Any discussion of
how to pick berries would seem as superfluous as the sort of thing that now
regularly appears in large books with titles like The Joy of Backpacking that
give technical advice on how to walk. Any child, woman, man or dog who cannot
figure out how to get a berry into a bucket or a mouth has a severe problem.
Nor is there much need to dwell on what to do with berries once you have them
home. They are good plain or with cream, and are even better if pureed (which
removes their most objectionable feature—lots of seeds) and poured over ice
cream. You can make jams, jellies, wines and cordials out of them, according to
formulas that any decent cookbook or great aunt will provide. As a sample,
courtesy of a very decent sister-in-law: set aside two quarts of ripe, wild,
unwashed raspberries. Boil four cups of sugar in three of water; cool to room
temperature. Pour mixture over the berries and mix with a fifth of vodka. Cover
the container—cheesecloth will do but panty hose are better. Let it alone until
at least Veteran's Day and then drink with pleasure, but some care.
Wild berries are
low in natural acids. As a result, almost any concoction made with them seems
to be improved by adding a few shots of fresh lime juice. Another personal
culinary observation is that it is often rewarding to substitute honey for all
or part of the sugar called for in recipes.
improbable kin, we have a sister and brother-in-law who some time ago dropped
out of the Eastern academic world and retreated, or advanced, to the Missouri
Ozarks, where they have become upwardly mobile beekeepers. Now we are able to
arrange trades—smoky maple syrup for the best Southern highland honey a bee
ever made. Of course, this is tame, easy-to-come-by honey. The wild, hard way
is to go out foraging for it, an urge that overcame several of us one hot
August afternoon when everyone was restless for lack of adventure and moments
honey is a borderline activity, like frog gigging, halfway between hunting and
foraging, and perhaps should be excluded from this report. A better reason for
not dwelling on subsequent happenings is that they were as humiliating as they
were painful. Briefly, we set off to a nearby cabin that once belonged to a
moonshiner. One wall of it had been occupied for several seasons by an active
swarm of honeybees. When we were done we had a ruined cabin wall, a small brush
fire (in hopes of creating a smudge), 27 beestings in assorted human hides, and
a faithful but stupid golden retriever with one eye swollen shut. We also had,
after sticks, roofing nails and a dead mouse were removed, a gallon of honey.
It was molasses-colored and semifermented, but it added a genuinely wild
element to berry recipes.
All the local wild
berries—straw, dew, black, rasp and wine—did exceptionally well last year, but
the elderberries did best of all. In mid-August the tall, spindly bushes were
bent double by the weight of heavy clusters of fat, dark purple fruits. There
is an odd thing about elderberries—fresh and raw they are awful to nauseating.
They have a used taste, like old, musty medicine. Cooking dissipates this
unpleasant flavor. Elderberries are prime jelly material, combining excellently
with a lot of other fruits, particularly wild grapes and May apples. A good bit
of elderberry vinegar is unintentionally made by people attempting to make
elderberry wine. Elderberries can be dried in the sun. Properly withered, they
look like mouse droppings, but they can be stored indefinitely and used with
good results in chutneys, stews and baked goods.
We tried all these
things that fine season but the best elderberry concoction was a new one. We
should have known about it before, because all the ingredients were familiar,
but we didn't and might never have known except for a tip in the published
works of the late Euell Gibbons. Now Gibbons was a knowledgeable and
indefatigable forager—and a central Pennsylvania one, too. At times he was a
bit overenthusiastic, particularly when it came to green weeds, but on
elderberries he was, if anything, too subdued.
First you need
elderberry juice, which you get like any other fruit juice—mushing a bunch of
stewed berries through a filter. Then you get a bushel or so of bright red
sumac berry spikes. Scarlet sumac, which grows everywhere in poor, abandoned
corners of the land, has a bad name because a much different bush is called
poison sumac. However, the scarlet species (Rhus glabra) is harmless. If the
berry spikes are swished around in a tubful of water for a time, they yield a
very drinkable infusion. (After swishing and before drinking, the runoff should
be strained. Sumac berries are hairy, and the hairs will clog up around the
soft palate if they are not removed.) Straight, it is an interesting
drink—astringent, lemony by reason of its malic acid content, but quite thin.
It was obviously intended to be mixed—as Gibbons knew—with elderberry juice
(about three to one in favor of the sumac), because elderberry juice has a very
full flavor but lacks the acid tang. Together with as much honey as seems good,
you have what might be called sulderade, and also very nearly the perfect
drink. It is the kind of thing that around here is said to whiten the teeth,
sweeten the breath and make childbearing a pleasure.
After they have
finished with berries, a good many foragers go nutting, but I am not one of
them. I have nothing against nuts—in fact, am very much in favor of them—but I
have quite a lot against shelling nuts. As a matter of personal prejudice and
sloth, this seems to me to be tedious, mostly indoor work, as aggravating as
fixing wobbly chairs and no more interesting than painting window sashes.
Fortunately it is possible around here to have your nuts without personally
cracking them. There are lots of productive trees in the mountains, and
harvesting them was once a semicommercial proposition. There used to be a
tradition that if you had enough kids you could pay the fall taxes by setting
them to work shelling nuts to sell in local markets. Taxes and kids both having
become more formidable, this is now a memory instead of an economic fact.
Assiduous social foraging, however, will turn up a few clans with whom it is
still possible to trade for jars of butternut, hickory nut and walnut
obvious advantages, not doing nut work keeps a forager fresh for pawpaw season,
which comes at about the same time as nut season. The pawpaw is a wild exotic,
a relative of, and almost as good as, the tropical custard apple. Here we are
almost at the northern limits of the pawpaw's range, and it is found chiefly in
patches on bottomlands. Once—and perhaps still—along the St. Joseph it was
called the Michigan banana. How and why it got this far is a mystery, but a
The approved way
of finding pawpaws is to organize your life so you have an absolutely free day
in the best part of September. Take to the Potomac, Monocacy or Susquehanna
River in a canoe. Put in a congenial friend or two and several bottles of dry
white wine. Paddles may be carried but should not be overused, the proper
method of progress being a slow, idle float. In God's good time you may come
upon some clumps of small, slender trees with big, jungly-looking leaves. As
you near them you will get a whiff of a sweet jungly smell. This will be the
pawpaw patch. Shake the trees very gently. Some elongated, potato-shaped fruits
will fall to the ground. Pick up the ones that give a little splat as they hit.
Eat as many as you can and drink the wine.