THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF PICKIN’—PART 1
As these words are being cobbled together, berry pickin’ might seem a rather distant dream. About the only real connection right now might be recognition of the fact that blackberry winter (or dogwood winter, or catbird squall, or just an unseasonable early spring cold spell) has arrived. The thermometer hovered squarely on 40 degrees this morning, and while there wasn’t any frost, the air was flat-out nippy. Yet white is showing on blackberry briars and they’ll be in full bloom within a week. Wild strawberries and dewberries are already in bloom. Such observations set me to thinking about wild berries and all they have meant to me, not only in a culinary sense but as a fact of mountain life, through my years. With those fond memories holding me with the warmth of one of the lovely quilts Momma passed on to me as a legacy of her love, this newsletter and the next will deal with what I like to style “The Simple Pleasures of Pickin’.”
Much of the material comes from a chapter on the subject in “Mountain Fixin’s: A Smokies Food Memoir.” Earlier today I finished the final packaging of the manuscript and have sent it off to what I can only hope will be the tender and receptive mercies of a publisher. Time will tell and I’ll keep you updated. Meanwhile, let’s jump into the bounty of wild berries. We’ll do so more or less chronologically by times of ripening, and there are recipes thrown into the mix for good measure.
Some of my fondest, most enduring childhood memories of growing up in the Smokies center on countless spring, summer, and fall days spent harvesting the varied bounty provided by the good earth in the most ecologically diverse area in the Northern Hemisphere. Foremost among these were berry picking during the late spring and summer months, although there were also the pleasures aplenty which involved gathering walnuts, hazelnuts, fox grapes, and persimmons in the fall of the year. Some of these pursuits provided welcome pocket money, all brought the joy of seeing a big smile on Mom’s face, and looking back I realize berry picking gave me the “grown up” feeling of knowing I had contributed something to the family table. Beyond those areas of gratification, harvesting wild berries offered an unfolding panoply of taste delights. Perhaps that’s why, even today, I derive a great deal of satisfaction from the simple act of pickin’.
From wild strawberries in the full blush of spring right through huckleberry time on the high balds of the Smokies as autumn approaches, there was always something to be picked and enjoyed. In rough chronological order of their ripening, the native berries included strawberries, dewberries, black and red raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, and huckleberries. Each of these is covered, with recipes and some thoughts on the whereabouts and virtues of the particular berry, in some detail below.
Yet at least passing mention needs to be made of other less familiar but nonetheless eminently edible berries. They include the likes of service berries (sometimes known as June berries because of their time of ripening, mulberries, buckberries, and gooseberries. Service (mountain folks invariably pronounce the word as “sarvis”) trees are one of the earliest of spring bloomers, and you’ll see their splashes of white dotting mountainsides when all else is still winter grey. Yet in my experience about the only service trees which consistently bear berries are those growing along creeks, although I must admit that come berry ripening time, given my love for trout fishing, that’s the place I’d be more likely to notice them. I’ve never eaten them any other form than straight from the tree, but their mild taste, enhanced a bit by the almond flavor of soft seeds, is most pleasant.
Like service berries, mulberries grow on trees. Daddy wanted nothing to do with them, claiming that somewhere in every berry there was a worm. I never encountered a worm but did enjoy the berries anytime I found a tree with ripe ones on it, and the berries leant themselves to the production of tasty jam if someone was willing to gather them and remove the stems before launching the jam-making process. Add buckberries and gooseberries to these lesser known berries of the Smokies, and with the more popular ones covered below you have a variegated bounty which loomed large indeed in everyday life in the Smokies of yesteryear.
THE PLEASURES OF PICKIN’: WILD STRAWBERRIES
Of all the berry world’s wild wonders, my personal favorite is the noble strawberry. Adorning late-spring meadows and roadsides, along with abandoned old fields and home places, these juicy red jewels have merits which could convince even a die-hard Texan that bigger is not necessarily better. In my youth, it was fairly easy to locate decent-sized patches of wild strawberries. They were scattered here and there at many spots in the Park and, to a lesser degree, on old home sites and clearings in the Nantahala National Forest. For example, the Jenkins Fields on Deep Creek were full of them, there were numerous patches around old home sites on Indian Creek, the sprawling fields at Round Bottom on Straight Fork were visited by my Aunt Emma and Uncle Frank Burnett on an annual basis, and you could find them in plentitude in fields along the Oconaluftee River and in the meadows surrounding the Park housing complex across that stream from the modern-day Visitor Center.
