Volume IV, No. 4, Summer 1977
By Beverly Barber
The gold that Ozark women treasured was not yellow or recognized on the world market but was nevertheless a valuable part of their lifestyle. The "black gold" of the Ozarks was the wild blackberry which grew nearly everywhere and gave Ozarkians a plentiful and sweet treat just for the picking. Blackberrying became as much apart of their lives as the spring planting or the fall harvest. It is a tradition that has survived the years and is still carried on today.
The blackberry as we know it today got its start about one million years ago when two widely varied species of blackberries were brought together during the ice age by the shifting of glaciers. This union caused literally thousands of species to exist. Often the varieties of berries differ from county to county with some species identified in only one location in Missouri. One extremely interesting, and extremely rare, mutation which has been identified is a strange albino "blackberry," Rubus speciosa alba with berries of a whitish color. Although there are thousands of species, all are edible and only an expert can distinguish between the many species.
The blackberry plant is a member of the rose family. It can be recognized by small pink or white blooms which appear from April to June. The flowers are followed by tiny, hard green berries which ripen in July and August. When the berry first sets on, it is a pale green color. Then it turns white, then brilliant red. As the berry ripens, the red eventually deepens into a purplish-black, thus giving the plant its name. .. Because the berries are not properly ripened until they are black, you can hear people talking about the red and white blackberries which are green, meaning the berries aren't quite ripe yet. When the berry reaches maturity it consists of many small, round droplets adhering to a juicy core. Blackberry patches are often started by birds dropping the seed from the berry. Once started, the patch grows by sending out runners or shoots. The blackberry plant may grow as dark green bushes close to the ground or as running vines. Those growing on the ground as vines are commonly called dewberries. The leaves of the plant are coarsely toothed and often have a fine fuzz on the underside. Because it is a member of the rose family, small but sticky briars are present on the stems of nearly every species.
Blackberry patches can overtake a farm and for this reason many farmers like Della Snyder's father would cut the plants back, saving only a small patch for the family to pick berries in. They would usually try to save a patch which was not only in the shade but also conveniently close to the house or orchard.
Since the berries usually ripen in July and August, to pick you need protection from both the sun and insect bites. The best way to provide both is a long sleeved shirt and a heavy denim pair of jeans. The long sleeved shirt and jeans also protect against briar cuts on arms and legs while reaching and walking into the bush to pick the berries. A hat is also helpful. Another vital part of modern day picking is a strong insect repellent. Choose one with a large percentage of N,n-diethyl-meta-tolamide, the active ingredient in most insect repellents. As a final precaution against chiggers and other insects you can do what people did before prepared insect repellents, bathe in soda water immediately upon your return.
It is best to take both large and small buckets for picking. The small buckets are easier to manipulate while picking and can be emptied into the larger buckets when they become full. One to two pound lard buckets and children's sand pails make good small picking buckets. It is usually better to leave the large buckets stationary until ready to go. This avoids chances of dropping or spilling the berries.
It is advisable to go picking early in the morning before the dew is off, or late in the evening. Picking at these times avoids a lot of the heat, insects and snakes which always seem to inhabit a blackberry patch.
The actual picking of the berry is a simple process. Select one branch of the bush and pick all the berries. Remember to leave the red and green ones for picking later On. To pick the berry, take it between your finger and thumb and give it a gentle tug.
Our "picking party" included Della Snyder, Vickie Massey and myself. As we set out to pick eight gallons of blackberries one early July morning, we all agreed the weather couldn't be more perfect. It was bright and breezy. The pale yellow sunlight that filtered down through the trees was just warm enough to be pleasant. While we drove along the country roads and got acquainted with each other, I could tell it was going to be an enjoyable day.
The patch was located on a steep hillside. There certainly was an abundance of berries, but the difficulty came in obtaining them. However, we quickly solved that problem by crawling down the hill. Once on the scene we started to work. Our first step was a thorough spraying of an insect repellent which had, to say the least, a rather strong odor, but it did the job. As we began to pick the berries, our first topic of conversation was a discussion of whose insect repellent smelled the worst. But it wasn't too long until we got into the swing of things and Vickie and I began to deposit almost as many berries into our buckets as into our mouths.
For the most part our blackberry picking went smoothly. Of course, we had those typical accidents and mishaps which always seem to occur, like carefully picking a whole bucket of plump, juicy berries and dropping them just seconds before pouring them in the larger bucket. Although that was certainly annoying, it was even more aggravating to trip over a rock and smash some big berries in your hand. It seemed like the largest, most delicious looking berries were always deep inside the bush, just out of reach. Often while pushing into the bush for these berries, we'd find ourselves standing in the middle of a painfully familiar vine and quickly counting its leaves.
We met one box turtle, but fortunately, we didn't see any snakes, although I was thoroughly convinced I heard several rustling through the grass, and from the sound of things, they were pretty fierce.
As the time passed and the heat increased, I began to wonder how those poor berries stood it day after day, because halfway through our job we had to take time out for a break. Occasionally blackberry picking can be a dull and monotonous chore but with Della Snyder it's more like a long awaited and pleasant outing. Her smile and enthusiasm reflect her outlook on life. As we lounged in the shade of a tall oak tree, drinking the icy cold water she thoughtfully brought, we forgot the heat and insects and became thoroughly caught up in what she had to say.
