a bucket and my dog and slipped out at odd hours to pick blackberries. When I was young it was always in the morning, although more recently it's been whenever and this summer I've even taken the SUV and finished up by driving home with the headlights on.
Spring left us with what promised to be a bumper crop of blackberries, hanging bright red on the vines down the side of my rural road and in the peach trees of a no-longer-picked orchard nearby. There were so many red berries, that if they had all ripened and if I had nothing else to do, there would have been truckloads. But the weather was dry and there was a time when I was convinced they would die on the vine, hard, blackened and dessicated.
The first time I picked, I carried bucket and all to the house where the matriarch of the peach orchard owning farm family lives. They had enough for cobbler and then some.
Since then I've picked probably five gallon, selling many of them to friends. Another friend said she gave hers away, but I thought selling them would allow me to share them with friends who wouldn't feel right asking me to just pick them a gallon. I even met one of my Facebook friends face to face for the first time when she came to pick up hers. She converted them into a blackberry sonker. Part of another huge bucket made its way to Charlotte with some of my doggy family and some of it became blackberry freezer jam. The last bucket I picked, to date, was on its way to becoming jelly as well.
I've packed away several quarts in the freezer and I'm not done picking yet, although most folks would say the season is over. Some of the shady hedgerows and woodlines where I'm picking are just beginning to ripen, the berries full and sweet and warm in the hot summer sun.
Every time I go blackberry picking, the memory of my past expeditions goes with me -- my first dog, Hershey, a terrier mix, and my old, worn Converse sneakers. The sun on my shoulders and across my face feels the same as it did decades ago. The thorns still do their best to entangle me, baffling me with their purpose, and occasionally leaving me a battle wound even though I know to lean into them to get free. The June bugs eating the sweet berries still startle me with their bee-like buzz as they flee the shaking vines. My fingers are still stained purple, although now I eat the overripe berries and think of warm blackberry wine (something I didn't have in my experience years ago).
While I'm picking, I feel a connection to my ancestors -- Appalachian women who foraged the fields for the same sort of berries I seek, hoping to gather food to feed a family, or perhaps berries to trade at the local store for items they needed more. I feel an almost genetic link to their gathering nature, an innate disdain for seeing food go to waste, unharvested, when it should be picked and put to use. I feel a timelessness to the task that hasn't been changed by hundreds of years of technological advancement.
Wild blackberries are still wild blackberries and their harvest is done by hand, braving thorns and snakes and the possibility of a bear, when they ripen. It's as organic and natural as it can be and I savor every moment of it, as much for the experience as for the fruit.
When it comes to the fruit, however, despite acquiring a taste for the biggest, ripest berries this year, I still like it best in jellies and jams, cobblers, and my new favorite, a crisp.
Our family cobbler recipe comes from Ma Mary, and works with peaches or any other berry or juicy sort of fruit (applies I'm not sure about.) It's easy, peasy, and the ultimate lazy dessert.
1 stick butter
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 quart fruit
Melt butter in 9X9 square pan in 425-degree oven while you stir together flour, sugar and milk. Pour mixture into hot melted butter in pan. Spread fruit evenly in batter. Bake about 20-25 minutes. Serve hot with ice cream or whipped cream if you like, although I also like it the next day at room temperature.
The blackberry crisp recipe was one of several I found on Pinterest and just happened to be the one I had the ingredients to make when I wanted something besides cobbler for dessert Saturday.
1 cup flour
3/4 cup oatmeal
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup melted butter
Combine these ingredients to make crust and spread half of crust in a 9X9 pan.
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp vanilla (I seriously don't think I included this)
In saucepan, dissolve the cornstarch in part of the water. Add the rest of the water and sugar and heat to boiling. (If you don't dissolve the cornstarch first, you get lumps -- trust me.) Add vanilla.
Stir in 4 cups blackberries.
Pour over crust in pan, then top with remaining crust.
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 60 minutes. (Mine was done in the low end of the spectrum, even with big berries.)
Have I made you hungry? Not me.
I've made myself want to go blackberry picking while I can, and I know just the dogs who will join me for my outing.