At one time or another during my boyhood I picked wild strawberries in all those places, and much closer to home there were two good patches within a few hundred yards of the house in which I grew up. Yet of all the sites I enjoyed these tidbits straight from nature’s berry bucket, none holds quite the same place in my mind of a midsummer’s boyhood feast enjoyed along the road leading from Highway 441 out to Clingmans Dome. My stalwart fishing buddy, Bill Rolen, and I had been on a camping trip, probably using the Fork Ridge Trail as our way into Deep Creek, although it is possible that the trail leading to Forney Creek was involved.
Whatever the case, we had hiked out at trip’s end and, upon reaching the road, were waiting at our ease on a sunny afternoon for his father, a Park ranger, to show up. Everywhere we looked in the field around us there were ripe strawberries, and it was impossible to walk without crushing the scarlet spheres of deliciousness winking from beneath their canopy of three-leaved stems. The fragrance of berries filled the summer air and both of us ate to somewhere near the point of being foundered. Apparently wild strawberries had long been abundant throughout the region, because in his Travels noted naturalist William Bartram mentions them growing so densely in ground burned by the Cherokees (which is one explanation advanced for the balds of the Smokies) that they dyed the legs of his horse and filled the air with their pungency.
These berries featured slender necks and an elongated shape, although, as anyone who has done a fair amount of picking wild strawberries knows, they come in a variety of sizes and configurations. I don’t know the exact reason why, but obviously factors such as soil and genetics enter into the equation. One thing they do have in common–all are delicious.
Wild strawberries put their tame cousins to shame when it comes to taste. Domestic berries get much larger and are more durable, easier to pick, and simpler to cap. Yet the difference in taste makes all the extra effort associated with wild ones well worthwhile. Without question it was wild strawberries Izaak Walton had in mind when he quoted a fellow named Dr. Boteler on the appeal of strawberries in The Compleat Angler: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry,” he wrote, “but doubtless he never did.”
Those words of wisdom are well worth keeping in mind during strawberry time, and for proof in the pudding, so to speak, here are some recipes using wild strawberries. Of course, lacking the real thing you can use tame substitutes. They are still delicious, but once you’ve sampled and savored wild strawberries tame varieties will never seem quite as good.
WILD STRAWBERRY TRIFLE
I first ate a trifle (it used raspberries, not strawberries) when in Scotland a full 40 years ago. Talk about an eye-opening dessert! The basics of a trifle are simple—it’s a mixture of berries, cake, whipped cream, pudding, and, if you wish (and I do!), a bit of rum. Many recipes call for angel food cake, but for my part, and in keeping with Smokies-style foodstuffs, I think an old-fashioned pound cake made with plenty of eggs is better. Fill a trifle bowl (or any large bowl—it’s just that the clear ones made for trifles have a world of visual appeal) with successive layers of crumbled cake, vanilla pudding, sliced berries, and whipped cream until you reach the top or run out of ingredients. Finish with whipped cream at the top and decorate it with whole berries. Trifles are wonderful any time after they are made, but letting them “set” in the refrigerator for 12 hours or so allows berry juice to mingle with other ingredients in almost mystical fashion.
1 pound cake baked according to directions or as you normally prepare it
1 quart wild strawberries (cooked slightly with sugar and a dash or two of rum or Grand Marnier if desired)
3 large vanilla pudding mixes (enough for 6 cups of milk) mixed according to directions
2 large containers whipped topping (24 ounces total)
WILD STRAWBERRY BUTTER
1 cup salted butter (at room temperature—if you are blessed enough to have home-churned butter, so much the better)
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
¾ cup wild strawberries, hulled rinsed, and drained well
Cut butter into pieces and place in a blender. Pulse until fluffy. Add powdered sugar and berries; blend until spread is light and soft. Refrigerate in a covered container. Delicious on toast or biscuits and this is a fine way to make relatively few berries go a long way.
WILD STRAWBERRY MUFFINS
1 cup self-rising flour
¾ cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup milk
¼ cup canola oil
1 cup wild strawberries, capped and cleaned
¼ cup sugar
1/8-1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Using a spoon, thoroughly mix all muffin ingredients except strawberries. Gently fold in strawberries and fill sprayed muffin tin slots 2/3 full. Combine sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over top of muffins. Bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve warm with strawberry butter or strawberry cream cheese. Again, this is a great way to “stretch” a small quantity of wild strawberries while enjoying their delectable flavor.
WILD STRAWBERRY SPINACH SALAD
4 cups washed and torn spinach
1 cup hulled and washed wild strawberries (you can substitute tame ones) cut in halves
1/3 cup black walnut, pecan, or English walnut meats, chopped
Combine and set aside, then prepare dressing using 2 tablespoons strawberry jam, 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, and 1/3 cup oil. Blend jam and vinegar then add oil gradually as you continue to process. Use this to dress the salad.
