Summer is the time for the pleasures of pickin’: Part 4 — blackberries
— Jim Casada
Blackberries have long figured prominently in mountain life and lore.
Folk wisdom focuses on “blackberry winter,” a cold snap which seems to come along almost every year about the time briars begin to show blooms. There are at least three songs with “Blackberry Winter” in the title as part of the lyrics. The one with which I’m familiar has the haunting refrain “go away, blow away blackberry winter.” Noted Southern writer Robert Penn Warren, a member of the Fugitive group at Vanderbilt University, wrote an acclaimed story with the title “Blackberry Winter.”
Most folks in the high country probably aren’t familiar with Robert Penn Warren’s story and may not know the various songs, but I will guarantee that anyone whose roots reach very deep in the mountain soil has an understanding of blackberry winter along with dogwood winter, redbud winter, and catbird winter. All were traditional ways, long before weather forecasts on radio, television, or the Internet, of describing spring cold snaps. In the case of blackberries, the cold is important to productivity, because strangely enough it helps the plant set fruit.
When it comes to year-in, year-out productivity, there’s not fruit or berry, wild or tame, which is more predictable than the humble blackberry. Indeed, I cannot remember a single year in my entire life when there was a failure of the blackberry crop.
That’s just as well for me, because dealings with blackberries run through the fabric of my life as a bright and cherished thread. They were one of the first two ways I earned “cash money” as a boy, with the other being gathering poke salad.
In the 1950s, blackberries fetched a quarter a gallon. Today, you’ll be lucky to find them for 40 times that price, and even then you will probably be buying berries grown on domestic vines which have no thorns, as opposed to wild briars. Yet in my boyhood I picked and sold countless gallons.
Berries were plentiful in old, abandoned fields within easy walking distance of my home, and I never really considered the effort of fighting briars, accumulating scratches, risking the occasional run-in with a snake or wasp nest, or other parts of the experience real work. In fact, I still enjoy picking blackberries and gather a few gallons every year.
Some of my berries went to Mom, and she paid me the going rate as well as letting me enjoy, as did the whole family, the delights of cobblers and jams made with them. The remainder were sold to extended family members or neighbors, and I never lacked for customers.
Most of the money I earned from picking went straight into trout flies, which by happy circumstance cost exactly the same amount I earned for a gallon of berries. I’m thankful the price of flies has not seen the same sort of inflation as that for berries, but of course the work and time involved in picking a gallon of berries far exceeds that of tying a fly.
We ate the berries fresh atop cereal, or with just a bit of sugar and cream, or in cobblers. The jam made from them was used to adorn biscuits, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and the layers of stack cakes. The latter was a particular favorite of mine, and I actually preferred those made with blackberry jam instead of the more traditional sauce from dried apples. Mom always canned a good many quarts of berries for winter use with cobblers. This was before the days of freezers, at least in our home.
The time for picking blackberries is just around the corner. The week of July 4 typically finds them at their peak of ripeness, although that varies appreciably according to the elevation. I’ve feasted on blackberries at elevations above 4,500 feet in early August. This year’s crop will probably be a week or so earlier than usual, and keen eyes watch roadsides for tell-tale signs of briars showing berries which are bright red before they turn to black.
Do yourself a favor this summer and do some picking, although I’d advise a good shower right afterward in order to avoid three days of misery with a batch of chigger bites. Once you have the berries, here are some scrumptious ways to enjoy them.
1 cup uncooked oats (not instant)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped nuts (black walnuts or pecans are especially tasty)
1/2 cup butter (cold)
3 cups blackberries (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup white sugar
Mix oats, flour, and brown sugar. Add nuts. Cut in butter until crumbly. Grease or spray an 8-inch square pan. Place half of crumb mixture on bottom. Mix berries and white sugar and pour over crumb mixture. Top with remaining crumb mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes or until gold brown and bubbly. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.
1 quart blackberries
1 cup sugar (or to taste)
Enough water to make berries thin enough to cook dumplings
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 cup milk
Place blackberries, sugar and water in saucepan and heat to boiling. Meanwhile, mix dumpling ingredients thoroughly and drop by tablespoons into boiling berries. Cook for 15 minutes or until dumplings are cooked through the center. Serve hot with ice cream.
Cold Blackberry Soup
4 cups blackberries
1 cup sweet pineapple juice
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon raspberry liqueur
Place all ingredients in food processor and pulse until blended. Chill. Serve in soup bowls, champagne glasses or tea cups. Great with toasted slices of pound cake.
To contact Jim Casada, go to www.thesmoky