For the first time in years, my brother Forrest and I went huckleberry picking this July. If it has occurred to you that you've never eaten any of these berries, well, probably there is a reason, at least why not any picked in a southern state. These things ripen in the middle of July in Virginia, so if you want any, you find yourself having to brave the woods at their steamiest. Frankly, it can be pretty awful with the humidity, heat, and insects. But the thing that had been discouraging us lately was the way traffic continued to get worse and worse on a weekend. A decade ago several of us on the weekend would make the trek to this patch below Fredericksburg that's loaded with the plants. Our champion picker turned out to be my wife, Sue, who always put the rest of us to shame. This time around, though, brother Forrest and I went mid-week a couple of times to beat the traffic. But this meant only the two of us could put the time aside. One thing stayed the same: we would wind up marveling that there was a time that these berries really got picked in earnest, at least in the South. I gather that there is a tradition of picking huckleberries in Montana, perhaps the Northwest in general, with festivals and such. I'd like to think they have a better situation there.
In our family, there was a pretty dim recollection in our age group regarding the berries. We had a memory of Grandmother Baird making huckleberry pies, the berries apparently provided by an Uncle Joe. I absolutely do remember how good those pies were, even though I must have been just a tyke last time any pies were made. At Mom's High School, they had a cheer:
V-I-C-T-O-R-Y! [spelled out]
which was certainly suggesting that it was a common enough treat not so long ago. On the other side of the family, Grandfather Williams had a story of going to pick huckleberries along the Arkansas River and giving it up, joking that he only was able to find ticks and chiggers. But that was it, and we kids ourselves, and I mean no one we knew either, ever even came close to thinking about picking our own huckleberries.
Something possessed me to buy a guide to edible wild plants a long while back; was it to pick huckleberries? I doubt it, but there indeed was a section on huckleberries. I remember noting the details of how to find them and being surprised that the plants were reasonably easy to locate. The mystery of why nobody was picking them, though, was solved quickly when we found they ripen in the nastiest part of summer. You really have to admire how hardy the pioneers and their immediate descendants really were. It was food and they went out and picked it!
Pretty remarkable is how consistent the experience has been. Almost invariably the first thing that happens is you walk out into the patch and get discouraged. There are clearly huckleberry plants everywhere, but at first it seems there are none with any berries. Slowly you realize that there are a few ripe ones if you look hard enough, and sometimes plenty of green ones. You realize you are going to have to hunt for the things. Usually, it takes a couple of people all morning (you want to start early enough to beat mid-day heat) to pick enough for a pie or two. There's no point in picking the green ones, they won't ripen after being picked like some things. We wind up trying to time a trip for when the berries would peak, but usually can't pull it off. This year was no different, after our first trip we guessed the next week would be perfect but couldn't go. By the time we made it the following week, it was clear we missed it.
So you spend all morning hunting for berries, and you've had it at that point, not once has anyone wanted to stay and pick, that one morning is enough! If it happens to be one of the days of July that is the hottest or steamiest, it is absolutely amazing what it takes out of me physically. Slowly it dawns on you that this pie better be mighty good or you are certifiably crazy, one or the other. When the pie is produced, though, it is indeed just unbeatable. The result is similar to what you get if you just buy blueberries at the store, but it is better by far, the wild berries are just packed with flavor.
So is it worth it? Well, probably not, unless you're a person who enjoys getting out into the woods, regardless. Those that do understand what I mean, and those that don't, well, you may never taste huckleberry pie!
Stay tuned for more posts. Yep, believe it or not, the topic can be expanded.