The summers of childhood in the 1950s and '60s meant blackberry picking followed by tasty dishes filled with the juicy, black fruit. I hold treasured memories of those berry-picking days in western North Carolina and still love the taste of blackberries, now touted for nutritional qualities.
Blackberry is a popular flavor in food from ice cream to yogurt, and recipes range from salmon with blackberry glaze to cream cheese blackberry muffins. Blackberry cobbler is always sure to please.
Cultivated blackberries are now ripening in the Tampa Bay area. For a few weeks, I've kept watch on BlueYouth Berry Farm in Odessa. Carleen Gunter owns the place across the road from where she grew up long before blackberries were grown in neat, even rows, pruned and without the menacing thorns of wild ones.
Carleen's varieties, with American Indian names like Quachita and Natchez, were hybridized at the University of Arkansas. In 1964, professor James Moore began the blackberry cultivation program there that crossed thorny and thornless varieties. Without genetic modifications, these varieties produced the sturdy producers that grow at BlueYouth.
It doesn't take long to fill a bucket with the large blackberries at BlueYouth. While I'm picking, my thoughts drift back to a time when I often met trouble when sent out in the pasture with my tin pail to gather wild blackberries near Franklin, N.C.
Surely, one of my grandma's motives was to keep me busy while she and mom tended the garden or were busy preserving foods for winter. I often took liberties from berry-picking especially when I could find Old Jerse, our cow. I'd milk her for the sheer joy of doing it, then slurp down the rich, sweet milk from my blackberry pail while sitting on a rock in the sunshine.
My sister, the rule follower, would hightail it straight to the house to tattle. Grandma was gentle about things; Mom was more direct with a few swats on my hindside as a reminder NOT to milk Old Jerse midday even if she was gentle as a family dog and tolerant of my 5-year-old ways. Back I'd go to the pasture to my original chore with the usual words of warning to watch out for snakes that might be curled in the shade of the bushes.
In addition to the blackberry-picking hazard of the briar's sharp thorns that dug at tender young skin, there were also ticks and chiggers — also called "red bugs" — members of the mite family that bite in their larval stage and, for several days, cause intense itching from small, raised bumps.
On the plus side, once the berries were picked, delicious dishes followed, including favorites in the southern Appalachian region — cobblers, cakes and a sauce that was regionally called "larrup." Deep into the winter months, the snap of a Mason jar lid meant a breakfast of blackberry jelly scooped onto hot biscuits dripping with butter.
During the days of the Great Depression, blackberries, to many in the southern Appalachians, meant survival when jobs and food were in great shortage. Historians have noted that many mountain folks, in dire situations, survived on blackberries and wild greens during those tough years.
Nutritionally, a cup of blackberries has about 62 calories. They're a good source of fiber, as well as vitamin C, vitamin K and folic acid.
As if taste was not reason enough to enjoy blackberries.