The blackberry gavotte.

You can’t win a wrestling match against a Himalayan blackberry vine. Some of the creepers are as thick as my finger, with spines the shape of shark’s teeth. If they want you, they’ll get you – and they’ll hold on.

The only way out is to dance.

A vine snags my left sleeve or, worse, my actual arm. I slowly turn to the left, my body describing a stately arc, to disengage the thorns. This is followed by a couple of quick but measured steps to get myself away from the vine as it swings back into place. There might have been a ripping sound as the teeth let go. Usually it sounds worse than it is.

Even so, when I hit the shower my arms begin to sting. Upon inspection it looks like I tried to neuter a panther without anesthetic. I didn’t feel the scratches at the time because I was so focused on those plump black ovals. It’s only later that I feel what happened.

Totally worth it. All this wonderful fruit, for free. The ripest berries are so soft that they dissolve like meringue when your tongue pushes them against the roof of your mouth. As they melt they emit an intoxicating, nearly wine-like flavor.

I eat almost as many as I pick. But I pick a lot. Hence the scars.

A wicked yet beloved vine

I make jam, for myself and to give as frugal gifts. I freeze countless pints to enjoy in my breakfast oatmeal, to turn into shortcakes or cobblers, and to throw into the blender with a little sugar and 2% milk – the result thickens up like sorbet and tastes better than ice cream.

My sister says that blackberries taste like summer. They do. But they also taste like a miracle: The miracle of growing food, a seed the size of a pencil point turning into a wicked vine that some say can grow 40 feet tall and strangle trees. I’ve seen them climb at least 20 feet up, dark berries dangling incongruously amid plum leaves or fir needles.

Homeowners hate them because they’re so fiendishly invasive, growing anywhere there’s a patch of dirt. Sometimes you’ll see blackberry vines sprouting in downtown Seattle sidewalks. I spotted one coming up between a couple of loosened bricks on a University of Washington pathway. The blackberries you will always have with you, despite all attempts at chemical or biological controls.

Yes, biological: Goat-renting is a cottage industry in the region. You can hire a guy to bring billies and nannies over to chow down on the vines in your yard. Those creatures must have mouths like granite.

The best berries always seem to be just out of reach (insert your own metaphor here). They’re either woven into deathtraps of spiny vines that even I’m not stupid enough to reach through, or they’re hung up in a hedge or tree, a maddening six inches from your fingertips.

But the low-hanging fruit is good, too. Witness the purple stains under my fingernails, my stuffed freezer and array of jam jars, and, yes, the striations on my arms and hands. John Steinbeck once wrote that he considered his hangovers to be a consequence, not a punishment. I feel the same way about blackberrying. Every year my arms hurt. But every year I get all the blackberries I want, for free. I consider that a fair trade.

Some cold and sleety winter evening I’ll pull a cobbler from the oven, scenting my apartment with a smell like cinnamon and wine. The warmth and fragrance will be that of a sunny August afternoon. I’ll have unscratched arms but the same purple smile. Blackberries taste like summer. Miraculous summer.


18 Comments

  1. I’ll be doing that dance myself next week :-)

    Injuries notwithstanding, it’s a great feeling spending an afternoon picking, filling up (re-used over and over) ice-cream pails, squishing sun-warmed berries against my teeth, and realizing when we get the filled pails home that a few hours’ exercise gained us what will become a year’s worth of jam, jelly, syrup, and frozen berries for waffles, pancakes, muffins, pies … and plenty to give as gifts!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kate: I think it’s the hunter-gatherer instinct.
      And I now have a new favorite dessert: Blackberries partially frozen with a few spoons of vanilla pudding. Especially when it’s pudding I found for 9 cents a box in a clearance section. Yep, 9 cents — and the sell-by date is in 2012!
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  2. Okay, now I need to go find some cheap vanilla pudding …

  3. Sounds as if it was worth the battle wounds!

  4. Yum! One of the women in the choir grows them in her backyard. Who would think something that thrives in Seattle could make it in Arizona’s scorching low desert?

    It sounds like you need chaparreras for your arms!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Funny: There are blackberries for just about every climate. My dad grows a thornless kind. Lucky him.

  5. Love this time of year in the Pacific Northwest! Blackberry dance followed closely by the salmon dance as the coho begin making their way into the rivers in September. Ample opportunities to eat like royalty on the cheap.

    • Donna Freedman

      Hey, Dane! It’s almost as hot today as it was during the 2007 SIAH. Remember that 98-degree day in the room with narrow windows and ONE ceiling fan?
      Thank you for coming by, and for leaving a comment.

  6. Thanks to this post and the fact that blackberries are beginning to ripen here in Cornwall, I’ve picked 12 pounds of blackberries in the last two days. I seriously need some jam jars because tomorrow I’ll be picking some more for my big jam project. Most of my 12 pounds went into the freezer except for two cups which went into a yummy cobbler and into my belly. How do you make jam for less than it costs to buy especially taking into account the jars, sugar, and pectin?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Elizabeth: I make jam without pectin, I watch for sales on sugar and on jar centers, and I re-use jars that cost me practically nothing (thrift store) or actually nothing (Freecycle).
      Here’s a link to the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Under the “jams and jellies” section there is information on making jams without pectin:
      http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/publications_usda.html
      Good luck, and thanks for reading.

  7. Catseye

    You’ve made me want to pick blackberries and I’m not really into that kind of thing. Maybe when it’s cooler? We’ll see.

  8. Angeline

    Hey Donna!

    I’ve gotta ask, where are the best blackberry bushes in Seattle?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Angeline: Everywhere! You know that they’ll grow anywhere there’s even a film of dirt.
      I tend to pick close to my apartment since I gave away my car. But I’ve seen some very expansive blackberry growth on the North Seattle Community College campus. And even across the street from the campus, along College Way, I’ve picked tons.
      It’s old home week: You’re the second SIAH participant to comment. Thanks for reading.

  9. That sounds very good – fresh blackberries. Abundant nutrition everywhere there, it seems.

    Here in the midwest, I have gone blueberry picking in recent years. I’m telling you, they are definitely more flavorful when freshly picked, compared to the store bought blueberries (which are not cheap).

    • Donna Freedman

      @Squirrelers: I picked blueberries in Alaska. Time-consuming (they’re very low to or actually on the ground) but the result is far superior to their blander, store-bought cousins.
      Thanks for reading.

  10. Boy, since my Dad taught me to pick blackberries when we moved to Oregon, I’ve tried to go picking every summer, if only enough to provide him with a pie for Christmas. He grew up on a farm in Oregon and he knows the best juiciest berries usually grow near a source of water, and he would pick berries from a canoe in the nearest creek.

    I have a question, hopefully you know. There are tons and tons of blackberry bushes growing along the freeway. I don’t pick those, as I am worried about pollution and heavy metal poisoning and God knows what, whether absorbed through the skin of the berry or sucked up through the ground. I tried emailing the county agent and they didn’t have a clue as to whether these berries would be safe to eat. Do you??? or should I try to get someone at WSU to do some sampling and testing?? Thanks!

    • Donna Freedman

      @KC N: Haven’t a clue…Just did a quick search but couldn’t find much except an urban forager who said that levels of herbicides, chemicals, etc. decrease rapidly if you walk just a few feet back from the main drag.
      Maybe someone at WSU has already studied this, given how insane people go for blackberries each year. Does the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service have a presence there?
      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help — and feel free to post your findings.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

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