a childhood tradition

Last month I was on assignment in a remote place, the kind of place where you see trucks and tractors but few cars. Farm territory. I parked along a weedy, poorly maintained road and as I stepped from the car I saw a sight from childhood. A tangled thicket of briars with succulent, shiny blackberries glistening like onyx pendants. Red berries, hard and yet to ripen, waited their turn for sunshine to do its magic.


Seeing this explosion of blackberries brought back childhood memories. Pickin’ berries was great fun, a tradition. You’d reach into the briars and pluck a big berry, pop it into your mouth, and dream of a pie with a thick crust oozing lava-like flows of purple sweetness. Of course, you’d get a nice scratch from the briars if you were careless. You had to be alert to wasps too. Wasps generally hung around tangles of blackberries. An occupational hazard called chiggers would bedevil you. One foray into a blackberry patch would keep you itching for weeks. Still, what a great childhood adventure it was to head out with a bucket and come home with enough berries for a pie.

About those chiggers. Back in my day, we didn’t cover ourselves with bug spray or pack along plastic water bottles. We were green and didn’t know it. We just set out with buckets and a sense of adventure. We knew where to look for nature’s free sweets. Along fence lines, by a sunny roadway, and the edge of woods were prime spots. Spying a red-and-black tangle like the photograph here meant picking time. We had to be patient and careful because the best berries always seemed to be deep in the middle of the briars. A careless thrust at a jewel of a berry would draw blood. Didn’t matter. We knew a steaming, sweet pie would soon be ours.

We were foragers seeking sustenance just as ancient man, the hunter-gatherer, had done. The berries were free and they were good. All in all, it was harmless. Still, you had to be vigilant. One summer Brenda and I picked enough blackberries for a pie. The next day Mom baked it and that night we had blackberry pie for dessert. Dad, eating a piece, stopped all of a sudden. A bewildered look crossed his face. He took one half of a beetle from his mouth, its head missing. Somehow the critter had made it through the picking and cooking. Well, what’s a little extra protein. We didn’t miss a beat and kept on eating.

Do kids still seek out blackberries? Maybe some of you readers will tell me. I imagine country kids still look for blackberry patches. We sure did. A bucket: that’s all we needed. The juice stained my clothes but I didn’t care. All those memories and more came rushing back when I parked along the tangle of berries you see pictured here. My timing was perfect. In the South, blackberries peak during June. I just happened to have a container in the car and I set out picking berries. Sure enough the best berries were hiding deep in the “nettles,” as the British call briars. I sprinkled them onto my shredded wheat the next morning. Not once did I get sick. I read that anyone picking blackberries today in wild places should contact the landowner and ask if he’s sprayed anything toxic on them. Why does everything we did as kids have to seem so dangerous now? You know, if your child rides a bike he must wear a helmet. That kind of thing. I swear we live in the era of pending disaster at every turn. Now I’m supposed to look up the landowner and ask him if he’s sprayed the wild blackberries? Surely not. I’d sure hate to see picking blackberries go the way snow ice cream went. Ruined by chemicals.

Today it’s advisable to pick blackberries at “agritourism” farms, much like you do with strawberries. That’s better than not picking them at all, but I prefer to discover blackberries along a forgotten country lane. It revives the sense of adventure I had as a kid growing up.

Free As Well!
Free As Well!

Another source of fun and food were plum trees. We had a plum tree down by our driveway. As the days grew warmer, the plums turned from green to yellow and red. We’d pick ’em, eat ’em, and spit out the pulp. Didn’t take long to learn that the sweetest plums often had fallen to the ground.

When I was a boy I didn’t keep a bag of gummy bears or skittles around. Such things were foreign to me. I picked and ate wild plums, wild black cherries, and blackberries, and not once did I get sick. You knew you were in for a mess of chiggers but that was the price you paid. I just don’t know if today’s kids venture out along fencerows looking for brambles like we did. Probably too wrapped up in their games and gadgets.

A while back a reader emailed me with a lament: “Today’s kids know how to text and tweet and Facebook and chat on the cell phone for hours every day, but they don’t know a sweetgum from a hickory.” He’s right, you know. I hope today’s kids still like to pick blackberries and plums, but most do so I imagine on neat, safe farms designed just for that purpose. You know the places I’m talking about. The places with roadside stands out front where golden jars of honey catch sunlight.

Now I hear that thornless varieties have been developed for “easier picking.” That seems wrong. Part of the adventure was coming back home all scratched up but proud. You had the makings of a great pie and you had gotten it the old-fashioned way. You earned it. I hope someone who reads this column will gather up the kids and go blackberry picking. When you get back home bake them a pie. It’ll be a memory the never forget.

I know you fine Southern ladies reading this column don’t need this recipe. It’s for the young girls recently married or planning a wedding. Young ladies, here’s an old-fashioned blackberry cobbler recipe just for you. And here’s a recipe for happy kids when you have some. Take them into the countryside and let them pick blackberries. It’ll come natural to them and they’ll thank you.


4 cups flour
2 teaspoon salt
1 cups shortening, cold
1/2 cup butter, cold and diced
10 tablespoons water
4-6 cups blackberries or dewberries
2-3 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1/2 cups butter, sliced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pour half of the berries in an oblong baking dish. Sprinkle 1-1/2 cups sugar over the berries; set aside.

Mix flour, shortening and salt together with a pastry blender until well blended. Add water to the well-blended flour mixture. Mix all ingredients together with a fork until dough begins to come together.
Divide the dough in half. Shape dough in a disk. Cover and wrap one disk. Place in the refrigerator. Roll the other half dough disk on a floured surface with a rolling pin in the size of the baking dish. Fold dough in half and lift to place over the berries. Unfold the dough over the dish, arranging the dough over the berries. Pour remaining berries over the layer of dough. Sprinkle 1 to 1 1/2 cups sugar over the berries.
Roll the second disk of dough in the shape of the oblong dish. Cut dough in 1/2 inch strips. Place dough in a lattice pattern over the berries. Place slices of butter over the top of lattice crust and sprinkle with 1/2 cups sugar.

Place in the oven and bake for 30-45 minutes or until dough is golden brown. Remove front the oven and cool 15 minutes before serving.

Photos: by the author, Tom Poland

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]