Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
People ask me how I could abandon the mild, groovy Pacific Northwest for the harsh interior regions of the country. It’s a question that makes me smile, but it also makes me melancholy. After all, I didn’t mean to settle a thousand miles from family and friends. But that’s what happened.
What is the Midwest? Blowing snow, giant bugs, and mountainlessness; corn, soy, and lutefisk; euchre, UPer scoopers, and engine block heaters. (If you don’t know what these last three are, ask one of the members of the mid-continental diaspora — exiles of rural economic meltdown and the dying steel-and-iron towns of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I bet they get a faraway look in their eyes.)
Luckily, my old home has something important in common with my new home. Both places harbor a sprawling vine that goes by the Latin surname rubus.
Blackberries, or brambles as they are also known, come in three basic varieties: upright, mostly upright, and trailing. Related to roses, they sport sweet little white flowers and compound jagged-edge leaves. Though native to all continents but Australia and Antarctica, blackberries get shoved into the nasty invasive category because (especially in a temperate climate like that of Oregon’s Willamette Valley) they colonize hillsides and other unmanaged landscapes. Then, of course, there are the thorns marching up the canes to the fine-spined stems, which stick in the picker’s fingers like metal filings. Sweet yet sharp, their calling card might read.
As far back as I can remember, I have been picking blackberries and eating blackberry pie. At my Aunt Edith and Uncle Laylor’s hobby farm in Wilsonville, Oregon, I was routinely dispatched to gather berries while the big people drank coffee and spoke of serious things. After taunting the geese through the chicken wire and tossing a few unripe apples at the cattle, I would take my bucket and fish my hands through the leafy canes, my eyes on the dark forms lurking in the shadows.
Once, my mom launched a door-sized length of particle board in the middle of a patch and set me afloat on the canes. I can still remember inching along the edge of the board, berry to berry, heedless of the sun beating down on my head. I have long been accustomed to sore, purple fingers and the gradually gathering weight of berries in my bucket.
So I earned my blackberry belt.
I pick pretty clean, eat little of my harvest in the field, and stay until I have at least a gallon, even if the deerflies and mosquitoes start biting behind my ears.
When I moved to the Upper Midwest, my early dates with my Wisconsin-born husband consisted of braving poison ivy in search of the perfect patch. We picked our way through the Blue Hills of Washburn County, Wisconsin, modified milk jugs secured to our waists with nylon rope, fingers flying and tongues wagging.
Northwestern blackberries, I argued, are bigger and sweeter than Midwestern ones. This he readily conceded. But Midwesterners, he countered, developed their hard-working natures in having to pick twice the berries to make the same pie. All right, all right, I said. I couldn’t deny that he outpicked me. The evidence was hanging from our belts.
I baked many pies and cycled through as many crust recipes, a love-struck baker eager to impress the object of her desire. Somehow, it never occurred to me to ask my mother how she made her crust. Even when, on a visit to Portland, my husband proclaimed her blackberry pie the best he’d ever eaten, I soldiered on with other crusts.
It wasn’t until this summer’s visit that I finally came around to my mom’s way of thinking about pie. As usual, I wandered up to a neighborhood about a quarter of a mile from her house and gathered a pie’s worth amid the whir of leaf blowers. As usual, the bushes were heavy with unpicked berries; it seems no one ever picks this patch. I stepped carefully on the thickest canes, reaching as far back into the plant structure as I dared.
Though I don’t remember ever falling into the clutches of thorns, I have imagined it many times — every move to loosen one thorn throwing you into the path of three more. The worst of the thorns mostly avoided, I filled my gallon bucket in under an hour.
Because my mother tires easily in the heat of August (and this was a record-breaking August heat wave), I made the first blackberry pie of the summer in her stead. She urged me to use her crust recipe, and since I had no cookbooks of my own to consult, I did.
I was surprised at how easy and pleasant assembling the pie proved to be. My sister, mother, and I polished the whole thing off in two days.
I picked two more gallons for my mom’s freezer before boarding the big jet bound for Minneapolis. And now, if the droughts have not been too severe, I will get in another round of blackberrying before the snow flies.
Related recipe: Norma Harrington’s Pie Crust
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