When I was a kid my parents used to drive my sisters and me down to Memphis, Tennessee, where my dad was from and where his family and relatives still lived. We always went during school summer holidays, which meant it was hot as blazes in the South.
But that heat never stopped my grandmother and her sister Dorothy from bundling us kids up in the back of their station wagon and taking us out to some desolate field where they knew the best blackberries grew wild.
Despite the humidity and glaring sun overhead, those lovely ladies would be covered head to toe in slacks, long sleeve shirts, socks and wide hats with nets to cover their faces and skin from thorns and mosquitoes. I can remember the first time they took me on one of these trips, watching them plow into a bush of briars to get their hands on the clusters of blackberries that hid in the leaves, singing old hymns out of key.
Upon returning to the kitchen, we watched as they baked blackberry cobblers (using Crisco was the form back then, yikes) with all that foraged fruit to go with the fried chicken and bread and butter pickles that would be dinner later.
Blackberries were only available in the summer, so they became a seasonal treasure for my family. In the Finger Lakes I rarely see a blackberry bush, though raspberries do grow well here. What is more common to find in our regional thicket are blackcaps or black raspberries, which much to my delight, I’ve found every summer growing in my mother-in-law’s backyard.
Tart with tight clusters, blackcaps are slightly smaller than raspberries with a bit more punch of that berry tartness to them. They ripen in late summer, growing wild in open fields, along forest edges and sometimes in city parks.
With a thorny bush that grows as high as eight feet, blackcaps have leaves that are silvery white underneath. The small, tangy fruit is usually dark purplish, almost black when ripe, and easily is plucked with your fingers. They make for fantastic cobblers, pies, ice creams, sorbets and cordials but for the immediate gratification driven foragers amongst us, they taste best eaten out of hand, still warm from the sun.
My one year old daughter, who is quite the fruit fiend, is still learning to walk, but once those legs are steady I plan to cover her entirely in thorn-protective gear, very ladylike, and show her these secret stashes of blackcaps and how to dive into the bushes, where she can learn the delicious joys of finding her own food in the forests, fingers stained with the juice of her discoveries. —Michael Welch
This piece originally appeared in our Summer 2013 issue, available to subscribers on our online archive.