THIS MONTH’S SPECIALS
Just in time for Father’s Day, I’m offering 25% off the list price on my website (www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com) on any book I wrote, edited, or contributed to in some way. They are listed under “Jim Casada Items” in the Books section of the website. I’ll also take care of a portion of the shipping, with you being responsible for a flat fee of $2.50 for shipping whether you order one book or several.
REJOICING IN REMEMBERING
This general season of the year brings, at least for folks of my vintage, a whole bunch of holidays packed fairly close together which resurrect, to use the words on one of the grand old Gospel songs, “Precious Memories.” Among them are Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Decoration Day. Some places the latter two are linked, but in the Smokies world of my raising they are distinctive and different. Memorial Day focuses on those who served in the military while Decoration Day is a time to decorate graves, refurbish cemeteries, and often, for members of a family or a country church to come together for a collective look at elements of a shared past.
For me, in one fashion or another, all these holidays or special celebrations involve reminiscence, an opportunity to look back on those who have shaped and nurtured me, serve as sporting mentors, been cherished friends, or otherwise impacted my life in a meaningful way which endeared them to me and guaranteed that memories of them have endured. All of this came flooding into my mind this morning (these words are being written on Memorial Day) when I was going through some routine household chores. One of them involved watering a flowering cactus which is, at this moment, absolutely spectacular. It blooms several times each year and what sets it apart is the size of the blooms. Each of them is at least as big as the average man’s hand.
The cactus was given to me 15 years or so ago by a wonderful African-American woman named Beulah Suddereth. She was a wonderful helper for my parents in their later years and especially for Daddy after Mom’s death. In fact, she meant so much to him that he had told my siblings and me he wanted Beulah to sit with the family at his funeral. That wasn’t to be. She died just a few weeks after he did, but whenever that cactus bursts forth with those spectacular red blooms, I think of her, our many interesting conversations, her cooking skills, and the fact that she was as fine a woman as anyone could ever hope to know.
Beyond that, there are other joyful memories, maybe bittersweet inasmuch as they involve folks who are gone, but in truth they can’t be gone as long as they remain so firmly entrenched in the warm blanket of recollection. Here is a sampling of those.
*Wearing roses on Mother’s Day—a red one if your mother was living and a white once if she wasn’t. Momma was really a stickler for this when I was a small boy, and by happy convenience there were rambling roses near our home which offered an abundance of buds in both colors.
*Father’s Day footraces—For several years, from the time I was 7 or 8 until my mid-teens, Daddy and I would have a footrace sometime around Father’s day each year. I was a later developer in terms of what folks then called “getting your growth spurt” (basically, reaching puberty) while Daddy was lean, lithe, and still played competitive fast-pitch softball well into his 40s. Each year our race would see him leave me in the dust until one yea he refused my challenge. I now realize that he reckoned I had reached the point where I was likely to outrun him, and he decided forthwith to retire undefeated. For years afterward, indeed into his 90s and perhaps even beyond the century mark (he lived to the age of 101), Daddy would occasionally say: “You never did outrun me.”
*Wistful looks back on special little things each of my parents did which were deeply meaningful for me. Momma making over a bucket full of blackberries or a mess of trout like it was the finest thing in the world. Daddy, who was sparse with his compliments, saying I had to be the luckiest fly fisherman in the world (this was when I reached a point where I could consistently catch more trout than he did. Both of them offering words of praise for some of my gardening efforts (these began at a quite early age and have continued to this day). The joy each of them took, in their later years, when I paid tribute to them in newspaper columns on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. I now know just how blessed I was as a boy and beyond, and I hope that in some small way I’ve managed to pass along their “touch” for evoking good feelings.
*My granddaughter graduates from high school later today, and if somehow through her life to this point, and during the next major step as she enters college, I can be supportive and do for her what my paternal grandparents did for me, we’ll both be blessed. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Minnie were just poor, simple, down-to-earth mountain folks, but in their distinctive ways they filled my boyhood with wonder.
There’s more, much more, to rejoice about, and one such matter involves my lifelong love for berry picking. Blackberry time is right around the corner, so this month we’ll continue the “pickin’” coverage which began last month.
THE PLEASURES OF PICKIN’: PART 2
Blackberries are far and away the best known of the wild brambles. Old Will Shakespeare, who seemed to know something about most everything, once wished that “reasons were as plentiful as blackberries.” Were that the case, ours would be a far more rational world, for most everywhere I’ve traveled in this country (and abroad), blackberries greet the knowing eye at every turn. Having spent a number of summers in the British Isles back before I became a “recovering professor” (retired), I can assure you that blackberries are just as plentiful there as they are in the Smokies. Abundant and delicious, they might be termed everyman’s berry.
Botanists tell us that there are literally hundreds of subspecies of blackberries, and anyone who has picked a pail full has likely noticed subtle variations in appearance and nature (it holds true for taste as well) of berries from different vines. In many cases even the vines have a distinct appearance, with some tending to stand tall and erect while others are more vine-like in their looks and growth patterns. In fact, genetic engineering has now produced a thornless blackberry, three rows of which (and I admit this a bit shamefacedly) now adorn the fruit and berry part of my property, and at higher elevations in the Smokies you sometimes find expansive patches which have far fewer thorns than is the norm. However, no self-respecting blackberry picker feels he has fulfilled all the requirements of his job until his hands are well-scratched, briar-riddled, and stained a lovely black-purple hue.
