Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Are You Ready for the Country?

It's only my second post, and already I'm betraying my nom de silicon: the place where I foraged for cobbler last weekend does not in any way qualify as urban. In fact, the scene there is so quaintly bucolic that the whole county resembles that ideal pastoral landscape, the golf course (which, by the way, is an excellent place to look for berries). The pastoral impulse, the desire to escape briefly from the flow of time, is probably why my friends Kellie and Pete, passionate devotees of “old-time music,” chose to live there.

On the fourth-of-July weekend, Kellie and Pete hosted a multi-day old-time-music event that can, I think, legitimately be characterized as a hootenanny. About a hundred musicians came from locales ranging from New England to Texas to indulge (some might say to excess) their taste for playing folk music, mostly of Appalachian origin, written before 1925. At these events, all traces of the sonic present are rigorously excluded. Rarely does a style as newfangled as bluegrass get a hearing, although the occasional dissident will risk it.

I'm not much of an old-time musician, so while they played antique tunes with names like “Cluck, Old Hen,” “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat This Morning” and “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy All the Time,” I listened and cooked appropriately old-timey hillbilly food. I smoked two pork shoulders (and a beef brisket) over hickory for Tennessee-style vinegary pulled-pork barbecue, and I chopped up the pepper slaw, really more of a relish, that traditionally accompanies it. I cooked what Granny used to call a “big mess of greens” – piquant turnip and mustard, and collard to mellow the mixture – with a ham hock, for a good, long time. I made buttermilk biscuits each morning I was there and a couple of batches of golden cornbread.

I was appalled to learn, beforehand, that my hosts' kitchen lacked the seasoned cast-iron skillet required for baking cornbread. “How you gonna call yourselves old-timey when you don't even have a skillet to keep good and greasy all the time?” I demanded. So I brought mine with me – and my food processor (not very old-timey, but powerful handy) and a cooler full of beer. And I forgot about all of that stuff when I left, which is why I had to go back last weekend.

On my first trip, as I traveled down from the city, I had seen flash after enticing flash of scarlet in the underbrush at the roadside and especially in the median of the four-lane highway. But you can't just pull your car over in a situation like that, on a carefully patrolled stretch of road where stopping is prohibited except in case of emergency. My understanding of “emergency” embraces catching sight of a profusion of delicious wild berries with a distressingly short bearing season, but I'm guessing the state cops construe the word more narrowly. I pondered those berries all weekend, but I didn't figure out how to get at them until I was back in Philadelphia: Kellie could drive me out to the highway and drop me off. After a couple of hours, she'd come back and retrieve me, along with gallons and gallons of the very best forage there is.

Alas, the redberry season (actually, the variety of wild raspberry I pick is properly termed “wineberry,” but I am not using that name, for reasons I hope to explain in a later post) was pretty much over by the time I was able to make it back. By then I had convinced myself that at least some of the flashes of red I had seen in the median were not redberries at all, but unripe blackberries that would just about now be coming into season. Kellie told me that blackberries were bearing on their property, so it was not unlikely that those a few miles away would have reached a similar state, right?

But I couldn't tell, as I repeated the drive, whether there were any ripe blackberries to be had – blackberries don't catch the eye the way red ones do, and details are easily missed at 60 miles an hour. Finally, the ominous sky convinced me to abandon my plan: not that I'm above getting a little wet for the sake of berries, but I've heard it said that the middle of a highway without a car is not a good place to be during a thunderstorm. So I limited myself to the berries on their property. Fortified by a breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs enlivened by fresh chives from their garden, and toast with redberry jam that I contributed, I sleeved myself up and started the hunt while Kellie did a little lawyering and Pete reviewed his e-mail and the latest posts to the old-timey forums.

The sleeving up, though unpleasant in the weather typical of berry season, offers some protection for the arms. You need that because the fact is that blackberry canes, unlike redberries, just aren't all that genial. Where the redberry makes me feel as if it has been waiting breathlessly for me to discover it and is eager to share its precious fruit, the blackberry's wait seems more in the nature of an ambush. The redberry practically jumps into your hand, but it takes some tugging to get blackberries off the plant – I've learned not to bother with very small blackberries because I'll often crush the whole fruit in the effort to harvest it. The redberry cane is covered by purplish hairs, and its delicate little spines are barely more than larger versions of these hairs, easily avoided and not very punishing. But if the redberry's defense is merely coy, no means no for the blackberry. Its thorns are hard and unyielding and viciously sharp, and they are often cunningly concealed in places like the undersides of the leaves. Once a blackberry thorn has gotten hold of you, it does not like to turn you loose, either, until it has torn a little bit of what it has grabbed – better cotton than flesh, I figure.

So I wore a long-sleeved shirt of light denim out into a veritable sauna of a day, the sort of day when you feel pretty much like a poaching salmon and suspect that you might do better with gills. I sweated out about a pint, I think, and gathered my share of minor injuries while I scouted the perimeter of the property, picking blackberries and the occasional remaining redberry. I hunkered down low at each thicket: as in so many situations, the view from beneath is generally more illuminating than that from above. I liberally seasoned the acoustic environment with some good old-timey salty language, and by the time I returned to the air-conditioned kitchen, I resented the hell out of those hard-won blackberries.

