Diddling the Berries
LAST WEEK, A BUDDY of mine told me he knew where the holy grail of blackberries were growing. Blackberries happen to be my all time favorite of all produce. Blackberry jam, cobbler, glaze… you name it, if it’s got blackberries in it, I’m having some. Some people don’t like them because the seeds get stuck in your teeth, but that just doesn’t bother me. I do love the tart flavor, but I wonder sometimes if my affinity towards the berries comes from the fun memories that I have from my childhood.
My family had lots of acres and fence lines that wild blackberries thrive on. About this time of year, my mother and the four of us would gather buckets and forage all over the property to see who could pick the most… at least in my mind, it was a race. My father swears that his mother's blackberry cobbler recipe was the best in the world. He also said the only way the cobbler would come out right was if we baked it in a particular rectangular, metal pan that he claims was the same one that his mother used. That pan was pretty old, and it certainly wore its age. It was almost scary looking. I’m pretty sure that one of us wound up with that pan or we wound up baking a hole clean through it from making so many cobblers. It could have easily still been at Mom and Dad’s place when it burned to the ground several years ago. Either way, we got our four dollars worth out of that thing.
Mimi and I began using a huge cast iron skillet about 27 years ago. I use an easy, just right recipe that most people have heard of. One cup of sugar, one cup of self-rising flour, one stick of butter, one cup of milk with a dash of vanilla. I pour that into the skillet, then I add three cups of berries at 325 degrees for 40 minutes. Somehow the berries evenly distribute themselves throughout the dish, so every bite gets its fair share of the delectable fruit. It just wouldn’t be right not to add a scoop of your favorite ice cream to make all go down the hatch. I think vanilla is just right for old time’s sake, but there are so many wonderful ice cream flavors now, that the sky is the limit.
When it comes to picking the berries, I try to prepare as best I can to protect myself from chiggers, snakes and sunburn, since the good ones seem to grow best in the full sun. Wild blackberries have lots of thorns, so I know I’ll come home a little scratched up and itchy, but it's so worth it. My competitive side showed up while my buddy and I were picking. He didn’t get the memo that we were racing to see who could pick the most before we either got them all or the heat beat us down. Turns out, we got about the same amount (actually I got more). I served my cobbler to a group of seven people that we had over for dinner that night. Most everyone had a plate of cobbler with a scoop of ice cream on the side. There was one guest who couldn’t handle the seeds, so that meant I had two plates.
There are varieties of hybridized blackberries that are thornless and make big and juicy berries. The thornless ones grow very well here and are easy to find at the local garden centers in the springtime. For some reason, the thornless types are named after American Indian tribes. Apache, Arapaho, Natchez, Navaho and Ouachita. I like the idea of planting some of each variety because some berry earlier than others, so it’s nice to be able to extend the cobbler season. Some varieties are sweeter than others, and some have smaller seeds than others. The thornless blackberries only need to be planted three feet apart, so having a few varieties won’t swallow up your whole yard.
THERE ARE OTHER vining crops that produce very well in Mississippi. Muscadine vineyards are not uncommon in our state. Mimi and I were honored to be a part of a local group of friends who met twice a year at a vineyard in Canton. This group had been gathering long before we were invited in to help with the pruning and the harvest. Mimi and I gathered with this most interesting group of people from all walks of life for about 30 years.
In February, around 40 of us would meet at sunrise to prune the vines back in order to keep the vineyard nice and neat, but also to ensure a heavy production of the bronze and the purple varieties of muscadine. When the work was finished, we would feast on potluck dishes and drink last year’s wine and juices until the day ended. There were lots of artists in the group who would gather some of the grape vines to make wreathes and all sorts of things with.
In the heat of the summer, around September, we would reconvene to harvest the grapes by diddling them onto sheets placed on the ground under the vines. When the sheets were full of grapes they would get dumped into large vats, where the lucky kids that came to the picking parties would get to stomp the grapes to get the juice out. What could be more fun for a kid to be told to jump in that vat and make a huge mess? Our kids, Mia and Max, were some of the lucky ones. They made every picking party from when they were born until around college time.
I know the beautiful setting, the wonderful people and unique dishes served over their lifetime will have made a lasting impression on both of them. I’m just not sure what impression yet; that will show itself later in life.
After the grapes were popped from the kids’ feet, the grapes then went through a hand cranked grape squisher, which would separate the husk and the seeds from the juice. There was a group that would deal with the juice, to make it into wine or jam or juice for next year’s party. You can imagine, by the end of those hot September days, after partaking last year’s wine all day long, the conversations could get very philosophical and interesting in a groggy kind of way. I personally don’t partake any form of alcohol, so I would often make sure that anyone who was “overworked” could make it home safely.
We miss those days so much. Those grape picks were the highlights of our years until the owner passed away far too early in his life. We know that we were lucky to have been a part of this gathering. The friendships made are still viable today. Mimi and I know the impressions made on us are ones that changed a whole lot about the way we live our lives. We learned at an early age that there are all kinds of ways to live your life. We realized we didn’t have to necessarily fall into the accepting the norm of anything that we didn’t want in our lives. Even the way we raised our children was influenced by having seen other ways. Many of these people, with their inspirational ideas, inspired us in ways we may otherwise never have discovered.
I think it’s very important to identify people or a group of people that enable you to open up your mind to new ideas and to make gatherings happen regularly. It’s so interesting to me to watch the like-minded people in your group evolve and age together. Our idea of a gathering that keeps us excited over the years, is a gathering that is active and physically challenging to those that participate. Of course, it is also nice to know that once the work part of the gathering is complete, that there will be some shade and a hammock to rest in while having long, groggy conversations.