"I was picking blackberries over on this place near our home. That's not been too long ago. I was just picking away by myself. I took my dog, but he didn't turn out to be much help. I felt something under my feet and I was standing right on this big snake. He was under the grass trying to get out. I just ran like I don't know what! Lands! It liked to scare me to death.
"Another time I had a young bull chase me. We had this little Guernsey bull. He was just a calf, but he always hated me. He'd try to butt me and he'd just paw the ground. Dutch [her husband] told me to open the gate so he could drive that bull through. I just got it open and here came that bull. I ran behind the chicken house just as hard as I could go and that bull was right after me. I ran in an old toilet in back of the chicken house and that bull just about butted it down. It was just a-rocking with me in it! I was scared to death until Dutch ran the bull off with a stick."
One story led to another as we postponed returning to the patch.
"My two sisters and I were going squirrel hunting once a long time ago. It was up in January and real cold. My big sister was the best shot, so she was going to shoot the squirrels. I was supposed to climb up in the trees and get them because I could climb the best and my little sister was to carry the squirrels. Well, we got sixteen squirrels and my little sister couldn't carry them all. So we all had to help her. It was getting late and we knew we'd better start back. We were a long ways from home and somehow we got turned around and we just kept walking in circles. We finally came to a house we knew and we asked which way was home. The lady was real nice and she told us how to get back to the main road. Once we got there we knew where we were at. I never was so glad to see our house," Della laughed.
Della told us that generally only the girls of the family would go picking. They'd depart around six o'clock after an early breakfast. Their clothing would consist of overalls, a cotton long sleeved shirt and boots.
"Do you know when I was a little girl they didn't make jeans? It was overalls. Mother would buy us overalls just to have something to work in," Della said.
For protection against insect bites they would take rags soaked in kerosene and wipe their socks, the cuffs of the overalls, their ankles and shirt with it, and of course, bathe in soda water upon their return.
The girls would return around eleven to help prepare the noon meal and wash the berries. They did this by placing the berries in a pan of cold water, being careful not to bruise them, then picking out the particles, stems and green berries.
Today people usually pick only enough berries for fresh pies or dessert, but it hasn't always been that way. In Della's childhood days the berries were picked by the gallons for jams and jellies and for canning to use in pies or cobblers later in the year. Because there were no refrigerators and few iceboxes which had only a limited amount of space, the only way to preserve the berries was to can them. Women would can many quarts each year.
Many times the cook simply opened a can, sweetened it and set it on the table. Perhaps the most common dish using blackberries was cobblers. But there were other ways to prepare and serve the berries. Following are a few recipes using the black gold of the Ozarks.
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking p.
1/2 cup milk
3 Tbs. fat
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 qts. berries
Cut fat into the sifted dry ingredients and add milk to form a soft dough. Bring water, sugar and berries to a boil. Slowly drop spoonfuls of the dumpling dough into the hot berry mixture. Let dumplings cook in the boiling berries for about ten minutes. Serve while warm with ice cream or whipped cream.
Make a rich biscuit dough and roll it out one-fourth inch thick. Sprinkle sugar on the dough and dot with butter. Spread well drained canned or fresh berries over the dough and roll up like a jelly roll. Bake at 350° for 35 minutes. Serve while still warm.
1 cup flour
1 cup white sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
1 cup blackberry jam
1 tsp. baking soda
Sift dry ingredients. Beat eggs and add milk. Slowly add milk and egg mixture to dry ingredient and mix to get a smooth batter. Mix in the jam. Pour into buttered pan. Bake at 350° for 35 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1 or 2 eggs
1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 cup milk
3 cups drained blackberries
Sift dry ingredients and slowly add beaten eggs, milk and melted butter and beat until the batter is smooth. Pour it in a well greased shallow baking pan. Over top of the batter, spread the berries. Sprinkle the top thickly with powdered sugar. Bake at 350° for 35 minutes.
4 cups fresh blackberries (use some red ripe berries)
4 cups sugar
Sort and wash the berries. Remove any particles. Crush well. Put the crushed berries into a kettle, add sugar and stir well. Boil rapidly, stirring constantly until mixture thickens in twenty to thirty minutes. Skim off any scum that forms on top. When thick pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal with melted parafin. Makes 1 1/2 pints.
2 1/2 quarts of fresh blackberries
3/4 cup water
Sort and wash berries. Crush and add water. Cover and bring to a boil on high heat. Lower heat and simmer for five minutes. Pour the mixture into a muslin cloth and gently twist it to squeeze the juice through. This removes the seeds and pulp. Catch the juice in a large bowl and can, serve cold, or use in making jelly.
4 cups blackberry juice (use berries 3/4 ripe and 1/4 red ripe)
3 cups sugar
Measure juice into kettle. Add sugar and stir well. Boil over a high heat removing the scum that accumulates. Boil until jelly sheets from a spoon. Pour into hot, sterilized jelly jars and seal with melted parafin.
Line the pan with pie crust. Spread sugar and a bit of flour in the bottom. Add one quart of canned berries, juice and all, or fresh berries adding about 1/4 cup of water. Dot with butter and sprinkle liberally with more sugar. Cover with a top crust or a lattice work crust. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes.
Wash and drain berries. Use 1/2 cup sugar to 1 quart of blackberries. Put sugar and berries in a large enough pan to hold and bring to a boil. Pack in hot sterilized jars. (Long ago many women canned berries without sugar, sweetening the berries later when used.)
Wash and drain the berries well. Place in tightly sealed container leaving an inch head space and freeze.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.