The article below, by Rona Roberts, appeared in Nougat Magazine's July, 2006 issues, which was devoted to freedom and festivals. (If you want to start cooking, and never mind the story, visit blackberry recipes.)
Many men love grilling, the present-day version of an ancient drive to put fire to meat. Here in Kentucky, where all our men are naturally manly and good looking—as well as cheerful, kind and tender-hearted—important men in my life respond to a second masculine imperative as well: Pick blackberries.
My main man grew up in a Massachusetts mill town. He describes it as 80,000 people in eight square miles. His family grew nothing. Not a single tomato plant.
Fast forward 30 years. He visited the south central Kentucky farm where I grew up, home to about three billion wild blackberry vines, according to the last census. Once my man saw the vines in July, he swore himself into the Fraternity of Men Who Hunt and Gather Blackberries and picked up his pail.
Understand, please, that this man is not particularly fond of blackberries. Not with cream, not as jelly, not even in blackberry cobbler. Understand further that this man likes comfort. He loathes being hot and sweaty. He finds itchiness beyond bearing.
So I watched in wonder when we went to Wayne County one Fourth of July weekend. The wild blackberries had ripened right on cue. My brother and my dad started locating buckets. My man took that as the signal to put on his armor: long sleeved shirt and long pants (protection against blackberries' vicious thorns), pant legs tucked into socks (protection against chiggers), heavy boots (protection against rattlesnakes and copperheads), hat and sunscreen (protection against sunburn), bug spray (protection against sweat bees, gnats, and rogue mosquitoes).
Off went the men to pick blackberries. I went to the cool kitchen and began making sweet pie crusts.
When I asked, my man said he finds Kentucky's wild blackberries irresistible because they are free. No human has to plant, hoe, spray, water, or prune them. Unaided, the vines produce berries in uncountable numbers each July, literally free for the picking.
We make a happy couple, this blackberry hunter and I, because I like to eat blackberry pies—and crisps, cobblers, dumplings, buckles, tarts, slumps, sorbets, sauces—but I picked my last blackberry, under terrible protest, at the age of 12. My mother thought blackberry picking was fun. I considered it child abuse.
When I missed eating blackberries after I left the farm, I tried buying the thornless, cultivated type. They remind me of winter tomatoes: attractive, insipid, boring.
Wild blackberries taste primordial, with good reason. William Needham's online Hiker's Notebook says: "Blackberries have been consumed by humans for millennia, as confirmed by the fossil record. The seed pips, easily distinguished by their unusual diamond-shaped pattern, have been found . . . in the stomach of a Neolithic man extracted from the Essex clays of England in 1911."
See? Even back then, something went on between men and blackberries.
Wild blackberries' taste is both strong and ephemeral. It jumps around in the mouth, pulling between coffee-chocolate-y darkness on the bottom and tart-lemon-strawberry-ishness on the top. Cook blackberries with sugar and a spicy middle taste emerges, as if the sugar contained allspice, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The taste of cooked, sweetened wild blackberries seems bigger than the mouth that holds them.
Just for you, dear readers, I sampled five Kentucky vintners' blackberry wines. I was curious about whether any could capture the elusive blackberry taste in a bottle. None carries the fruit's full complexity or long finish, but the Blackberry Dessert Table Wine from Lover's Leap Winery and Vineyards has good points. Sipped with bites of a mild buttery cheese, the indefinable blackberry taste flickers almost outside awareness, then fades.
The wine tastes delicious with dark chocolate, but it does not taste particularly like wild blackberries. Through a visit and a call to the vineyard, I learned that the blackberries are almost certainly cultivated New York fruit. An employee suggested the cultivated berries might yield 'controlled taste.'
Wild blackberries' taste is the opposite of 'controlled.' It bursts huge on the tongue, exploding past familiar boundaries of words and description. Perhaps that wild freedom entices manly men to uncap insect repellent and take up their berry pails. Whatever it takes—I just like the pies.
Hungry now? See blackberry recipes.
Read more Nougat articles by Rona.