Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The nostalgia of Dewberry pie

On the route I drive to take the kids to school there is a pasture where the barbed wire fence is overgrown with dewberry vines. I first noticed this a little more than a month ago, as first bunches of white flowers appeared alongside the fence and road, followed some weeks later by bright red (unripe) berries. Anyone growing up in semi-rural Texas in the '70s or '80s will remember that dewberries were a found treasure, purple-black bursts of tart sweetness that grew everywhere and were free for the taking. As a child, I remember going out into bramble-filled pastures with my grandmother (and presumably the rest of the family as well) filling up buckets with dewberries while getting scratched up by those nasty little thorns. We always wore boots and carried long sticks because of the potential for snakes. Both of my grandmothers would bake dewberry pies that were magnificent. I cannot remember them ever baking any other kind of pie--well, maybe lemon meringue, but as I didn't like lemon meringue, that doesn't count. The tart/sweet balance was fantastic, and I would eat as much of those pies as I could get away with. One grandmother always baked them with a crust lattice on top, the other baked them open-faced. I didn't care--I ate both types without prejudice. The one thing I didn't like was the crunchiness of the seeds that filled said pies. What can I say? I could be dumb as a kid.

So, as these red, unripe dewberries turned a tempting black, the notion that I should pick some took root in my mind. Every day I drove past, with more and more berries ripening... and every day I forgot by the time evening rolled around. Until last Saturday, when I saw half a dozen cars parked alongside of the road with twice as many people out there, filling up buckets with dewberries. "I've been thinking about doing that very thing!" I shouted out my car window. They laughed, holding up their buckets, and said there was plenty for everyone.

The next day I, along with Monkey Girl--Fairy Girl and Bug declining to participate--headed out to the dewberry patch with boots and poles in hand. Monkey Girl was somewhat wary at first, but after trying one, she ended up eating as many dewberries as she bagged. Seriously, she downed a bunch of them. Alas, the crowd from the day before got all the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. There were many ripe dewberries left, true, but a large percentage were small and undersized. The largest, most appealing berries lay on the other side of the fence, but after discovering first-hand that the fence had an electrified livestock line (that was indeed hot) we both decided those berries were just fine where they were. All told, we gathered almost three quarts of dewberries for half an hour's work. Not as many as I'd hoped, but a pretty good return rate, given the circumstances.

Someday, I'd like to make some homemade dewberry wine as my family had done years ago, but my homebrew equipment isn't set up yet, and we didn't have enough berries to even start. So pies it was. Except, I didn't have the recipe either of my grandmothers had used. So I Googled. There were recipes there that looked interesting, but were far more complex than what I knew my grandmothers made. I finally settled on one that was a simple mix of berries, butter, sugar, water and thickener (flour). This recipe had issues, however. After baking the allotted time, the dewberry pie was more soup than anything else--not what I wanted. So after an emergency application of hastily-bought tapioca flour and additional cook time, I ended up with two open-face, passable dewberry pies.

They weren't exactly right, but that familiar dewberry tartness was there, that familiar crunchy texture from seeds that I so hated as a kid. It was almost like the food critic scene from Ratatouille. Almost. Not quite. For one, it was too sweet. Too much sugar. I'll cut back on that next time. Also, the overall texture was more stratified than consistent throughout--which I attribute to the early mishap with thickener. But I was close. It was familiar. I'd forgotten how much I missed dewberry pie. The kids? Well, they were like me at that age, devouring as much as they could.

I've got a couple of blackberry plants growing in the back yard, and they are growing well--even setting a few small berries this year. Next year might yield a decent crop. But my experience with blackberries (which admittedly isn't extensive) is more sweet than flavorful. We'll see. But if these blackberry plants cannot match the in-your-face flavor punch of the humble dewberry, I know where I can harvest some vines for transplant.

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