Tennessee Mountain Stories

Sweet Pickin's

The blackberries are getting ripe and it seems early, but I guess the summer is just getting away from me.  I’m always excited to see those bright red berries begin to darken, it’s a sweet gift from God.  Okay, all of our food is a gift from God, but when I see blackberries springing up from abandoned fields or forgotten fence corners it seems somehow special to me.

Farming, or even a little vegetable garden takes a lot of work - one day, we’ll probably talk about the rigors of reaping a living from our sandy mountain soil.  However, there’s no work to growing blackberries.  In fact, if you aren’t very careful, they will grow in lots of places you never intended.  So it might be easy to see them as a curse you have to fight against.  But there’s no curse in a blackberry pie.

It’s always hot when the blackberries are ripe and the June bugs just love them, then there is the matter of the briars.  Okay, there’s no effort required to grow blackberries but harvesting them is just a bit more of a challenge.  They do tend to grow in less than ideal locations, primarily because those are the places the cattle haven’t trampled or the bush hog hasn’t cut them back.  Still, with long sleeves and just a little care, their juicy sweetness can be had for your own table.

I love blackberry dumplings – a treat my grandmothers taught me.  Blackberry is the primary jelly on my table simply because they are the most available fruit and I’m not a huge fan of apple jelly.  Frozen or canned, the berries can be enjoyed all winter long.  And of course I’m not the first one to enjoy this wild treat.  Blackberries have been used all over the world for centuries.  In fact, according to gardenguides.com, we don’t really know their origin as they were documented by the Greeks, Romans and Native Americans as well. 

Those early cultures used the whole plant.  The root, bark and leaf were boiled for medicinal uses.  And early folklore attributes supernatural protection and healing by gathering berries during a certain sign of the moon or crawling through the brambles.

The more recent history which we tend to focus on in this blog has certainly not forgotten blackberries.  My own family has passed down many stories of picking and eating the berries, and selling berries was always a good job for young’uns that didn’t have a lot of income avenues. 

Our modern canning methods only perfected in the mid-nineteenth century.  So there was a lot of history and a lot of years of food preservation before that.  Native Americans dried blackberries, but since there aren’t any surviving recipes that use dried blackberries, or blackberry powder, I am assuming that was not widely practiced by early settlers.  It certainly isn’t a practice that’s been handed down on the plateau, unless you were taught to make blackberry wine.

With limited availability of more exotic fruits, I can only imagine that this was a summertime delicacy that would be enjoyed as long as the season permitted and then anxiously awaited until the next summer.

One of my favorite stories about blackberries happened during a time when my grandpa was unemployed.  In addition to attending stock and crops, he took every opportunity to pick berries and brought in so many blackberries that grandma grew weary of cooking and eating them.  She put in her request for blueberries instead.  In the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, the plateau also had those abundantly available.  Along with several family members, Grandpa took his wagon up to ‘the big woods’ as the woodland on Hwy 62 was known, and picked from blueberry bushes that were knee-high.  He told of sitting on a lard stand with his bucket between his feet and just raking the blueberries off. 

I understand that wild blueberries are very prolific in the New England states, but they have largely disappeared in the southeast.  Do any of you remember wild blueberries on the plateau?