Sunday, July 20, 2014

Adventures in Blackcap-Picking

I used to always love the summertime as a child. Growing up, summertime meant possibilities. Those steamy, listless days were open for anything since we were out of school. For my cousins and I, that sometimes meant trouble, but we behaved for the most part. I want to share with you my childhood playground:

These photographs are of one of my beloved, special places in the woods. It is where fields see the seasons continually evolving, Mother Earth covered in blankets of snow, sweet woven grasses, bristly weeds, and gently layered leaves. It is where the frogs sing their songs at night, lightning bugs illuminate the bushes, fields of dandelion skeletons await blown wishes, and both Sun and Moon take turns watching over the fields. Deer and wild life would roam those woods, as would rez field cars. It is a place I’m sure my ancestors enjoyed also, as I sometimes imagine the earth underneath my feet holding ancient imprints of their own somewhere deep beneath the layers. It is where sweet childhood memories rest.

We spent many summertime bike rides cruising down this path, riding until we reached the middle of the rez, several fields in. Most often, it was my younger sister, Melissa, my cousin, Colleen, and I, while various cousins and friends would venture out with us. We popped wheelies, skinned up knees, rode three to a bike, endured bee stings, and even braved the great lengths of Chew Road back in the day, a.k.a. Pothole-ville. Back then, you weren’t much if you couldn’t ride a bike.

Apart from bikes and no school, there was no doubt that one of THE best parts of summer was blackcap season! For those unfamiliar with this delectable fruit, blackcaps (Mohawk word/pronunciation) are also known as wild black raspberries. They are related to raspberries, but are much smaller, darker, sturdier, and taste very different. Every time in early-mid July, right around when Indian Picnic time rolls around, we knew those precious berries were waiting. We would keep checking the bushes until the caps turned just the right shade of purple, then it was go time. Make no mistake, though, this was no easy task. We paid for these berries by making a ceremonial offering of sweat and blood. We came equipped with our bikes, bowls, buckets, and bug spray, but it was often no match for nature. Despite bathing in Off spray beforehand, the mosquitoes always found in us a scrumptious feast. The scorching July sun and humidity sometimes made it unbearable while sweat poured down our faces. Snakes, real and imagined, awaited our arrival into the thickest part of the fields. Thorns from the blackcap bushes stabbed at our arms, demanding blood as sacrifice and keeping the juiciest, blackest berries out of arm’s reach. And yet we continued to pick.

After all of our hard work and dedication, we would emerge from the woods triumphant, with two huge containers of berries filled to the brim. We beamed with pride, and stained fingers, and welts, and scratches, and stink, sweaty hair. The next best thing was actually eating the berries. We ate them plainly, scooped out from the bowl. We mashed them with loads of sugar until they formed a rich, deep purple goodness that was as sweet as jam. Sometimes our aunties actually made jam with them. Or, if we didn’t eat them all, our grandmother or aunt might make a pie. Other times, we would eat a generous amount of that sugary berry mush over ice cream. I think gratitude and hard work was what really made them taste the best.

I went blackcap picking earlier this month when my husband and I were walking along an unfamiliar park trail and noticed the little berries dotting the bushes. I soon started on a picking rampage, filling my hands, and then my hat, with the tiny pieces of heaven. I picked the bushes dry, but made sure to leave a few behind for the birds and other critters, and ended up with nearly a pint. I found such joy in picking these treasures again, and they were as delicious as I remembered. They have a simultaneously tart and sweet taste, and their seeds give it a fibrous, woody, crunchy texture. Soon after picking, we made sure to stop by the grocery store for some coconut milk ice cream (I found it sweetened with agave, a lower glycemic sweetener than sugar). I went home and mashed the berries up with a little honey, vanilla extract, and fresh sage and let them marinate for a few minutes while I impatiently waited. Finally, I served them over my ice cream for my husband and I, and enjoyed the first black cap sundae in what felt like forever. It tasted just as good as I had remembered. It tasted like simpler times and sweet memories. It reminded me of Colleen who I miss so much sometimes.

It is now mid-July and we are in the midst of peak berry season. It seems like everything is out now, raspberries, blackcaps, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, and others. The bushes and farmers’ markets are brimming with nature’s candy. Niawenk√≤:wa, Shonkwayatishon! I hope you’re able to enjoy some this season. As if you needed any more reason to indulge in these goodies, here (see this, and this) are a few articles noting the health benefits of berries. And by the way, I found a few amazing gluten-free/dairy-free blueberry recipes. Check out Paleo Spirit's Paleo Blueberry Muffins made with almond flour and tapioca starch. These turned out delicious and not too sweet. Or Against All Grain's Gluten-Free Blueberry Waffles made with raw cashews, coconut flour, and coconut milk. Be careful with these, they like to stick to the waffle iron so spray in between waffles, but they're still yummy. Check them out! 

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