On Picking Blackberries


I spent some time picking blackberries this weekend, a favorite and also least favorite summer activity.

It is my experience that no matter how I plan, no matter what time of the morning or evening, the temperature rises above 100 degrees the moment I get within picking distance of a blackberry patch. I suspect blackberries have their own environment where as soon as I enter the heat rises, the sun immediately moves overhead to remove all shade, the air gets that wavy heat appearance common in western movies, and grasshoppers start singing in the background. Plus, blackberry plants are covered in thorns so sharp that, even if I could manage the picking while wearing gloves, the thorns would go straight through. I never fail to emerge from blackberry harvesting with shredded clothing stained in purple berry juice, sweat, and blood. It is a tremendous amount of work for a few pints of berries.  

If I want blackberries, I can purchase them fresh or frozen from the grocery store, all year long. So, why do it? To me, the fresh berries picked with my own bloody fingers, from my own thorny plants, on my own patch of earth, just taste better. With a sweet flavor mix of of sunshine and nostalgia, it is the nostalgia that gets me most. Picking requires very little thinking, so the mind wanders, and I’m taken back to a time when summers were long, spent barefoot and unbathed much of the time. Mostly, picking blackberries allows me to spend heart time remembering the two women who picked berries long before me, and with whom I picked alongside as a child: my mother and my maternal grandmother.

Mom picked from these very same plants I stand in. She went in the mornings with bowl in hand and picked “a mess” to freeze, make jam, bake in a cobbler, or just enjoy in a bowl sprinkled with white sugar. I often joined her, cutting out the middleman by popping them straight from the plant into my mouth. I can’t imagine how many tiny bugs I ingested. Mom never insisted I pick with her. She extended the invitation and let me decide for myself. For her it was a meditation and she picked mostly in silence. I loved being around her, especially when it was just the two of us. I basked in the glow of having her all to myself. I didn’t pick as quickly or as efficiently as Mom did or stay at the task as long. Eventually, the heat, thorns, and mindlessness of the activity overshadowed the pleasure of the berries on the tongue, and I left for other amusements.

My grandmother, on the other hand, would have none of that. I spent long periods in the summertime with her and my grandfather.  My grandparents, Harvie and Exie Montgomery, had a massive (in my child’s memory) fruit and vegetable garden. They taught me a great deal about gardening, not by instruction but simply by letting me live in their world every school break. Little did I know, by just walking beside them, I was learning when to plant and harvest potatoes, crop rotation, and companion planting. There may have been a logical horticultural reason for the petunias planted near the onions, but for all I know it was just because of that song.

Their garden was bordered on one side by a hedge of blackberries, taller than all of us.  Grandma would wake me at sunrise. We would have breakfast – usually buttermilk biscuits, bacon, and eggs swimming in bacon grease. Sometimes there was a box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes with a colorful rooster on the front that I would have sprinkled with too much sugar and a sliced banana on top.  After breakfast, she dressed me in one of Grandpas long sleeved shirts and a homemade bonnet to protect me from burning and freckling even more than I already was. Then we would go out the backdoor, buckets in hand, and pick blackberries for what seemed like hours. 

The berries were bursting with flavor and as large as my thumb; of course, my thumb was much smaller back then. I liked to eat them straight from the vine, but Grandma was adamant that more of the berries go in the bucket than my mouth.  We picked close together, with her getting the ones up top and me staying low.

As I stood in the 100+ degree heat in my own patch this weekend I noticed a large unattractive bug enjoying a large juicy berry, a memory played itself out in my mind.

Why didn’t you pick that one?” Grandma asked me, pulling a large berry I had passed up.

“There was a giant bug on it,” I said.

“The bugs and birds will only eat the sweetest fruit,” she said, handing the berry to me. “So, just shoo the bug away and pick it.”

I popped the berry in my mouth, confirming her theory.

It occurred to me that, while I learned a great deal about gardening from my grandparents, they never talked about sharing the garden with nature. Having relied heavily on a good harvest to feed their young family, they likely viewed nature as the competition. They planted castor beans to keep moles away; marigolds and nasturtiums to repel bugs. Grandpa hung the tops of tin cans to the limbs of fruit trees to scare the birds, strung thin wire to keep furry things away from tender plants, and he was always at war with the squirrels in his pecan tree.

We are different in that respect, but then our lives are different. I grow because I want to; they grew because they had to. Their very lives, and the lives of their children, depended upon a successful garden. If my garden fails to produce, there is a grocery store or farmer’s market within a few miles of my home. But I believe growing my own food is important. I also believe we must do it in a way that doesn’t harm the natural world. I will not use pesticides or herbicides and if I lose a few things to the wildlife because of it, then so be it.

My gardening policy can be summed up in the words of my dear friend Sandy Grambort, who said, “Why should Mother Nature share with us, if we won’t share with Mother Nature?” (I swear I’m going to have that put on a t-shirt). If I do it the right way, there will be more than enough to go around.

“That’s OK,” I said coming back to the ugly bug. “You go ahead and enjoy that one, I’m finished here anyway.”

I took the berries home and made a cobbler. Here is the recipe.

Blackberry Cobbler

  • 2 cups (more or less) blackberries (you can use fresh picked, produce aisle, or frozen)
  • 1 cup sugar (I use brown sugar in most of my dessert recipes. I find it adds depth and flavor, not just sweetness; but white sugar is fine, too).
  • I teaspoon vanilla (this is the secret ingredient my mother taught me, always add vanilla to fruit recipes, it brings out the flavor).1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk (I use almond or coconut milk for this, but dairy milk is traditional).
  • ½ cup melted butter (I use a planted based butter, but dairy butter is traditional – please NO margarine).
  • Optional but important: Vanilla bean ice cream, preferably homemade.

Preheat oven to 375oF.

Hand mix the berries, sugar, and vanilla. Set aside and let it rest until a syrup forms, 15 minutes or so. Meanwhile, in a different bowl, mix the dry ingredients together. Add the milk. Stir in the melted butter. Hand mix until you have a nice smooth batter. Spread in an ungreased 8-inch pan. (You can use a glass pan, but I like to use a cast iron skillet; it makes the crust even chewy-crispier). Pour the berry mixture evenly over the batter. Let it rest covered for 10 minutes to allow all the flavors and juices to seep into each other.

Bake about 50 minutes, or until the batter has risen around the berries and has a nice golden color.

Serve over ice cream.

You are welcome.

Blackberry Cobbler with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

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