July 21st, 2015
Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Digital Projects and Outreach Archivist, WVRHC.
One of my favorite summertime activities is berry picking. Every year beginning around July 4 there is an abundance of blackberries on the hill behind my house. The thickets and brambles line an old well road. For a few weeks, I spend my free time gathering the berries, then making jams, cobblers and pies. I look forward to the season every year. Picking blackberries brings back good memories and makes me feel like a young kid again.
A blackberry bush along the trail.
Looking for information on blackberries in West Virginia, I went to the book shelves of the WV & Regional History Center. There are many books on the plants and wildlife in our state. I chose an old standard to get some basic information. Flora of West Virginia Part II by Perry D. Strausburgh and Earl L. Core was published in 1953 as part of the West Virginia University Bulletin series. It identifies blackberries as the genus Rubus with over 20 species known to exist in West Virginia. Many are biennial meaning that the shoot lives two years, bearing fruit only in the second year.
Beautiful sketches illustrate 6 species of blackberries in Flora of West Virginia.
Another book in the WVRHC’s holdings, Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing with Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise Woman Tradition, provided information on traditional uses and beliefs about blackberries. Too bad I didn’t know before, but it was thought that if you gather blackberries in the moonlight of the July full moon, you will be protected from evil runes. Blackberry rootbark is a mountain remedy for diarrhea and blackberry vinegar is said to cure a feverish cold. There are even charms to help soothe a burn with blackberry leaves. Apply fresh blackberry leaves to a burn and say: “There came three angels out of the East. One brought fire, two brought frost. Out fire, in frost.”
A colander full of fresh picked wild blackberries.
In addition to learning a little more about the blackberry as a plant and medicine, I was also looking for new recipes for the blackberries. I have made blackberry jam for several years, both seeds-in and seedless. The dessert I most commonly associate with blackberries is cobbler. My mom makes blackberry cobbler with a sort of biscuit dough topping on top of a mixture of sugar and berries. This seems to be common to West Virginia and southern cobbler recipes. A pie crust like topping is also common. I perused the cookbook section at the WVRHC and found a number of recipes for cobblers for blackberries and other native fruits.
My blackberry cobbler. I prefer this recipe from the 1940s over a traditional WV cobbler. In this recipe the batter for the top crust is placed in the bottom of the pan. As it bakes, the some of the cake pushes up through the berries.
In several cookbooks, I came across a recipe for West Virginia Blackberry Cake, a spiced cake that contains fresh berries. This version on the Taste of Home website is attributed to a Moundsville resident. A recipe for blackberry cake also appeared in West Virginia’s Treasured Recipes: A Collection of Food and Philosophy published by the West Virginia Extension Homemaker’s Council in 1974, but I decided to try a different recipe from this cookbook. I made Blackberry Pudding. The recipe was quite simple and dates from 1797. It was submitted to the cookbook by Mrs. George K. Folk of Berkeley County:
1 cup sour cream
1 egg (beaten slightly)
1 cup sugar
1 tsp soda
1.5 cups flour
1 – 2 cups berries
Combine the dry ingredients then add the cream and egg, mix well. Fold in the berries last. Bake in a 350 degree oven 40-50 minutes until the center springs back when pressed with a finger. Serve warm with cream or plain. You may use other fruit in place of the blackberries.
My blackberry pudding. This came out very tasty. It is more like a cake than what we would consider pudding. The original recipe appears on page 38 of West Virginia’s Treasured Recipes.
A piece of blackberry pudding. My version is modified from the original recipe. I had three cups of blackberries to use so I threw them all in. I don’t think it hurt it at all.
I will end this post with a recipe for another popular blackberry cake – blackberry jam cake. This version was given to me by Peggy Stephenson of Doddridge County about 12 years ago when I was working at the Fort New Salem living history museum. I only had to have one bite of Peggy’s Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel Frosting and I was begging for the recipe. Just looking at the hand written card makes me smile! I will be making one soon.
Blackberry Jam Cake
Caramel Frosting for Blackberry Jam Cake
Enjoy fresh West Virginia blackberries while they are in season in July. Also check out the annual West Virginia Blackberry Festival held in Nutter Fort in Harrison County July 30-August 1st this year.
Books consulted for this post