July 10, 2020 July/August Frow Chips, RCHS Board Member and accomplished author Pettus Read
It looks like July may be its usual self with hot days and the humidity around 125 percent, but which should be totally normal for us country types to be out struggling to get our hands on those large blackberries on the backside of thorny blackberry bushes. If there is anything that is historical in Tennessee farm life dating back to the first settlers, it is the gathering of these wonderful berries. However, the art of the harvest is not simple and nature, which placed this sweetest of the vine in our countryside fence rows, also placed numerous protectors to look after these plump wild fruits.
There are thorns on the vines that were the originators of the idea of Velcro and tiny creatures that can bite in the most inopportune places leaving making you wish they never ever got aboard the Ark. In fact, I saw a chigger and a seed tick fighting over my ankles one day, but to their misfortune they committed insecticide death due to all the Deet I had sprayed on my body.
As you inflicted the pain of a blackberry bush thorn to your body, I guarantee you will question why you are attempting this ritual of past generations, but the answer will not be because of the enjoyment of pain, getting a heat stroke, or scratching chiggers, but because of a hunger for blackberry cobbler or jam of a buttered biscuit.
Each year during the summer, when I was growing up, there would be at least one day set aside for blackberry picking. That day included the entire family and usually began early in the morning, right after the milking was completed. Since I have heard of so many of you going through some of the same type of experiences, maybe this little bit of nostalgia can bring back a few of those memories.
We would gather up milk buckets, lard pails, and just about any kind of container that had a handle. All of these would be loaded into the family pickup and we would head out to the Versailles Knob, which happened to be on my grandfather’s farm where I live today. There you would find some of the most luscious berries and enough to give you a full day of all of the picking you could stand.
Berry picking also included the liberal use of kerosene, which is better known as coal oil to many of us. Coal oil rags tied around your ankles were supposed to keep the chiggers away. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t, your ankles and waist usually paid the price.
Another fear of picking blackberries is snakes. I would make a lot of noise whenever I would approach the vines, just to let the snakes know that I was coming. It seemed that the bushes with the largest berries, also had the most snakes using the vines as their summer retreat. Many times, I would move on to another location if a snake wanted the bush more than I did.
After loading all the buckets full of berries, we would head back to the house for another round of coal oil. This time it would be in the form of coal oil baths, which didn’t do much for your skin, but it did stop what chiggers got past your coal oil ankle bracelets.
Mother would wash the berries in cold water and begin to prepare them for canning, freezing and best of all, making blackberry preserves. Hot buttermilk biscuits with real butter and fresh homemade preserves is something that no real country boy would ever turn down.
She also saved enough berries for a cobbler to serve for the night’s supper on berry picking day. I can still taste those cobblers she would serve.
I also remember rubbing my ankles together under my chair, to take care of the itch from the chigger bites I received from the day’s activities. But as they say, “No pain, no gain.”
This year’s crop is still to be determined along with the year’s picking adventure. However, the chiggers and ticks are still there, but we now have Off to replace the coal oil rags, thank goodness. I hope your trip to the blackberry vines is successful and allows you to bring home a delicious dessert and some memories.