Every year, I make promises to the blackberry bushes.
Every year, unfailingly, I trek down to the family farm in Munford during the last weeks of June and I make my promises.
You see, the blackberry bushes there are not tame. They don’t grow in neat rows with blunt little thorns. They are old and wild and they have memories. They know me and they know that I am a thief, but an honest one.
The bushes on my family’s farm have been there longer than any of us have. They are dense and treacherous. I have been stealing from these bushes since I was a little girl, and they know it. My blessed grandmother taught me how to do it and get away with it.
Those bushes vigorously protect their treasure. They will call in all forms of reinforcements in order to guard it. First come the thorns. Goodness at the thorns! And not just blackberries, but sawbriars, too! They cahoot after your fingers, shoulders, hat and hair.
Next come the bugs. Mosquitoes, gnats, spiders, bees and flies abound, and they all know I’m a thief, too.
Then comes the oppressive heat and humidity that settles in around the blackberries, snuggling close like a blanket, and no breeze ever comes along to whisk it away.
Finally come the creatures. Birds that nest in the bushes fly out in sudden and startling fashion. Opossums that sound like elephants, snakes, raccoons and the odd deer attempt to scare away interlopers.
If I’m really lucky, the blackberries save their best bodyguard, poison oak, for only the densest patches. It makes keeping my promises easier that way.
Because the sacred promise I make is that I will always come to steal these berries. I’ll always come back to withstand the onslaught. I will always come worship at this altar of nature and family and nostalgia, and I will teach my children to steal and love these treasures, too. I promise that I will always cherish and protect this land and these bushes. I promise to responsibly and gently carry on the traditions of my grandmother on the land that she was raised on, the land that I was raised on.
But I also promise to never take more berries than I need. I love making blackberry jellies and cobblers and ice cream, I love the taste and smell of the farm I grew up on, but I always leave far more berries than I gather. I leave them for the birds and squirrels and possums that work so hard to help protect the bushes, and for the bugs and soil and the bushes themselves.
That’s why it makes it easy to keep my promise when there’s a large, lovely patch of ripe berries smack in the middle of a poison oak thicket. Those, I invariably decide, are my promise berries. Those are for the birds.
Rachel Cowan Webb is a freelance food writer in Anniston. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her baking adventures on Instagram @homemade.hip.pies.
For the filling:
- 4-6 cups freshly picked, washed blackberries*
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon chunky sea salt
For the crust:
- 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon chunky sea salt
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4-6 tablespoons water (maybe)
- Cinnamon and sugar to taste (for the top)
*Some folks like their cobbler really fruity. If that’s you, use more berries. Some folks like their cobbler with more breading. If that’s you, then use less berries (and decrease the sugar a touch, too).
Combine the filling ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and stir until the sugar and flour are dissolved. Pour into a 2-quart casserole dish.
For the crust, combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk them together. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly, then, in a separate bowl, combine and mix the egg and vanilla extract. Add the egg mixture to the flour/butter mixture, working it in until it begins to clump together. I often have to slowly add in water to make the dough come together a little. Be careful not to overwork it however; it should be lumpy and crumbly, not smooth like a pie crust. But you don’t want loose flour in the bottom of the bowl, either. I suppose it’s a skill, something one must do after reading about.
When you’re satisfied with the texture of your dough, shake, scoop, crumble, dollop or otherwise top the filling with it. Make sure it’s more or less evenly spread, no big chunks or bald spots, then sprinkle the top with cinnamon and sugar to taste.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes. A sheet of foil may be needed in the last 5 minutes or so to keep the crust from browning too much. A pan under the casserole dish may be necessary, too, because it’s going to bubble a lot around the edges and may bubble over.
Serve with ice cream, prosecco and hot coffee.