Some of my fondest childhood memories center on countless spring, summer, and early fall days spent plucking the fruits of nature’s labor. Berry picking gave me precious pocket money and fun days without number, involving environs such as briar patches, elderberry-laden branch banks, old fields and field edges, thickets that emerged in the aftermath of clear cutting timber, and more. Labors in such locales provided the basic essentials for all sorts of tasty treats that emerged from the kitchens of Momma and Grandma Minnie. Better still, unlike so many things belonging to a world we have largely lost, it is still possible to resurrect and rejoice in those glorious days in the berry-picking sun.
Of all these wild berry world’s wonders, my personal favorite has to be the strawberry. It grows in areas that are easily accessible, carries no protective armament in the form of briars or thorns, is easily picked as long as your stooping mechanism is in good functioning order, and has a heavenly taste. Just remember to keep an eye out for “Mr. No Shoulders,” as poisonous snakes are known.
Izaak Walton, quoting a friend named Dr. Boeteler, summed up the strawberry’s virtues quite nicely well over three centuries ago: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” And while humankind has succeeded in producing a bigger berry, when it comes to taste and texture, the wild strawberry has it all over its domesticated cousin. Adorning late-spring meadows and abandoned fields, these delectable scarlet jewels could convince even the most xenophobic of Texans that bigger is not necessarily better.
Wild strawberries belong to May, while the next berry to ripen in this area, the dewberry, is a child of June. A product of farmed-out land and barren patches of red clay, this black beauty is often overlooked. Yet connoisseurs welcome the dewberry’s seasonal return with a joy born of past experience, for they recognize its estimable merits. Few if any poets have sung the dewberry’s praise, but virtues it has in abundance. The glories of a dewberry cobbler are such that it may be just as well relatively few have experienced them, and my paternal grandfather summed matters up quite nicely. “The only thing better than a dish of dewberry cobbler is two helpings of it.” Better appreciated in the taste than in the telling, such a cobbler will, as I’ve heard some old-timers describe it, bring tears of pure joy to a glass eye.
The glorious ecstasy of a dewberry cobbler, or maybe a handful of fresh ones topping a bowl of home-churned vanilla ice cream, more than offsets certain disadvantages the plant has. Once established, dewberries are devilishly difficult to grub out of fields. Their small but super-abundant briars can wreak havoc on even the toughest pair of brush britches or Duxbak pants. The vines, which grow horizontally just a few inches above the earth’s surface, are Mother Nature’s ultimate trap or tripping device. Make a misstep or get in a hurry while wending your way through a patch of dewberries and you are begging to take a tumble.
Dewberries are closely related to what is far and away the best known of the wild brambles, the luscious, omnipresent blackberry. Old Will Shakespeare, who seemed to know something about everything, once wished that “reasons were as plentiful as blackberries.” He was right on the mark. Botanists indicate that literally hundreds of subspecies of blackberries exist, and anyone who has done much picking likely has noticed subtle variations in their appearance and nature. In fact, genetic engineering has even produced a thornless blackberry, but like seedless watermelons these are also-rans in the taste sweepstakes. Moreover, no self-respecting berry pickers feel that they have fulfilled all the requirements of their job until their hands are well-scratched, briar-riddled, and stained a lovely purple-black hue.
When it comes to blackberries, “no pain, no gain” is 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.
Another berry found in great plentitude here and indeed over much of the country is the elderberry. Even though it is easily gathered, thanks to being plentiful and lacking the thorny protection of some of its brethren berries, it is sadly neglected today. Yet gathering the big clusters of berries requires nothing more than a sharp pocket knife, and washing then removing them from the collection of tiny stems forming the cluster is an easy task. Once these things are accomplished, elderberries lend themselves to a variety of uses. They make a quite passable pie, a toothsome jelly, and a wine cordial that is sheer nectar. As a bonus, if patience isn’t your strong suit, the distinctive white bloom clusters, generally known as elderflower, can be used for fritters; to make wine; and in numerous nostrums to treat allergies, colds, and other ailments. Elderberry juice or concentrate is also a widely recommended folk medicine.