A love of blackberries runs as a bright thread through the entire fabric of my life. Along with poke salad, they provided the first “cash money” I earned as a youngster, fetching two bits a gallon in the early 1950s. I worked hard for many a quarter, but that quarter went a long way. It would buy a Fred Hall-tied trout fly at Doc Woody’s sporting goods store, a large tin of split shot, or a spool of monofilament. Looking at matters from a different mode of expenditure, twenty-five cents purchased admission to the Saturday afternoon cowboy movie at the Gem Theatre along with a drink and either popcorn or candy with a nickel left over—admission was a dime and drinks, popcorn, and candy were five cents each. Two gallons of blackberries brought half a dollar and enough to enable me to purchase buy a container of Weber dry fly floatant.
Mind you, it wasn’t all an idyllic stroll in a land of milk and honey. There were episodes where chiggers gave my nether parts the look and feel of chicken pox, briar scratches left me looking like I’d been on the losing end of a tussle with an ornery bobcat, and once I managed to get into a wasp nest. Those stinging minions of the devil sent me into painful retreat, leaving my bucket behind, and only hours later did I work up the courage to sneak back, survey the situation, and retrieve it. On top of that, there was always, in the back of my mind, concern about an encounter with a rattlesnake or copperhead. Daddy had told me too many tales of snake episodes from his Juneywhank Branch boyhood for it to have been possible to do otherwise.
Such obstacles notwithstanding, I loved picking berries. They were, for the three weeks or so of peak ripeness, a source of significant income for me, and I was by no means the only youngster who picked them. The joy derived from picking blackberries has in no way changed in adulthood. About the only thing which can rival the pleasure to be found in a session of pickin’ is enjoying the fruits of one’s labor after the harvest, although I’ve personally never been able to resist some “sampling” while out picking. Anyone who has dealt with blackberries much knows, by sight and by feel, when a particular berry has reached the peak of perfection in terms of sweet, juicy goodness. Plucking such a berry is, at least for me, simply too much temptation. Dew drenched or sun soaked, it cries out to be eaten on the spot. Only after I’ve consumed 40 or 50 such berries can I resist temptation and put the berries in my bucket, not my mouth.
Then there’s blackberry cobbler, blackberry jam, blackberry muffins, blackberry sorbet, blackberry wine, and less well known but truly special treats such as blackberry cornbread (if you’ve never had it, then you have a treat awaiting you), and what for me is the ultimate culinary wonder offered by this matchless gift from the wilds, a blackberry stack cake. We ate blackberries a lot at home. The fresh ones were utilized for cobblers, but big pickin’s went straight into runs of jam or quart cans of processed berries. Jam, put up in pint jars, adorned many a biscuit come winter, and in considerable quantities it was a key ingredient in peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
My favorite way of eating jam, however, was a way Grandma Minnie utilized it. She made a stack cake which was the food of the gods. Grandma had several options for the sweet goodness between the thin layers of cake (she always made her stack cakes seven layers high) including apple sauce made from dried apples, a peach sauce made from peaches which had been similarly prepared, and various jams or jellies. All were delicious but arguably none quite matched one featuring blackberry jam.
Finding blackberries is no problem. Throughout these old mountains they adorn fence rows, roadsides, abandoned fields, power line rights of way, and indeed about any open area. They beckon those with enough gumption to undertake the hard work which picking blackberries undeniably presents with the promise of rewards beyond measure.
When it comes to blackberries, “no pain, no gain” is certainly the operative truism. But even if picking them results in occasional occupational hazards such as chigger bites or getting into a wasp nest, they are well worth the effort. Realization of that fact comes the moment you take the first bite from a piping hot bowl of blackberry cobbler swimming in cream, slather an ample amount of jam or jelly on a buttered cathead biscuit, or yield to the tremendous temptation to eat a luscious handful in the midst of the pickin’ process.
Even today, the better part of six decades later, I don’t consider a summer complete until I’ve picked a few buckets of blackberries and enjoyed the treats they offer. Mom’s invariable words of praise (she was masterful in recognizing what worked best when it came to motivating a youngster) are no more, but the berries remain there for the pickin’. I just have to wonder how many folks in today’s world take advantage of their abundance, because sometimes, as is the province of older folks, I’m prone to think that this is an area where the once plentiful stock of mountain gumption has begun to run out.
1 quart blackberries
1 cup of sugar (or to taste)
Enough water to make berries thin enough to cook dumplings
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup milk
Place blackberries, sugar and water in saucepan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, mix dumpling ingredients thoroughly and drop by tablespoons into boiling berries. Cook for 15 minutes or until dumplings are cooked through the center. Serve hot with cream.
2½ cups boiling water
1 regular size tea bag
3 cups fresh blackberries
1¼ cups sugar
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1½ lemons)
Pour boiling water over tea bag and steep for 10 minutes. Mix blackberries with sugar. Add tea to the berries; crush berries with the back of a large spoon to release juices. Cover and cool. Puree berry/tea mixture in food processor using a metal blade. Strain through a fine sieve. Add lemon juice and mix. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Place sorbet mixture in ice cream maker and process as you would ice cream. Freeze sorbet overnight to allow flavors to develop. Makes one quart (recipe ingredients can be doubled to make more).