I got about three cups – not much of a haul for the effort, I thought. And it was going to make a pretty shallow cobbler, so I decided to extend it with some peaches. Just down the road was a farm stand operated by Anabaptists (Amish? Mennonites? Hutterites? I tend to get them confused). A shopping foray led to extravagant overpurchasing of beautiful local produce: I returned with not only peaches, but also apricots, cherries, tomatoes and sweet corn. And when I drove up to the stand, I spied a sign that said, “PIG ROAST TODAY.” The roasting was being done over wood, weaving a smoky, aromatic net of the sort most likely to capture me. I bought a pound of pork, too.

I made the cobbler dough, which is just biscuit dough with a little sugar in it, with buttermilk, because I think it makes for a tenderer pastry, and then I set it in the refrigerator while I prepared the fruit. I had decided to make a diminutive cobbler of each fruit and then a large one of the mixture (this was an easy choice to make because Kellie was following me around washing the dishes as I dirtied them, so there wasn't any downside, from my perspective). I dipped five peaches in boiling water for about 30 seconds each to loosen the skins, and then I peeled, seeded and chopped them. I ate some of the skins because I actually love their fuzziness and sort of regret the peeling. After rinsing and draining the blackberries, I added sugar, cornstarch and a bit of lemon juice to each bowl of fruit. That's all -- ripe summer fruit needs little dressing up! It's always a pleasure to pat out biscuit dough on Kellie and Pete's counter, because it's made of pure, polished granite.

The cobblers were still in the oven when Kellie and Pete left for a gig; they had contracted to entertain the patrons of a local dairy farm's ice creamery. When the cobblers emerged, I loaded them onto a baking sheet, covered them with wax paper and hied me to the creamery, where the crowd had been reduced by a burst of rain (or maybe it had been thin to start with because of the oppressive humidity – I can't say for sure). Kellie and Pete were with the fiddlers Walt and Clare, who are their bandmates in the Orpheus Supertones, and a banjo-playing lawyer named Shel and a fledgling fiddler named Jessica. They were playing, I learned, for ice-cream chits. On previous occasions, they had neglected to collect their chits at the end of the day (because really, they were just playing for the joy of it), but I prodded them to take their due. After all, what complements cobbler better than ice cream? And I had a cooler in my car.

From the creamery, we repaired to Walt and Clare's, where old-time musicians gather regularly for tunes of a Saturday night. As I have said, I am not much of an old-time musician, nor can I claim the encyclopedic knowledge of folk tunes that also confers status among this crowd, but a woman bearing a fresh cobbler can transgress all sorts of boundaries with impunity. Clare marinated and Walt grilled wonderful shrimp kebabs redolent of the freshly harvested garlic that was stacked like cordwood on their front porch – piles and heaps and buckets of it. They keep a pair of gas burners out there, and Walt boiled the corn on one of them, so as not to heat up the house.

When we broke into the cobbler, eyes rolled into the back of heads and little moans issued from everyone present. We tested all three cobblers, and all were good, but I must admit that straight blackberry was the best. The raw fruit is not quite as tart as the redberry, but its flavor is deeper – it is, ironically in light of the redberry's proper name, winier and more complex. All right, so it's not an amiable fruit, but nothing makes a better cobbler. And before I left the house, Walt and Clare, who are so doctrinaire about the authentic old-timiness of their music, who have transcribed and catalogued thousands of traditional fiddle tunes, played fiddle parts for a tune I wrote! Let me clarify here: I wrote it long after 1925. That's the kind of indulgence a fresh cobbler can earn you. As the storm that had brewed all day finally broke against the windows and I heard my song transformed by the magic of their brilliant musicianship, I forgave the blackberries. I could hardly wait to get back to the city and all the ones that were ripening there.

Full disclosure: by the time we ate the cobbler, the sun was pretty much gone and I couldn't get a photo, so I reproduced the cobblers at home the next day, and the second batch is what you see pictured here. In the spirit of conscientious bloggery, I of course tested each of the cobblers photographed.


the dough:
1 ¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons butter, diced and briefly frozen
1 cup buttermilk (yogurt mixed with milk or cream will do)

the filling:
3 cups of blackberries
5 good-sized peaches
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Put all the dry ingredients for the dough in a large bowl and whisk them (or you can sift them together, but this way's easier. Cut the butter into the flour until the texture of the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal (if you want flaky topping, the bits of butter should be a little larger, like very small peas, but for this purpose, I think fluffy is better, and that requires more butter manipulation – I found it necessary to finish the job with my fingers). Put it in the fridge.

Mix all of the filling ingredients.

