Some may say their fondest memories are those that involve foods. Grandma Rosie’s yummy yeast rolls, Aunt Tess’s tender turkey and all its trimmings, Mom’s marvelous meatloaf and mashed potatoes and cousin Sophie’s spaghetti sauce waft through their minds and into their conversations. I swear to you I have only two food memories and that’s all, but the scent of either of them will bring me to my knees every time.
First, to all of you who have Food Cubits, you need not worry. I can do lots of things, most of which I love doing, but cooking’s not one of them. My nose pays no attention when it finds itself in a food court; the chocolate factory might cause it to twitch a little bit, but not much. I only eat so that I can do everything else.
My Granny Ninna baked two things that brought me running from miles away. The first was her gingerbread, and the second was her blackberry jam cake. These were both winter treats; I don’t remember ever having them during summer. As soon as the weather turned chilly and the holidays were on their way, Ninna put on her baking apron and I grabbed mine, too, and dragged the stepstool to the kitchen. I had no interest in learning to bake, but I knew if I helped her, I’d get the first piece when it came out of the oven.
I'm going to tell you about blackberries this time, we'll save the gingerbread for later.
I went blackberry pickin’ with Granny Ninna and Aunt Bett. Blackberries grew everywhere in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. They grew along the roads, along the creeks, and up on the hill behind our house. I knew all the best places, too. Those that were growing in sunshine had the first berries, but they were the ones that grew beside the dusty road that rambled up the holler to my house. I’d eat them anyway as I walked up and down the holler, not caring a bit that they were covered in dust.
You had to dress for blackberry pickin’. Didn’t matter how hot those summer days were, long sleeves, long pants and a bonnet were required. It was a matter of survival in the midst of all those thorns and brambles. And a lard bucket. We all carried lard buckets to put the berries in. Lard buckets were made of tin and had a heavy wire attached to the top so they could be carried. Across the top of the curved wire was a sort of long wooden spool through which the wire threaded, so the heavy weight of whatever was in the bucket didn’t hurt the hand that carried it.
I usually ate more berries than I put in the bucket, but that was OK because there were enough to go around. As I got older Aunt Bett began to tutor me in the marvelous medical mysteries that were housed within those little blackberries. Remember now, Aunt Bett was a small, quiet woman, she seemed only to speak words that were necessary for the moment. Sometimes I had to get the conversation flowing.
My lard bucket was half full, but we’d been pickin’ berries for what seemed like days.
“Aunt Bett, I reckon we’ve got enough berries. You’ve got two bucketsful and I got one, that’s ‘bout enough.”
“Your bucket ain’t full.”
“Well, it was full. I musta spilled somma them.”
“From the looks of your purple mouth, you musta spilled a lot of them.”
That was my signal to quickly change the subject.
“So, Aunt Bett, what’ll you do with all these berries? You gonna make them all into jam, cause you know I don’t like cobbler?”
And just like always, she’d tell me what I needed to know. She talked while I kept right on pickin’, trying to again fill up my bucket.
“Old timers said blackberries would protect a body from evil if they were gathered at the right time of the moon. I don’t know ‘bout the evil part, but I do know blackberry tea is good for sore throats and coughs. It’s also right good for settlin’ a stomach. I reckon your stomach ought to be feelin’ pretty good right about now.”
And those blue eyes would glance sideways right at me, but she kept on talking.
“Old folks used to plant blackberries all around their homes like a fence. Them berry vines would grow and tangle and keep all the bad critters away, them with four legs and them with two, I reckon. That was back when houses were far apart and strangers roamed these mountains."
"I don't know no strangers, Aunt Bett."
"Not yet, you don't, chile, not yet."
Sometimes Aunt Bett's silence spoke louder than her words. But then after a pause as if to let her words sink deep into my mind, she kept on talking.
"Seems the men sometimes made a heavy string from the fibers in the stem and used it like a rope when they was travelin’ from place to place. Them fibers twisted together made a good strong rope. Now me, I like to mix a little water and vinegar in with the blackberry tea and make myself a good tonic. Helps with digestion and keeps my bones from achin’. An’ from the looks of your hands and your face and your hair, seems to me it’d probably be a pretty good dye.”