Other options, to be sure, stretch through late spring and summer for wild berries found at certain places in South Carolina. They include mulberries, serviceberries, huckleberries, blueberries, and more. However, they are less widespread or readily available than those included here. Once elderberries have come and gone, the best of the summer’s wild berrying is past, and it is time for the forager in nature’s larder to turn to autumn’s bounty in the form of nuts.
Each yearly arrival of fall posts a seasonal “no picking” sign for the coming months, but staunch sons and daughters of the soil know that with ever-returning spring, they can once more renew the annual pleasure and mouthwatering delicacies associated with pickin’. Meanwhile, for those who had sufficient gumption to do the pickin’ and preparin’, they have canned berries for pies and cobblers, jellies and jams to decorate biscuits with distinction, and maybe even some berry leather for snacks or use in making berry dumplings. Berries were a dependable, welcome, and important item of diet for our forebears. For me, they were also a source of boyhood income, and in one sense, all these decades later, I’m still earning interest from my investments in pickin’. It’s an activity conducive to cherished recollections, quiet contemplation, and scrumptious eating. Those are mighty fine rewards for some sweat on the brow and scratches on the hands.
Wild Strawberry Trifle
I first ate a trifle (it used raspberries, not strawberries) when in Scotland a full 40 years ago. Talk about an eye-opening dessert! The basics of a trifle are simple — it’s a mixture of berries, cake, whipped cream, vanilla pudding, and, if you wish (and I do!) a bit of rum. Many recipes call for angel food cake, but for my part I think an old-fashioned pound cake made with plenty of eggs is better. Fill a trifle bowl (or any large bowl — it’s just that the clear ones made for trifles have a world of visual appeal) with successive layers of crumbled cake, pudding, sliced berries, and whipped cream until you reach the top or run out of ingredients. Finish with whipped cream at the top and decorate it with some whole berries. Trifles are wonderful any time after they are made, but letting them “set” in the refrigerator for 12 hours or so allows the berry juice to mix, mate, and marry with the other ingredients in wonderful fashion.
Anna Lou’s Berry Cobbler
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 stick butter or margarine, melted
2 to 4 cups raspberries (you can also use strawberries, dewberries, blackberries, elderberries, huckleberries, or blueberries in this recipe)
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and milk; stir with a wire whisk until smooth. Add melted butter and blend. Pour batter into 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Pour berries (amount depends on personal preference and whether you like a lot of crust or mostly berries) evenly over the batter. Do not stir. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, whipped topping, or milk. Serves 6 to 8.
NOTE: Anna Lou was my mother, and she made this cobbler with pretty much whatever berries happened to be available. It’s simple, quick, and scrumptious.
As a boy, I would occasionally hear some dish, usually a dessert, described as “larruping good.” That was high praise and perhaps explains the derivation of berry dishes known simply as larrup. Almost any wild berry — such as blackberries, dewberries, raspberries, elderberries, blueberries, or mulberries — could be used to make larrup. This basic recipe works with any of them.
4 cups (or more) of berries
1 cup sugar for every four cups of berries
⅓ cup flour for every four cups of berries (a bit less cornstarch can be substituted)
In a large saucepan, bring the berries to a full boil, and then add the sugar and flour. Stir steadily at a slow boil for five to seven minutes. Serve hot as a topping for buttered biscuits, on pancakes, or with homemade ice cream.
Long before the berries ripen or even form, the flower clusters of the elderberry can be used in a fashion similar to many other edible blooms (squash flowers, violets, nasturtiums, pansies, and the like).
1¾ cups flour
½ cup of milk
Pinch of salt
16 elderberry blossom clusters with stems
Powdered sugar for dusting
Lard or shortening for frying
Mix flour, eggs, salt, and milk into a batter with the consistency of that for pancakes. Rinse the elderberry blossom clusters thoroughly, then pat dry. Dip the blossom clusters in the dough and deep fry until golden brown. Drain, dust with powdered sugar, and serve.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer and the author of numerous books, including several cookbooks co-authored with his late wife, Ann. His most recent one, A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Memories, Musings, and More, appeared a few months back, and he presently is finishing a related work, Mountain Fixin’s: A Smokies Food Memoir.