By Pettus Read
The humidity on this hot July day must have been around 125 percent as I struggled to get to a large blackberry on the backside of a half-dried-up thorny blackberry bush. That year’s drought had inflicted damage on anything that grew, and the wild blackberries on my farm were a testament to the fact that they also needed water. The crop that year was about as big as the end of my little finger, and the luck of finding a good-sized berry was rare. In fact, I saw a chigger and a seed tick fighting over one, and they both gave up because it was just too small. They settled for my ankles instead and committed insecticide death due to all the DEET I had sprayed on my body.
As I inflicted the pain of a blackberry bush thorn to my right arm, I suddenly remembered why I was there. Not because I enjoyed pain, getting a heat stroke or scratching chiggers, but because of my hunger for blackberry cobbler. There is nothing better than the aroma of blackberry cobbler coming from the kitchen to make you forget the pain of blackberry thorns.
Blackberry picking has been a long tradition of my family. Each year during the summer when I was growing up, at least one day would be set aside for blackberry picking. That day included the entire family and usually began early in the morning, right after the milking was completed.
We would gather up milk buckets, lard pails and just about any kind of container that had a handle. We’d load them into the family pickup and head out to the Versailles Knob on my grandfather’s farm, which happens to be where I live today. There you would find some of the most luscious berries and enough to give you a full day of all of the picking you could stand.
Back then, berry picking also included the liberal use of kerosene, which is better known to many of us as coal oil. Coal oil rags tied around your ankles were supposed to keep the chiggers away. Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t, your ankles and waist usually paid the price.
Another fear of picking blackberries is snakes. I would make a lot of noise whenever I would approach the vines, just to let the snakes know that I was coming. It seemed that the bushes with the largest berries also had the most snakes using the vines as their summer retreat. Many times, I would move on to another location if a snake wanted the bush more than I did.
After loading all the buckets full of berries, we would head back to the house for another round of coal oil. This time it would be in the form of coal oil baths, which didn’t do much for your skin, but it did stop what chiggers got past your coal oil ankle bracelets.
Mother would wash the berries in cold water and begin to prepare them for canning, freezing and, best of all, making blackberry preserves. A meal ending of hot buttermilk biscuits with real butter and fresh homemade preserves is something that no real country boy would ever turn down.
She also saved enough berries for a cobbler to serve for the night’s supper on berry picking day. I can still taste those cobblers she would serve.
I also remember rubbing my ankles together under my chair to take care of the itch from the chigger bites I received from the day’s activities. But as they say, “No pain, no gain.”
I hope your trip to the blackberry vines this year are fruitful and allow you to bring home a delicious dessert and some memories. Just leave the chiggers and snakes where they are.
Do you have a bounty of blackberries? Check out our sister site Farm Flavor for recipes with blackberries, including Peach Blackberry Shortcake, Wilted Spinach Salad With Blackberries and Goat Cheese, and, of course, Fresh Berry Pie.