THE PLEASURES OF PICKIN’: DEWBERRIES
The next berry to make its annual ripening appearance is a bit larger than wild strawberries but of distinctly humble origins. Of all the wild berries found in abundance the Smokies, dewberries may well be the most overlooked. The child of farmed-out land and exhausted soil, right down to patches of graded red clay, this black beauty is all too often ignored. Yet connoisseurs welcome the berry’s season return with a joy born of past experience for they recognized the dewberry’s singular and scrumptious merits.
A cousin of the blackberry, dewberries have a number of distinct characteristics which set them apart from their more common kin. Rather than growing on canes, they send runners along the ground. Where blackberries send up new canes each year after bearing fruit, dewberries spread by sending down roots where runners touch the soil. Of course they can be spread by birds as well.
To my knowledge no poet has sung the dewberry’s praise, and while you’ll find its cousin, the blackberry, mentioned frequently in literary passages, this humble berry goes unnoticed. Yet the glories of a dewberry cobbler are such that it may be just as well that relatively few folks have sample and savored this toothsome dish.
Anyone familiar with the dewberry will be keenly aware of the fact it comes equipped with thorns on steroids. They are quick to stick and prick the unwary. Add to that the fact that you’ve got to do a lot of stooping and bending to pick them (no kneeling, which you can do with wild strawberries, because your knees just won’t take the briars), the possibility of encounters with snakes and yellow jackets, and the fact of dealing with a plant which is less productive than blackberries, and you have some obvious issues. Yet the ultimate reward makes all the pain and hard work worthwhile. I like what Grandpa Joe once said when it comes to the wonders of this wild delicacy. “The only thing better than a dewberry cobbler,” he reckoned, “is two dewberry cobblers.”
Dewberries have afforded intriguing moments in my life well beyond the culinary wonders which can be wrought with their berries. I’d love to have a $100 bill for every rabbit I jumped during my boyhood hunting days in a thicket of them. Rabbits somehow found a patch of dewberries the perfect place to spend the day, especially in cold but sunny situations during late fall and winter.
A dewberry patch and a crippled rabbit also provided a moment of visual high comedy which comes back to me clearly despite the passage of more than 50 years. My good friend and boyhood hunting buddy, Jackie Corbin, got a shot at a rabbit being chased by a pack of beagles. He hit the rabbit with his single-shot shotgun but didn’t drop it on the spot. Thinking he could catch the cottontail as it fled through a dewberry patch, he took after it like a two-legged beagle.
In doing so, he forgot the strength and tenacity of dewberry briars. Grubby (his nickname as a youngster never mind that he eventually garnered great renown as a Vanderbilt University researcher who was a leader on the team which discovered Viagra) caught one foot on a briar runner and it didn’t give even a little bit. Suddenly he was airborne, and at that moment he displayed all the agility and “cattiness” which made him such a great high school athlete. Jackie turned a complete flip, using his gun as a bit of a prop while doing so, and hit the ground running almost as if nothing had happened. Of course when it was all over (he caught the rabbit) it took Daddy and his best hunting buddy, Claude Gossett, a quarter of an hour to get all the red clay mud out of Grubby’s gun barrel.
Dewberries can be used in a wide variety of ways when it comes to table fare—cobblers, pies, muffins, fresh atop cereal or vanilla ice cream, mixed with plain yoghurt, or even in corn bread. Although I’ve never sampled it, I know the plant’s leaves can be steeped and used in making tea. Here are a few ways to use dewberries, and rest assured anyone who has never sampled them has a rare treat awaiting. I might also note that virtually any recipe calling for blackberries will work equally well with dewberries, though I find the latter to have a richer, more intense taste.
2 cups dewberries
½-3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Mix ingredients well and refrigerate for an hour or more. Allow sauce to come to room temperature before serving. Serve over pancakes, waffles, cheesecake, or ice cream.
THE JOYS OF PICKIN’: WILD RASPBERRIES
Wild strawberries then dewberries are the season’s first offering of what might be termed nature’s “dessert” bounty, but once the harvest of these spectacularly tasty morsels has come and gone, the promise of wild ripening raspberries lies not far behind. They follow close on the heels of dewberries and more or less simultaneously with blackberries, at least when it comes to ripening time.
There are actually two types of raspberries growing widely in the mountains. At lower elevations, found mainly around field edges and along roadsides, grow what are sometimes called “black cap” raspberries. At higher elevations, especially from 4000 feet up, you will find red raspberries. Often the latter do not ripen until late summer. They are common in areas such as balds, fire scalds, and other relatively open high-altitude places.
