There are some foods you just can’t replicate in a grocery store environment. Sure, you can purchase watermelon nearly year-round now, and big swollen hard peaches and even quarts of blackberries from retailers who drag them in from all over the world.
But you really can’t replicate the taste and feel of a handpicked Arkansas blackberry.
There’s something about crawling down into a briar patch with your pants tucked into your socks, tick repellant worn thicker than a teenage boy wears Axe spray, big hat to keep the sun from burning your scalp. Like going fishing or hunting around these parts, there’s a costume to be donned, and it may look damn silly but I guarantee generations before you did the same thing -- or not, and paid for it with briar-ripped skin and chigger bites.
Went up with a couple of friends on an early July day to a patch west of Alread, out on land that never sees an orange glow in the sky from civilization. The heat, thankfully, had broken, and we hustled out around 9am to start filling baskets and bags and buckets.
The wet weather had apparently delayed the season, same as it’s delayed peaches in the groves and watermelons in the fields. But there were still plenty to be culled from the briars.
Some were the bigger wild blackberries, on erect vines that wound themselves around sassafrass saplings and honeysuckle bushes and underbrush. Others were the smaller dewberries, little harder berries that could be flicked off vines that hugged the ground. We carefully tugged off the darkened ripe berries from in-between green and red ones, hoping for another day of berry harvesting later on.
After the patch was exhausted, we went out on the backroad for a while and spotted patches. We’d drive along and park further and further up the road, hopping out to fill up a few more bag’s worth and then retreating for a few moments to the air conditioned comfort and a good swallow of water.
Along the way, we also spotted immature wild muscadines, a personal favorite of mine from my picking days. There were all sorts of moths and butterflies out, and from time to time we’d leave a patch alone because of hornets or wasps making themselves known.
This is the sort of picking that I remember from childhood, hopping into the back of a pickup truck with cousins and pickle buckets and paint buckets and heading out onto rarely used country roads to find brambles. It was always a team operation then -- and when you finished picking the berries that were reachable by the road, you backed the pickup into the briar patches and picked from the safety of the truck bed. I can remember the blackberry stains on sunburned skin, the heat of the metal beneath my feet as I’d reach over and grab a briar and pulled it in so I could reach berries. There was a certain plopping sound as berries were dropped into buckets. Older members of the search party could manage to make it sound like a typewriter, quickly grabbing vines with gloved hands and thumping berries off with a flick of a middle finger and thumb.
We’d take our bounty back to the house, where womenfolk past the berry-picking-for-fun age would take our bounty and wash it and sort out leaves and bad berries and ticks. Then quart by quart they were packed away in plastic containers and stuck in the freezer, or boiled with sugar and other makings by the gallon on burners on the stove, bound for jam. Us kids were rewarded for our efforts with small bowls full of berries topped with sweetened condensed milk. There was always something about road berries and that little bit of gravel grit that always managed to make it past the washing.
There was also the glory of Sunday after church blackberry cobblers, the once piping hot crust congealed a bit in places where the blackberry essence had popped through. The pairing for this was usually just fresh milk but sometimes we were lucky enough to have one of those big gallon sized tubs of ice cream to get a dip from, and the adults would have theirs with coffee.
Well, I ended up being a city girl, and I don’t spend much time out in patches or rural gardens or fields. But one taste I wanted to share with my daughter was that thorny-picked Arkansas blackberry that still very much reminds me of South Arkansas red clay dirt and dusty afternoons in the sun.
We took in our bounty, divided it up and washed it.
After our lunch, I held my six month old daughter Hunter in my lap and offered her a berry. My friend Leif had the camera ready for the big moment. We were expecting what most parents may expect from their young child -- a dribble of blackberry juice down the chin, the shock of tartness crossing a young face. Instead, it was as if I had held the little berry in front of a vacuum. She sucked it right in, thought about it a moment, and started clamoring for more.
Berry after berry she inhaled, until my other friend Lara decided to make the shot we were seeking a little easier. She found a very plump berry and mashed it a bit, so that the juice ran down Hunter’s fingers when she reached out for it. The juice didn’t deter her at all, and she ate a good share before she stopped clamoring for more.
I’ve talked with farmers who show up at the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market in Argenta about blackberries and the picking thereof… and they tell me today that cultivated blackberries have no thorns. Somehow, that feels like cheating.