Take the flour mixture out of the fridge. Make a well in the center of it and pour in the buttermilk, all at once. Stir the mixture until it holds together; then turn it out onto a surface and pat it out to a thickness of half an inch or so, handling it as little as possible.

Pour the fruit mixture into a baking dish. Tear off pieces of the dough and fit them together, jigsaw-puzzle style, on top. Brush a little bit of cream or butter on the dough and sprinkle sugar on the surface. Bake for about half an hour.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Berry Grail (How I Became an Urban Forager)

A few springs back, I took to riding my bicycle along a riverside path generously provided and maintained by my adopted city. It stretched on for miles, all the way out to a national historic site in the suburbs, and my trips covered progressively more of its length as cherry trees threw off their pink confetti for a callow chartreuse and then a deep, sedate green. The path traversed woods in places; on its shoulders grew underbrush that was cleared in a regular effort to prevent the woods from claiming it back.

Along about July, just in time for my birthday, speckles of bright ruby – the color of my birthstone, no less – began appearing in this underbrush. Now, there are many cyclists who would never dream of interrupting their training to examine a trailside burst of color. These people generally have svelte road bikes handcrafted of some miracle alloy that marries the sturdiness of cast iron with the weight of meringue. Their expensive, high-tech cycling apparel swathes bodies so bereft of fat that their poor calves appear flayed, with every gristly contour immodestly revealed. I, untroubled by the sort of athletic ambition that drives such people, had the leisure to slow to a halt; my trusty overalls, though sweat-sodden, protected my legs against minor insults offered by the brush. I looked closer, and I saw berries!

By god, they looked like raspberries. I reached out and gingerly plucked one; it nearly jumped into my hand, so easily was it harvested. Like a raspberry, it was hollow -- a tiny red cup. It left its little core, an orangeish, truncated cone with a smeary red bull's-eye at the center, to sit among its pointy sepals like an antique cartoon star. Okay, it was a brighter red than raspberries I had bought, and translucent, without their dusty bloom: stained glass to their sueded silk. But the form was so similar. And somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious was the memory of a summer day of my childhood spent on our ancestral farm in the Tennessee hills with an older cousin and a horse. The horse was so thoroughly lathered with foam that we had guiltily given up riding it, and our eyes were reddened and irritated by the sweat that kept dripping into them. Our hands were not free to wipe the sweat off our foreheads, you see, because we were picking berries.

Those were blackberries, not raspberries. And it's not as if I were thinking of that day as I held the little red gem I'd picked on the bike path and contemplated popping it into my mouth, but perhaps I had some deep knowledge that a landscape similar to this one – next to a fence row between two disused tobacco fields, a liminal middle ground bridging clearing and trees – was a hospitable environment for brambles of the genus Rubus. Really, it's not even accurate to characterize what I did as contemplation: I scarcely hesitated. Although I am often catastrophically indecisive in other arenas, I am rarely plagued by diffidence when it comes to the question of whether or not to eat.

Blessed instinct! That berry just exploded in my mouth. Its flavor perfectly matched its color – bright, startling, infinitely gratifying. Well, not infinitely, I guess, or I wouldn't have needed to gobble up every ripe berry I could see, or to return a few days later with a girlfriend and a bucket. What's infinite, perhaps, is the desire to discover more berries. For a month or so out of every year, it makes me something of a menace on the road: although looking at the shoulder of the road can roughly approximate the effect of looking at the road itself, it's not precisely the same thing.

A couple of weeks or so after I discovered the bike-trail berries, I spent a steamy morning collecting scratches, mosquito bites, ticks and berries along a tree-lined street in the northwestern reaches of the city. At one point, a nearly overgrown driveway caught my eye. I braved the muddy ruts and a moderate herbaceous barrier to penetrate a bit further, and I found myself in a clearing abutting some railroad tracks that were about to go through an underpass. It was a brightly lit, roughly semicircular space concealed from the street by a border of trees and shrubs that dappled the noonday sun, and the place was just lousy with berries. I collected about a gallon of them, honest to god.

In Tennessee, blackberry brambles volunteered along our backyard fence row, and you didn't have to look so hard to find them. Blackberries, good old-timey fruit, were everywhere. But raspberries – for some reason, they didn't seem to do so well down there. We couldn't even buy fresh raspberries in my town, for most of my childhood; it wasn't until I was in high school that our supermarkets became that sophisticated. To me, raspberries were an expensive delicacy, on the order of smoked oysters or champagne or professional ballet, and when I saw this stand of raspberry canes with its profusion of plump, juicy berries waiting for me to harvest them, I felt as if I'd found a hundred-dollar bill lying on the ground.

This is the Berry Grail. You risk a trespassing citation, a boggy misstep, some scratches and stings and poison ivy, perhaps a bit of West Nile virus or Lyme disease, to go further into a promising copse. A few steps in, you find a sunny clearing whose edges are crowded with berry canes. Hitherto untouched, unregarded, they yield up fat clusters of their intoxicating ripe fruit sweetly, easily, to the hand that is their destiny. Find it once, and you will never give up the quest.

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