Wild Food: Gone Pickin’

When I was a kid, my parents bought a small parcel of land about 3 miles outside of the town I grew up in. It was 7 acres, situated between some farmland, an old, disused gravel pit/pond (the site of much youthful trespassing, fishing, and swimming), and some rural residential areas. The back portion, away from the road, was low woodland, with a small creek flowing through it. We camped back there, fished, and dad hunted. The front half of the land was a bit higher, out of the flood area of the creek. The previous owner had done some demolition, and used it to dump construction refuse- old concrete, rebar, and lots of the red Barr bricks manufactured in my home town. So this part of the property was sort of a weedy, concrete-strewn meadow. My dad used it to dump wood chips from his tree cutting company there, but it was also chock full of wild blackberry brambles and black raspberry bushes.

Every summer, we would suit up in old jeans, tall socks, boots, long sleeves, and all the mosquito repellant we could get our hands on, and go out berry pickin’. I don’t really remember how much we would pick. It was enough for a couple pies or cobblers. But from then on, I was spoiled for store-bought blackberries. To this day, I don’t care for them- too big, and they only taste like water. They don’t bake up right, either. My eye was also trained. Out running on the trail at college, I could pick out blackberry canes, and I made more than one berry-eating pitstop, returning to my dorm or apartment with purple fingers. They grow along the bike path near our house in Madison.

Naturally, I also noticed the sheer abundance of berry brambles on the public land we hunt. Even in Fall, I knew I was sitting behind the canes of blackberry bushes while I waited for deer, and not just because I sat on their thorns. I resolved to get berries for the first time since my early teens.

Fast forward to this past weekend. Matt’s gone, and I can’t back up a trailer to save my life. Fishing’s out. However, factoring in the difference in agricultural zone between my home area in north-central Illinois and where I am now in southern Wisconsin, I had a feeling we were in about the right time for blackberries. My walk last Wednesday confirmed it- enough berries were ripe to justify going picking.

Saturday afternoon, I dressed in jeans, tall socks, my Chucks, a long sleeve, and a ball cap. I took two cans of bug spray with me, an old pillow case, and drove over to Sunny Slope.

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Pillow case turned berry sack.

Pillow case turned berry sack.

It was a lovely, warm day. I found berries before I even got to the fields.

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Dismayed at first to only find unripened berries, I wondered how much longer I’d have to wait. A few feet further along brought me to the glistening black beauties you see in the second photo. Pleased to have found any berries, period, I kept moving. However, the county had someone out mowing the clover. He was in the field where I scared out that turkey tom back in May. It was a great big hay mower, and I had no intention of getting in his way. I picked a different field. He would eventually catch up to me, though. He got out of the cab of the machine, and nervously asked what my plans were. He didn’t want to mow me down with the clover. Agreeing with him that such an outcome would suck for me, I also agreed to stick to the one he’d finished already. I’d already finished the field he was moving to. In spite of the heat and the skeeters, I had a pretty good time. I got a decent number of berries. But my day out berry pickin’ was cut short by the mower and an emergency call in from work. I cut out to head home after only two hours.

First sight of the mower

First sight of the mower

Half and half.

Half and half.

More than slightly grumpy about the whole work thing, and with only two pounds of berries, I decided to head back out on Sunday and hit the back fields. I arrived, and the gate was shut- at least there wasn’t a mower or a baler out today. I began the mile hike to the back of the property. It was a pretty slow process, because the number of berry bushes along the mostly shaded back half of the tractor access surprised me. I picked probably a pound or so before I even got to the back fields. 

I walked around the field counter clockwise from where I entered it. At first, I saw only red raspberry canes, which had few berries on them, if any. But as I walked up the hill a bit, there were more blackberries. More here were ripe than on the front of the property. Luckily, there was more wind Sunday as well, because I was standing in place a lot more to strip bushes, and it kept the mosquitoes at bay. The best bush I came across, though, was behind some wild beebalm. It was huge, and I would say about two pounds of berries and a lot of my scratches came from this bush.

Beebalm and blackberries.

Beebalm and blackberries.

In this part of the field, I didn’t end up stripping as many of the bushes of ripe berries. There were a lot I just couldn’t reach. The field margins here are a lot deeper for whatever reason, but I’m ok with leaving a couple berries for the birds and deer (or so I tell myself).

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Anyhow, I moved through this field much more slowly, as it’s both larger than any of the other fields, and it had an astonishing number of berry bushes. Before I knew it, I’d been out in near-90-degree weather picking for three hours. I was mighty thirsty, and the hand holding my berry sack was getting tired. I finished up this field, and did a quick buzz around the fourth field. There weren’t as many bushes there, so I headed home. I picked almost five pounds of berries.

Five pounds of berries.

Five pounds of berries.

As you can see from the photos, not all of the berries were ripe. I’m thinking that I may go back out next weekend to check out whether they’ve ripened or been eaten by then. And I’ll do it with a second set of hands, because Matt will be home. He doesn’t even like fruit, but he volunteered to help.

With now seven pounds of assorted berries (blackberries, black raspberries, and red raspberries), I plan to do some research to see how much juice I can get from them. If it’s a gallon, I’m going to make a trip to our local homebrew store to pick up some yeast, corks, and a few other things. We have glass carboys and other basics from previous forays into homebrewing. I want to make some wine, and possibly carbonate it, but I won’t rule out home-brewed blackberry soda. If I have enough leftover, or if we get some next weekend, I’ll make pie and cobbler. That’s if I don’t eat them all fresh before then.

Caught purple-handed.

Caught purple-handed.

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11 thoughts on “Wild Food: Gone Pickin’

    • I agree! I managed to exert enough willpower to restrain myself to eating only about a handful of berries off the bush- mostly because I love blackberry pie and wine so much.

    • I’m fairly certain currants grow here, but I wouldn’t be able to identify them. Until recently, all my childhood reading of fantasy novels written by British authors had led me to believe they were a strictly European phenomenon. However, Wikipedia and a few blogs I’ve found say they grow in North America. Anything “currant” I’ve tried, I’ve liked.

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  2. My! This takes me back! When my junior deerslayers were little (11 and 1) we lived in East Texas where there were lots of wild blackberries. We would also dress in jeans and heavy boots. You see, East Texas has every kind of venomous snake found in North America except one. Brandishing the designated “snake stick” that had a flat hoe attachment welded on one end, we headed out. We always carried pails, cute little galvanized or graniteware pails, having read “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey. Yeah, I know, blackberries aren’t the same as blueberries. The story worked for both, though, and the memories are just as sweet!
    I will read your next entries with great interest.

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