Scrambling through overgrown pastures and picking blackberries is a summer tradition in my family. We have battled the briars, the heat, the chiggers, the bees and even other people crazy enough to compete with birds and bears for a small, seedy fruit for decades.
Picking blackberries brings back fond memories of togetherness as well as the luscious scent of berries boiling on my grandma’s woodstove. A child’s anticipation of making jars of jam for winter or cobblers for hot summer nights remains with me even now, as well as some of the less enjoyable parts of hunting the small deep purple fruits.
For those of you who “aren’t from around here”, chiggers are small parasitic mites, closely related to spiders and ticks, that haunt the overgrown pasturelands and disturbed areas where blackberries and raspberries thrive. If you are ever bitten by a family of hungry chiggers, you will not soon forget the intense itching bumps caused by the bites of this nearly invisible little foe. The briars on the biannual plant are furious, they hold no mercy for those wishing to reach into a thicket of thorns to grab a fruit the size on a small grape, over and over, until your bucket is full. You will not go home without scratches, and flecks of blood earned from your relentless pursuit of the lowly blackberry!
During the depression, when my father was a boy, it was a matter of survival-well, a matter of lunch at least. He was raised as the youngest son of a tenant farmer whose mother died when he was five. He and his older brother were constantly out looking for jobs to do in order to visit the country store nearby and purchase a can of Vienna sausages, a pack of “sodie” (soda” crackers) and a “dope” (a carbonated beverage, usually a Coke).
In summer, many “rich” people from the south made their way to the foothills in the area bordering Western North Carolina and Upper South Carolina. My father and his brother would go into the pastures owned by these wealthy summer residents and pick their blackberries, then they would go to the door and ask the lady of the house to buy the berries for 20 cents a gallon. It was an easy sell, there was “no way” the ladies were going to pick the berries themselves and their maids could cook them up into jam or pies.
When I was growing up in the sixties, I had to accompany my parents to my grandparents pasture next door every July in order to pick these little gems. I hated it. One year, besides the numerous scratches and purple-stained hands, I collected 103 chigger bits. Yes, I said, 103! I swore to them I would never go again and they couldn’t make me, and for years, I kept my vow.
By the time I had children of my own, the lure of sharing a childhood memory with my kids overwhelmed my memory of the misery of chigger bites. Besides, I had bug spray and had learned to scrub down every inch of my body, especially around “elastic” bands where they liked to congregate. I started to take them blackberry picking, sticking mostly to roadsides where briars and chiggers were not so hard to avoid.
We continued to share the ritual of gathering, washing and cooking the blackberries. We stood over hot stoves bubbling with deep purple berries we had strained with a colander, and mixed with sugar and Sure-Jell into warm, waiting glass jars. We would quickly pour the hot blackberry mix into the jars and seal them with melted paraffin to preserve the jelly. The pouring of the paraffin was my favorite part. As a child mom would let me make “Ice-candles” with the left over paraffin. (more about Ice-candles in a later blog)
Time has taken its toll, it has been many years since I first took my children blackberry hunting. I had few of my older relatives left to enjoy it with. I had lost a child and my health. When I approached my youngest son, and his friend, I didn’t have a lot of hope of talking teenagers used to Ipods and video games into a trek to briar and chigger land in order to collect a tiny fruit and turn it into boiling liquid when it was nearly 90 degrees outside.
Surprisingly, my son agreed to go with me one Sunday morning, “IF, he stipulated, “we drove the car up the back road and stopped to pick berries, got back in and drove until we came upon the next patch”. I relented and accepted his conditions. We had a blast. We came home with about a half gallon of berries, numerous scratches, and avoided the chiggers with a vigorous scrubbing.
A few days later, I asked my father, now in his mid 80’s, alone and anxious to reminisce, if would like to go blackberry pickin’ with my son, his friend and me, His smile said it all. Cane in hand, we set out ON FOOT up the road that used to be a path in what used to be my grandparents’ pasture. We wandered through the bushes at the corner of my aunts yard, a field that used to lead to her pasture and scurried down a bank to the paved road that used to be a path.
For nearly two hours, we picked blackberries, stashing them in plastic bags, and transferring them to cool-whip containers. My dad and I shared our stories of blackberry hunting as the teens laughed and bragged about how many berries they had, showed each other their “war wounds” from the prickly vines, and raced ahead to find the next patch of berries. My dad and I, backs aching, followed behind them as we made our way back to my childhood home.
Once again, I saw that my teens, seemingly addicted to technology, actually longed for the freedoms and challenges enjoyed by generations of kids who had to find their own fun, or earn their own spending money. They will treasure the evening picking blackberries with my father much as I adore memories of my grandma standing over that woodstove, wiping sweat from her brow. When my son and I got home, we decided it would be fun to share our adventures with others, that we deemed, “not quite so fortunate”- and even include a recipe for people who aren’t from the south and have never had a chigger bite.
Here is our recipe:
Wash the blackberries, and put them in a large sized pot with a little bit of water. Bring them to a boil and let them boil on medium heat for 5-10 minutes. They will boil over if they get too hot, so make sure and turn the stove temperature down when they start to boil. While they are boiling, add enough sugar to sweeten the berries. (OK, we don’t measure it, but I would say for a ½ gallon of berries, a cup of sugar will be a starting point) Add about 1/3 cup of corn starch to a cup of COLD water, then, while stirring the berry mix, add the cornstarch mixture slowly and continue to stir as it changes back to a clear purple and thickens. Leave the pan on the stove with the heat off.
Next, using my grandma’s recipe for the only biscuits fit to eat, mix these ingredients for the cobbler dough mix:
2 cups- White Lily Flour (preferably Self Rising)
2/3 to ¾ cups buttermilk
¼ cup Crisco
If you don’t have self-rising flour, use plain flour and add 1 tbsp of baking powder and 1 tsp of salt-you can use plain milk if buttermilk is not available.
(OK, if you are lazy, don’t like messes or can’t make biscuits, you can roll our canned biscuits, but don’t expect the mouth watering taste of the real thing.)
Mix together in a bowl-only until mixed, then dump the dough out on a piece of waxed paper covered in flour. Knead the dough for only a short time, then roll it out into a ½” layer and set it aside.
Using a large casserole dish, pour in part of the berry mix, then gently cover the berry mix with a piece of the rolled out dough cut to fit the dish. Top the biscuit dough with butter and sugar, then repeat with another layer of berry mix, dough cut to fit and butter and sugar. Bake at about 450 degrees until the biscuit topping starts to brown-about 10-12 minutes to start. It the dough isn’t brown yet, bake a few more minutes. Let cool a bit, then serve warm. You can top it with whipped cream, if you like, although that isn’t the way it was eaten during the depression. Enjoy this old-fashioned treat and be ready for compliments.
(You can substitute the blackberries for strawberries, or cooked peaches or apples)
Lastly, remember, life is short, memories are forever. One day maybe your grandkids will go berry pickin’ with you!