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Ripe for the picking

(article, Kathleen Weldon)

Blackberries were the fruit of my childhood. We picked other things, including blueberries on vacations in Maine and raspberries, strawberries, and apples at pick-your-own farms a few towns further out from the city. But by sheer quantity, blackberries held the place of prominence.

My mother was a farm girl who had found her way to the suburbs. Unlike her parents, who had made the same transition, she never made her suburban home a mini-farm. My grandparents had big vegetable gardens and apple and crabapple trees. My parents quietly proclaimed their upward mobility with petunias, shrubs, and a nice lawn. Their food came from the supermarket in clean plastic wrappings.

But my mother could not entirely shake off her upbringing, and the call of the berries was too powerful to resist. Blackberries grow practically everywhere, even in suburbia. Ground first turned and then neglected is the blackberry’s preferred environment. In other words, it’s a weed, a plant that multiplies rapidly in human footsteps. In any place that people have cleared and then ignored — under high wires, around water towers, along the edges of open lots — blackberries can take over. My grandmother had a small stand in her yard that she had planted from clippings stolen over the neighbor’s fence. No rooting was required; she just speared the canes into the ground.

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When it was time for the big August harvest, we were always careful to pick only on land that was not privately owned. My mother believed firmly in property rights, and trespassing was a cardinal sin. But the state land rented by the utility companies for their pylons and towers was fair game. We children would be dressed, despite the August sun, in old jeans and plaid flannel shirts to protect us from the thorns, and into the brambles we would go, armed with every container imaginable: sand buckets, strawberry trays, and gallon milk jugs cut open at the top. We were suburban hillbillies. 

Despite the enormous stands of berries, we never saw another person picking. Occasionally, we would find areas picked clean, but we never knew whether they had been harvested by human hands or just by birds and animals. It was hot work and I always came home covered in bloody scratches. But I was satisfied, in the way that only a child who is unused to the pleasures of labor can be when at last she makes a real contribution to her keep.

We always picked far more than we needed; one year, four of us picked 18 gallons in a single session. The bounty allowed us to indulge in prodigal pleasures. Blackberries were baked into pies, coffeecakes, muffins, and scones; they were cooked into vast vats of fragrant jam; they were eaten by the bowlful, alone or with cream. We made blackberry dumplings and blackberry cobbler and blackberry grunt from the [%bookLink code=0679450815 "Fannie Farmer cookbook"]. My mother canned the berries in syrup, which only my father liked. 

There was both joy and desperation in all this cooking. Blackberries turn quickly; they mold and rot, particularly in the heat of high summer. But my mother had a farm girl’s hatred of waste and couldn’t bear to throw away even berries picked for free.

One year, the town sprayed for mosquitoes, and my mother wouldn’t let us pick for fear we would poison ourselves. We went without berries for a few years, but found a new stand in a town that didn’t spray just as we were opening the last jars of jam from the old patch. That picking ground lasted just a year or two before it, too, was ruined with pesticides. That was the end of the big picking years.

But blackberries are persistent; even though I've moved into a city where the empty lots of my childhood are rare, I've found them again and again. On trips to the country, I can recognize at a glance the sort of spot that will prove bountiful: an edgeland mix of weeds I can’t name, but know well nonetheless. 

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During a summer I spent in England, I was amazed to see that blackberries had been planted along what was essentially a median strip, an island between roads — until I realized that the hedgerow that contained the blackberry canes was probably older than the asphalt around it. 

I picked berries from that hedgerow and buried them in good English cream, after confusing my English neighbors by asking if they had been sprayed. They had no idea what I was talking about, but they were shocked to see me pick those berries — as shocked as our neighbors back in my hometown probably would have been if they had ever caught us going for our annual picking excursion. 

I used to assume that my mother had hurried us out of the house early in the morning because she wanted to beat the heat of the sun, but now I’m not so sure. Picking your own food, unless you pay for the privilege at an agritourist farm, is associated with the poorest, most desperate classes. Gleaning food from public land carries a stigma few want to wear. 

When it comes to class, the blackberry’s weediness is held against it. Even the most wary suburbanite might pick a few wild apples on a country ramble, but blackberries are a different story. And other plants are shunned even more: fiddleheads grew in our yard, but we never touched them, and my mother would never let us pick the huckleberries that grew in the shadier areas near the blackberries. “Full of seeds,” she’d say. “We don’t need those.”

Of course, gathering has little to do with need, and everything to do with pleasure. There’s the pleasure in the food itself, of course — the dark, winey juices of sun-hot blackberries. But there’s also the pleasure of getting something for nothing, of directly supporting your own survival, of finding a secret treasure others don't even notice. These are primitive urges that the upwardly mobile must resist, which is why blackberrying, mushroom-gathering, and fiddlehead-picking remain suspect, even while gourmet stores sell the same items in tiny plastic boxes for exorbitant sums.

Last summer, I noticed a few small blackberry bushes growing next to the building being converted into condos down the block. I knew no one lived there, so I considered the berries, like those electric-company berries of old, to be fair game. I waited until dusk, then nervously slipped into the yard. 

The patch was small, and when I had picked it clean I had less than a pint of berries, a pitiful yield for someone who had once picked by the gallon. But that same pint of berries would have cost me dearly in the store. I couldn’t make jam or pie, but I ate them plain, and they were very sweet. 

A few weeks later, the wild tangle of brambles was gone, cleared to make way for a tub of petunias and a nice patch of lawn.

p(bio). Kathleen Weldon has worked as a pastry chef, mutual-fund trader, and pollster. She keeps a blog called The Seasonal Cook and edits a webzine about local food and farms called New England Grown.

Also on Culinate: An interview with professional forager John Kallas.


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