A Story of Blackberries and Cobbler, and Change
Of Changes that Will Come in Everywhichway, but are Faced with Old-fashioned Integrity, Responsibility, and Love.
Several years ago there were laboratory tests performed which showed that I was ‘allergic’ to blackberries. This was surprising and somewhat disgruntling news as all berries are a favorite food of mine. And blackberries were a long-standing item in my food diet, a used-to-be free and delicious, fresh-picked delight, though in recent years quite a more expensive one at the grocers.
No one could make luscious cobbler like my Mother's!
We start with a long ago memory- of blackberries.
As a young child, there were wild blackberries to be had in season and also the fresh-picked garden ones sold at the neighborhood fruit stands. Most were small in size, spurting in juice and sweet to the palate eaten by the handful. There was blackberry cobbler made by my mother and often fresh blackberries dumped on the breakfast bowl of Cheerios or Kellogg Cornflakes. I remember they always turned the fresh unpasturized milk into a purple sweet liquid that basted the tongue to the last spoonful. A winter treat was blackberry jam (smothered on buttered bread) that my mother had made in the huge porcelain-over-metal pot boiling on the stove seemingly for hours on end. I waited for the ‘skimmings’ to be taken from the foamy top of that liquid, placed in a bowl to cool, and then soaked my bites of fresh bread in the dark purple juiciness. When I was about nine, I got the privilege of skimming that boiling foam myself. And then there was the accident ...
My high-top shoes were brown and sturdy.
This happened a very long time ago.
One time while mom was working in her garden, I was given the responsibility of watching the blackberries simmer – in a smaller saucepan this time, as blackberry season was evidently about over. Of course I was a smart responsible child, but of course accidents do occur. I don’t remember exactly how, but as I walked past the kitchen stove, I knocked the side of that simmering pot of blackberries, and the hot juice landed down my lower leg and into the ankle high top of my shoe.
I quickly jammed my foot under the kitchen faucet and ran cold water into my shoe. (Very quickly!)
But I can remember it very clearly!
As mother discovered the dismaying mess she carefully removed my shoe and sock and continued running the cold water over my ankle and foot. The only remaining memory I have of that is how bothersome it was to have to wear my old low oxfords while the large water-blister remained on my outer ankle. There is no pain to remember or associate with that incidental burn, only the quick reaction time of myself and my mother to correct what could be corrected.
I achieved a quick healing and have only a smooth scar just below my anklebone to this elderly day. But I can still see in mind’s eye, my leg up in the sink and the water running down my shoe! And that big painless blister that everybody at school asked about, until it finally popped, and I could wear socks again so escaping all the sympathetically curious questions.
And time passed, things changed.
A few uneventful years after that time our family moved to far distant, so very far away, unbelievably remote state of Florida – an unknown different world, culture, life. From city to country, from friends to eighth grade uncertain changes. From security of familiarity in church, school, neighborhood surroundings, to a new security of trust found in responsible and caring parental decision. There was wondering, questions and brief explanations, an acceptance of change without fear though not entirely without vague ideas of what might be; a recognition more of gain rather than loss. It would be a move from the dry Sandia mountains valley to the humid sea-level rural area of north Florida.
From the western desert valley of New Mexico to a very different climate/culture.
Mom said there would be rains instead of irrigation, warm winters so she could sell my heavy coat; large gardens, and calves and chickens...and blackberries galore; and boy was she right! And we found out as time passed, the discovery of tapeworms and ticks, and mold growing on your shoes stored in the closet, and fireplaces for heat, and hurricanes! Even swimming in the grungy waterlily lake and hearing alligators roar, and watching for the dangerous water moccasins or sidewinders. It was change for sure, but exciting!
Damyankees we were, but with our citified ignorance and funny-accent speech, we were welcomed to our new world, a rural home, school classes, lightning sparked downpours, swamps to explore, and many new learnings. Everybody knew who we were –‘Yes, dam Yankees, alright, but sure were nice people’. And we had two cars, albeit one was a very old battered green pickup, and dad soon bought the necessary tractor for our new way of life. Also Bessie, our first gentle old milk cow. And eventually Patches, that wonderful hound dog!
These were typical of our Florida farm lifestyle.
Our new home became rapidly familiar as we learned the necessary country tasks and solutions.
The northwest Florida farm nestled between Highway 90 and the railroad, on a rolling hillside that meandered around swampy areas of cypress, sassafras, magnolias and jack-in-the-pulpit, of clear greenish-brown flowing water that bore unknown creatures throughout the swamps--this became our new home. My father had to work in Panama City or Crestview, or even in Dothan, Alabama, so was home only on weekends except when between construction jobs, when he and my brothers would build fence, plow and plant cornfields, purchase seed and feed, buy and castrate pigs and calves, butcher some, saw firewood, and other required farmer tasks. We were expected to perform our chores on time, our homework properly and treat each other and nature with responsibility and respect.
Our house was the last turnaround stop for the school bus, and it came every school day at 6:10 A.M. Usually I would watch through my bedroom window to catch first glimpse of the bus as it rounded the highway curve. I’d yell, “School bus!” and myself and brothers would scamper quickly to the driveway, books and lunch sack in hand, for the bus did not wait long. The school day ended at 2:30 P.M., for many children had miles to ride and most were expected to do household chores as well as seasonal jobs like picking cotton, or shucking corn, helping slaughter, or plowing fields for cotton, peanuts, corn, maize.