The last time I walked the path from the parking area up to Clingmans Dome, there were luscious ripe red raspberries all along the trail. Apparently not one in a hundred passersby knew what they were, because I picked a sampling for my granddaughter and me without much trouble.We had a most enjoyable mid-hike feast, all the more delightful because it was totally unexpected. My granddaughter, who was at that engaging age where observational skills and unfettered willingness to ask questions intersect, looked at the steady stream of bypassers and asked: “Papooh, why aren’t all those people eating those good berries.” I smiled and suggested it was probably because they were city folks (like her) who didn’t know what they were missing.
In the late 1950s the family of my boyhood fishing buddy and lifelong friend, Bill Rolen, had just moved into Park housing near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center following the promotion of his father (also named Bill) to district ranger. That general area had a fine growth of black raspberries and one day, taking a break from dealing with trout on nearby streams, we set out pickin’. Bill’s mother, Lola, had indicated she would make us a cobbler if we showed enough initiative to pick a mess of raspberries. She had grown up, in pre-Park days, not more than two or three miles from where mid-life found her, and she was obviously aware of the plentitude of black raspberries in the immediate area. Her suggested task was duly accomplished in good order. Our picking efforts producing the better part of a gallon of berries in no time at all. There were canes hanging heavy with black raspberries everywhere.
Lola Rolen was as good as her word. I don’t recall any other item on the supper menu, although that staunch daughter of the Smokies was a gifted cook, but thoughts of a big bowl of that raspberry cobbler, fresh from the oven and adorned with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, linger ever so strong. Just thinking back on that memorable food moment is enough to set my stomach to rumbling and plant subliminal suggestions that a berry cobbler for supper might not be amiss.
Of course the Park’s confines are not the only place to find raspberries. They are fairly plentiful in many places, and in the case of black ones the tell-tale purple tint of the canes, readily visible in winter, give you a “heads up” for some fine pickin’ come early summer. There are lots of ways to enjoy them, but for pure sweet tooth satisfaction combine with simplicity, it’s difficult to beat a recipe Mom used countless times over my boyhood and beyond. It is as near to a “can’t miss” baking approach as you’ll ever slip into an oven, and it works well not only with raspberries but most any kind of berry found in the Smokies. If wild strawberries offer culinary nirvana when it comes to a hearty helping of shortcake, arguably nothing produces a finer cobbler than raspberries.
ANNA LOU’S BERRY COBBLER
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 stick butter, melted
2-4 cups raspberries (you can also use strawberries, dewberries, blackberries, mulberries, elderberries, huckleberries, or blueberries in this recipe)
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and milk; stir with a wire whisk until smooth. Add melted butter and blend. Pour batter into 9 X 13-inch baking dish. Pour berries (amount depends on personal preference and whether you like a lot of crust or mostly berries) evenly over the batter. Do not stir. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, cream, whipped topping, or milk. Serves 6 to 8.
My “doin’s” have, for the most part, involved too many hours in front of this computer screen and too few in the woods, yard, or elsewhere. However, as has already been noted, I’ve finally wrapped up work on the food memoir. Now I have to turn my attention, full bore, to a project where I’m serving as general editor. It is a lavish book celebrating a decade of existence for the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association. Embracing 23 counties stretching across the heart of Alabama from east to west, the Black Belt garners its name from rich, dark soil which contrasts markedly with the red clay or sand found across so much of the South’s landscape. That soil produces an ecosystem wonderfully suited for game and fish, and that is what this book celebrates. It’s part love of and tribute to the land, part a photographic odyssey, part cookbook, and part highlighting the many lodges and outfitting operations found in the Black Belt. It will be my number one priority for the next couple of months.
Along the way, I also need to get my teeth into my next original book. This is “Profiles in Mountain Character” I’ve been writing about (and writing some of the profiles) for several years now. Well over half the profiles have been written and much of the research for the others has been concluded. I just need to tie it all together and get it off for publication consideration.
I’ve got an article in the current (summer) issue of Carolina Mountain Life, one on making complete use of your turkey in Wildlife in North Carolina, and recently finished a piece for Smoky Mountain Living on enduring fly-fishing traditions in the southern Appalachians. That’s about it in terms of literary productivity. The essence of the overall situation is that I’ve begun, increasingly, to focus whatever energies I have on books. All other considerations aside, they are at least somewhat enduring while articles are fleeting, ephemeral things—here for a day, a week, or at best a couple of months, then lost in the fogs of time.