I couldn’t see my face, of course, but she was right about the rest of me. I spent most of my childhood covered in one kind of stain or another. And she was right, I loved to make dyes from plants; Aunt Bett knew that, she'd taught me how to make them. The bluish purple dye from blackberries was just about the best. I particularly liked the looks of it streaking through my blond hair.
I learned a lot picking blackberries with Ninna and Aunt Bett, and like everything else, it took root in my mind and remains there to this day.
The main chemicals in blackberries are gallic acid and tannin, and they are present in every part of the plant. Dry powdered blackberries can be stored, then added to a small amount of water and used for stomach problems. Teas made from the leaves (dried or fresh) act as a tonic and often are used to help clear congestion caused by a cold; so do those made by simmering the bark of the root. Soak blackberries in apple cider vinegar for a few days and you have an aid for gout and arthritis and even for a sore throat. A little honey added to the mix improves the flavor. I seem to remember that Aunt Bett always let blackberries and vinegar soak then she strained the mix through cheesecloth, letting it drip without forcing. Finally, when she was ready to add honey, she heated the blackberry/vinegar mix, removed the scum from the top, and had the perfect tonic.
I don’t remember a lot about that process, except the part where I touched the bottom of the dripping cheesecloth, then licked my finger. Not good. I think the honey surely would have made it taste better. Sadly enough, I have no medical experience to relate, since I never had gout or arthritis and very few colds or tummy ailments. I do however have tons of experience with Ninna’s Blackberry Jam Cake.
I ate so much of it growing up, it’s no wonder that I’m pretty healthy. Recently I seem to be developing arthritis in my fingers, probably from all this typing. I was thinking I might need to bake one of Ninna’s Blackberry Jam Cakes, just to ease the ache of the arthritis, of course. Surely the cake retains all the medicinal qualities of the fruit fresh off the vine, don’t you think?
Here’s Ninna’s recipe, in her words:
3 C sifted flour
1 pinch of salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon of each of these ground spices: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice
1 C butter
1 1/2 C sugar
1 C buttermilk
1 C blackberry jam
3 eggs beaten
Now sift flour, salt, soda and the spices all together in a bowl.
In another bowl, mix butter then sugar and beat till fluffy then beat in eggs and blackberry jam.
Add flour mix, a little at a time and in between times add a little buttermilk. Beat till smooth after adding each.
Those were Ninna’s words. These are mine: Most often Ninna baked her jam cake in a large cast iron skillet in the oven of her wood cook stove. She baked it low and slow, perhaps it was about 250 degrees and maybe for an hour and a half. I only remember that it was a very long wait for me. Now I wonder how she knew the temperature, there was no gauge on that old cook stove but she never ever seemed to need one.
These days, if I ever decide to bake, it’s easier for me to bake this recipe in three 9 inch cake pans for about thirty minutes in a 350* oven. When I do that, I make a butter cream frosting to place between two of the layers. The other layer usually gets eaten while it’s still warm. It’s that good. Sometimes Ninna made that frosting too, if she made the cake in layers but usually only when we had company. Other times, she layered it with a spread of more blackberry jam. That was the best!
My summers were filled with blackberry snacks, most of them probably included dust and maybe a bug or two, but my winters were spent wrapped in the sweet aromas of Ninna’s blackberry jam cake and her pones of gingerbread.
This week brings with it Valentine's Day and I remember cutting hearts out of brown paper bags and coloring them red with the brightest Crayola crayon I could find. I managed to write 'I love you' on them, too. And I remember hiding them in places where I knew Ninna and Aunt Bett would find them; apron pockets, tucked into the Bibles that they read every night, beneath their pillows, places like that. Other special people received store bought cards from me, but I always made those little red hearts just for them. And their gift to me was always a Blackberry Jam Cake for Valentine's Day. Ninna said that homemade gifts came from the heart, and store bought gifts came from the store. I reckon she was right.
Memories don't get much better than that.
Recipes and herbal information within this article came from my family writings and the herbal information was verified through various online herb sites.
The photos of the mountains and of Ninna and me are my own. The blackberry photos are from Wiki's Creative Commons. The photo of the single blackberry bloom was made by Luc Viatour.