Some plowed with tractors, most did with mules. Nearly all gathered eggs, hoed garden, some had to carry water from wells, both for drinking and bathing, laundry washing. My new best friend, Molly, was often the yard-sweeper for her family, as clean sandy-dirt yards were both prized and necessary to protect should any fire start in the tall piney brush, threatening the wood houses built on stilts in which we all lived. No, it wasn’t the “Tobacco Road” movie of many years later, but there were definite similarities. There wasn't much money, a lot of hard work that never seemed to really end, but loads of adventure too.
School, chores, family, church, adventuring alone. All were interlaced with the learning of youth fortressed with the stability of old-fashioned parenting.
I loved school, enjoyed Home Economics class with its sewing and especially its cooking sessions.
One particular day we had made ‘real biscuits’ and they were a little late in finishing, so I buttered two hot biscuits, wrapped them in a napkin, and rushing to my next class (History) handed them to my male teacher with a quick explanation of ‘why’. He grinned as he accepted the hot biscuits and ate them in front of class, hardly missing a sentence of historical importance. But we never did have the privilege of making blackberry cobbler in Home Ec.
Blackberry cobbler was soon to be a reality of our second summer in Florida. A section of our 360 acres lay across the railroad tracks, an area that had dangerous bog areas all during rainy season, so we could not run cattle, pigs or goats there lest they get bog drowned. Dad had briefly put goats in that section to eat down some of the brush, for they ate everything green and some brown, but when the bogs were discovered, we removed the goats back to the water lily lake and barn area to the south of the highway. It was interesting to have both a highway and a railroad running through our land and I soon learned every type of car that passed from my brother who named them everyone. And it was fun to ‘go meet the daily train’, waving safely at the engineer.
But blackberry thickets grew entangled tightly in that forbidden bog section! Huge, six feet tall bushes that grew so thick you had to swish and swash your way carefully between stalks with their sharp thorns. Gloves were about useless, so we would use large sticks to help beat our way to make a pathway. Heavy mature plants they were, having grown wild for years, and thus so productive with their humongous berries you could pick a bucketful within arms reach. And they were big! Big! Long and black and so juicy-sweet, they stained your fingers before reaching your taste buds. There were wasps that also enjoyed the berries but with caution used, we never got stung. We never got caught in the bog, never got snake-scared ( but never really comfortable either) and got our berry buckets full as well as our mouth.
We were not allowed to explore the bog section alone. But when mom had checked to see that there were enough ripe berries to make it worthwhile, we would all don our hats, long sleeves, boots to be safe from snakes, grab a milk bucket and go berrypicking for a couple of hours. The thorns were horrible and I was more than cautious about the wasps that fed on the berry juice, but it was an exciting chore, and the rewards were not only immediate, but cobbler was in sight! Whenever mom said it was time to go berry picking, it was not necessary to cajole for we were happy go. And besides, we could excitedly walk near the bogs if they weren't too enlarged - but fear kept us far enough away for safety. Patches would go with us as he kept away the snakes while we picked berries. He instinctively knew someway to stay away from the bog. He would wander around exploring, protecting us and never went far away. But he didn't like blackberries!
So where is that blackberry cobbler?
Our family was trained to not snack much between meals, but we ate plentifully from the magnificent garden produce, field corn we also grew for livestock feed, local citrus fruit and huge watermelons, wild scuppernongs, field peas that grew abundantly, freshly dug peanuts, and sweet potatoes in season, wild persimmons (I’ll never forget my first puckering taste of a too-green one!), and... blackberries! There was calorie laden real cream from Bessie and fresh chicken eggs, real butter to churn to use in making the tender cobbler crust my mother could turn out so quickly. We had our own 'organic' beef and pork, chicken, and blackberries.
So are you ready for that Blackberry Cobbler recipe? Not quite the one my mother made, as I do not know the ‘dump’ recipe she used, but one similar. One with tender crust and lots of smushy sweet bites of blackberry topped with either cream or milk. Absolutely divine when devoured warm, but delicious at room temperature, with or without homemade ice cream too. Back then calories didn't count!
Old-fashioned Blackberry Cobbler Recipe
3 1/2 cups fresh blackberries washed and picked through to only keep the ripe ones
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup self-rising flour
1 1/8 cup milk or mixed milk and cream.
3/4 cup real butter, barely melted
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Additional chilled milk, cream or ice cream for topping cobbler. A crunchy touch is to add chopped toasted pecans or almonds with your topping, as desired.
Place drained blackberries in a large bowl and add the sugar, stirring lightly and gently to partially coat berries. Let sit for about 15-25 minutes while mixing other ingredients. This will form sweet berry juice. Preheat oven to 375 degrees now.
In another large bowl, mix self-rising flour, cinnamon, and milk or cream, then add in butter. Spread in lightly greased baking bowl or pan. Spoon the blackberries and juice over the batter evenly. Mix with a knife or spoon edge ever so slightly. Do not overmix as the batter will rise to make a nice crust. Bake about 55-60 minutes till crust is golden brown.
Serve warm with cream, whipped cream or ice cream. Serve cooled with your choice of those toppings or none. Don't forget the toasted nuts too. Enjoy!
Do you have a preference? Name it!
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