Photo: Cheyenne Medlock
Our niece Cheyenne found a robin’s nest while blackberry picking. To me its a perfect summer photo.
I love measuring the summer by what’s in season.
To me, fruit tells the story of summer. Strawberries introduce us to warm days, followed by blueberries at summer solstice. When the blackberries ripen, summer is at its peak with its long days and heat. Followed by the dripping sweetness of peaches and watermelons until crisp days when the apples begin to fall.
When I was a child I hated picking blackberries. The weeds, the heat, and the total discomfort of chiggers bites meant that I was completely miserable. Being the youngest of the bunch, I loudly proclaimed my discomfort and annoyed everyone. The louder I complained, the more angelic my siblings became. Finally, my mother stopped taking me along on their adventures. I thought I had won the lottery when she made declared me an unfit laborer.
I gladly marched across the road to be babysat by my grandparents or my great aunt and uncle who shook their heads at my rude behavior. I am sure my mother instructed them to keep the good times at a minimum while she and my siblings were off picking blackberries–hoping that I’d realize I was missing out on the fun. But I was strong-willed and determined not to ever pick another blackberry again. So when it was announced there were green beans to snap, weeds to pull, or a basement that needed cleaning out, I would take on whatever challenge they presented like it was the best thing ever.
Thus began my dislike of blackberries. Until I was 40 years old, my inner child declared them – yucky and gross. I avoided them like the plague. Then, a few of summers ago one of the vendors at the farmers market had organic blackberries for sale. I bought a quart thinking I’d surprise my poor, blackberry-deprived husband with his favorite cobbler. You would have thought that I had given him the moon – he was a happy fellow. So happy in fact, that I broke down and tried a bite. I was completely unprepared for the delicious nectar. My taste buds went wild and my Beloved had to pry the cobbler from my hands before I ate the rest of his favorite dessert. Over the next few days, I filled our freezer with blackberries from the farmers market so that I could make a cobbler whenever we wanted.
When I started making preserves, it was the blackberries that I found to be the easiest and the most delicious. The night I made my first perfect batch of preserves, Vince was sound asleep in bed. Sometime after midnight, I woke him up with a spoon in my hand demanding he eat. Bless his heart, I think I scared him with my insistence because he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to eat whatever I was cramming down his throat. But then, he woke up enough to taste what was on the spoon. He sat straight up and declared my preserves the best he had ever eaten. A perfect recipe was born.
My blackberry preserves are simple – which is why I think they are so good. Its literally 8 cups of fruit to 4 cups of sugar. But not just any fruit or any sugar. I still insist on purchasing those organic blackberries I first found at the farmers market and I use organic sugar. The combination is glorious. And unlike fickle strawberries, blackberries have plenty of pectin. So all you have to do is simply cook them down enough until they set.
Last year, I completely missed the blackberries. I was obsessed with Tomatopalooza when the berries arrived at market. Then the next week, they were gone. When I realized that I had missed the blackberries, my heart was broken as there weren’t any berries in the freezer and only three or four jars of preserves in the pantry. My brother loves my preserves, as does Vince’s Uncle Gene. I love giving them jars of preserves whenever we see them. Obviously, their wives can buy blackberry preserves from the grocery, but its not the same.
Determined not to miss blackberry season again, I’ve been watching the roadsides for wild berries. I’ve discovered that my grandmother’s blackberry bush still produces, so I’ve been texting my brother for ripeness updates. I told Vince that if we missed the berries again this year, I was heading back to the fields and ditches where my mother took us to see if they were still there. Living in Murray, we’re about a week or two ahead of the growing season than that of my beloved Brown Road, where I grew up. Then a few days ago, we saw a sign for a You-Pick Blackberry Patch. We weren’t able to stop, so I declared that we’d go back while we were both off for Independance Day.
For the three days I was giddy with the thoughts of going blackberry picking.
The horrid memories of blackberry picking now forgotten, I focused only on the good memories. The memories of my mother in her summer dresses leading the three of us off for an adventure. Feeling the warmth of her hand in mine as she talked about the secret places she had always gone to find blackberries. In my mind, the now paved roads were once again dirt and gravel. The creeks we crossed were wide and clear. My heart and head were full of her memories.
With our niece Cheyenne home for the holiday and our sweet neighbor Peggy joining us for the adventure, we headed off to look for blackberries. Peggy told us of another you-pick that she visited every year. We headed there first but unfortunately struck out, as their patch was ending their season. All remaining berries had been pre-purchased. So, we headed to where we had seen the sign just days before.
As we drove up the grass path from the highway, we were amazed by the farm. Rows upon rows of blackberries were planted, some of the rows had been there for years. Some were newly planted. A sign was posted on the rusted tin barn barn – “organic farm, do not spray.” We had found the farm where the berries I had once bought at the farmers market where now available as a you-pick farm. We grabbed our buckets and each wandered off to find a row to ourselves.
Together we picked nearly 18 pounds of blackberries.
Most of the berries weren’t ready yet, but if you looked closely you could find berries perfect for picking. With the morning sun shining on my back and the birds singing, I quickly got to work. With each berry I picked, the world easily slipped away. At one point, I stood and watched each of my fellow pickers advance across their rows. Each deep in their own thoughts and memories. My heart exploded with love for them: the neighbor we adore. The precious niece that has filled my heart with pride and joy. And my dear Beloved who attracts swarms of bugs and chiggers by simply going outdoors – were there because I didn’t want to miss blackberry season.
While we were there, a young mother and her two daughters arrived. As they approached the rows, the mother softly told the girls that they only wanted to pick the berries that were black. Don’t pick the red ones as they aren’t ready yet. Her voice echoing the instructions my mother often gave me decades ago. Their voices carried across the field mingling with the voices of my mother and siblings. Not long into their efforts, the youngest began to complain. None of the berries she could reach were black, her shoes were wet, and a bug had landed on her leg. Her distress refused to be comforted. I understood her and smiled. Sooner than they wanted, they ended picking, and left the field.
This summer has gone by so quickly. Now that blackberries are beginning to ripen, its as if Mother Nature is saying enjoy these remaining summer days. Because soon they’ll be gone.
My Very Non-Scientific Berry Preserves
You can use blackberries, raspberries, or blueberries with this recipe.
8 cups of blackberries
4 cups or 1 box Sugar in the Raw
In a large saucepan, combine berries and sugar over medium heat. Stir until sugar melts. Bring up heat to achieve a hard boil stirring frequently until mixture thickens to a splatty boil. Check for gel stage by dipping a spoon into the mixture. If the mixture drips off the back of the spoon, continue cooking. If the mixture slips or falls off the back of the spoon – then its done.
Ladle mixture into clean jars, leaving a 1/4 headspace at the top. Remove any air bubbles by stirring the mixture around with a knife or chopstick. Clean the top of the jar put on lid and twist ring until finger tight. Place jars into boiling hot-water bath canner, making sure jars are covered in water. Put on canner lid. Boil for 10 minutes, then turn off heat. Wait 5 minutes, remove lid, wait another 5 minutes, then remove jars from canner, letting cool on counter overnight.