Saturday, July 18, 2009

Blackberries: "...there is this happy tongue."

This being our first full summer in Kentucky, we are enjoying the wild blackberries of July and how they are as abundant here as wild blueberries are back in New Hampshire. Spilling over hedgerows, coming up in brambly places in abandoned fields, lining old roads, blackberries are a Kentucky gem and it's no wonder one of its famous country cakes has to do with blackberry jam: Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel icing–yum!). PHOTO: Multitudes of blackberries grow along hedgerows on our ridge.

Of course you have to contend with briers, chiggers, and the occasional lurking snake but it is worth it–especially when your husband and boys go off to pick for several hours, giving you a quiet house, and after you offer to clean and freeze the berries upon their return! [Besides, the promise of blackberry jam slathered on a buttered biscuit or a winter-time blackberry pie or cobbler is enough to send them running for the hills in pursuit...] PHOTO: Blackberries in an old tin lard pail, one that my husband used as a lunch pail for several decades.

Well, pantry friends, this is my third blackberry-related post at In the Pantry in the past four years. All week I've been wanting to blog about blackberries and I had this subsurface feeling that I'd written about them before. My old way to find that out was to "Google" the subject and my own blog name and see if I got any hits on my blog. Now I'm delighted to have discovered a new Blogspot feature so I've just added a "Google" search of my blog (with related links that have been included in blog entries) that you will find on the left column of In the Pantry. You can use it to discover things for yourself if you don't want to troll through the archives: just enter a name, favorite author, subject or any word you want and it will come up in a separate box as to how many entries at In the Pantry there are related to it. How cool is that? PHOTO: Pure leaf lard is a perfect compliment to a blackberry pie so it is fitting that the berries were picked in old lard tins.

So this morning it was handy to discover two other blogs that I'd written before on this topic –Berry Season (written about wild black raspberries in our last full New Hampshire summer) and Blackberry Winter (written during our first Kentucky spring)–which means that, technically, I can keep this one much shorter. Yeah, right... [I've rediscovered, also, that earlier blogs have a different format and I need to go back and edit them, especially to include links, now one of many handy design and functional features that were lacking in early blog days.] We'll see...brevity is not always my strong point unless assigned an article that can be no more than 700 words, for example. Then that is a delightful challenge for this writer.

I made blackberry jam yesterday and I am so embarrassed. My Mennonite friends told me that the reason jams and jellies don't often gel is that you must use cane sugar, even if you are also using pectin (I was using Dutch Gel, something I've not tried before, in fact, I've never used any pectin in my grape jam). Who knew that plain old "sugar" is usually beet sugar? So look for sugar bags that specifically say "cane sugar." [Although it may just be the jam-maker in this case.] So I bought cane sugar just for that purpose and of course when I went to get sugar I went directly to my sugar tin by habit. Well, needless to say, from 2 quarts of blackberries, now I have three pints of blackberry "sauce" (oh well, it might be good on lemon cake or poured on pancakes this winter). I am a stubborn one and will try again and post my results. For now I am thankful that my husband and I froze the other several gallons of their picking efforts. [Grape jam I have made many times but it also has a lot of natural pectin: here is my blog about that process.]

For all of you history and farm foodies out there, I can’t say enough good things about a book I discovered last year, Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms–1920-1950 by John Van Willigen and Anne Van Willigen [University Press of Kentucky: 2006]. Here they talk about the origins of blackberry jam cake, something I have yet to make myself: “A classic rural Kentucky dessert was jam cake with caramel frosting. These dense, flavorful cakes were associated with Christmas and were often given as gifts. Some women even baked them in order to sell them.” [p.30] Towards the holidays, when I’m baking again, I will post the recipe from this book and more about its history, as well as my own attempts. [Our family is taking a “low carb” hiatus for a time and while it is paying off, I miss baking! Perhaps, too, this is why berries have become such a treasure for us now as they are healthy, delicious and naturally sweet.]

I have included, also for a third time here at In the Pantry, a favorite poem about picking blackberries by belated poet Mary Oliver. It is from her 1984 Pulitzer-prize winning book of poetry, American Primitive. If you have a chance to read that collection or any of her other poems, you will revel, as I do, in her words and descriptions of the natural rhythm of her days, mostly from her own rural experiences. They are spare and luminous poems. Just as with many pantries, I want to live in them.


When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.
~ Mary Oliver

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