Family Stories: Blackberry Winter… and more

In thumbing through an older magazine, I turned the page… and an article entitled “Blackberry Winter” caught my eye… it made me laugh as it brought back many memories of all the conversations I’ve had with mama on the topic of blackberries… and remembering the first time I heard the term “Blackberry Winter”.

My first encounter with the terminology of “Blackberry Winter” was on mama’s birthday… April 6th, 2009. As we talked, or rather she fussed, about how cold and windy it had been that afternoon… when suddenly she said, “I guess we’ll be having a Blackberry Winter, that’s what the older folds always called a cold spell that came around Easter. It’s something to do with the first beginning of blackberry season… I’ve always heard it.” Well that was the first time I’d ever heard of it!

I seemed to have often visited in April or early June, as again on another late April in 2015… it turned cool at night, and mama’s friend called it a “Blackberry Winter”… signaling that blackberries would soon be ready for picking.

Blackberry Winter has really nothing to do with the winter season, but actually referring to one of many cold snaps that follow the blooming of blackberry vines in late spring. The flower buds on the vines are just threatening to bloom when Blackberry Winter comes; it’s actually part of the springtime process. The terminology is more of a southern term, as I’ve never heard anyone refer to this in the north… our blackberries bloom much later. Blackberry picking seems to be more prominent in the South… in the North, you’d really need to search them out… and in the almost 50 years I’ve lived in Connecticut, I’ve never been blackberry picking!

There were many blackberry bushes all around granddaddy McKinley’s farm in Siloam, Georgia… and I often picked there as a young girl; spending time at his farm holds dear memories to me. I only remember once going to pick when we lived in Perry… there was a fence loaded with them behind the high school. It was probably the first and last time mama ever took me picking… as snakes also like them. As I stood picking with my pail, mama loudly and sternly said, “Jeanne step back from the bushes… Now! I suppose I complied, as I wasn’t bitten that day. Mama always told the story that my hand was headed to the very spot where she’d just spotted a snake lying in wait… if I had picked in that very spot… I might not have survived as there was a rattlesnake lying in guard over the berries… maybe she’d heard the sound of the rattle which had alarmed her.

Even though farmers don’t plant blackberry bushes every spring, they still know the signs of when the berries will bloom. Mama often talked about how her father looked to the moon and the stars as to planting times… and he waited for them… never rushing to plant. The Blackberry Winter usually meant three to five days more of cold weather… and it often became a waiting game… waiting for it to end. It’s mother’s natures way of reminding you to never plant your garden to early.

Blackberry bushes behind Mama’s barn

Blackberries have often been the subject of conversations with mama over the years, and… “the young girl next door brought me over supper tonight, but the dessert was the best part… she made blackberry cobbler; her husband went picking yesterday. I only remember one woman who made a blackberry pie to equal my mother’s pie and that was when I went to a McKinley family reunion in Siloam. After spotting the blackberry pie on the table, and after eating a slice… I asked who baked it. It was brought by an older woman who was related to my cousin Kenneth McKinley’s mother Ulma. In telling her that it was the best pie I’d ever eaten… other than the ones my mother baked when I was a young girl, she laughed at the compliment and told me to be sure and take the rest home.I would, but I don’t want anyone to think me selfish… but I could easily have taken the rest out behind the house and eaten myself silly.” She smiled, saying, “go ahead.” “I didn’t… but I never stopped thinking about that pie on the ride home… and wishing that I had taken the rest of it.” A previous blackberry post can be found HERE.

Mama’s pie was made from the old-fashioned small blackberries I picked on our farm, not the big seeded ones you buy in the grocery store today. There’s a big difference in taste between the small and large.”

Anytime I chatted with mama and mentioned blackberries… I opened up a can of worms. Another night after telling her I made blackberry muffins… and before I could even finish, she began… “I so remember my mother’s blackberry pies… they were so good… the best I’ve ever eaten! I remember how she made them too… first making the crust, and before adding the berries, she’d bake the crust until it was a light brown. The house would be smelling so good! While the crust baked in one of her deep pie plates, she cooked the blackberries on the stove… adding sugar to sweeten. After they cooked down, she’d pour them into the waiting baked crusts… always adding a lattice style crust for the top and brush with butter… the berry juice would ooze out through the lattice topping.

After watching her mother make all those pies… you’d think mama would have learned how to make a blackberry pie as she always said it was her favorite… but there was never a blackberry pie ever in my house… but she did make a great lemon pie. Mama was a cook… never a baker!

In telling mama I made blackberry cobbler last night…. “Oh don’t tell me that, I’d sure like a piece right now with my coffee; I wish I could have one like my mama made. She always made up a dough for the crust, rolling it out really thin… laying it in the pan to cook until it was lightly browned. Mama used the same biscuit dough for pie crusts, as she used for her biscuits… it was so good. We used to pick the berries on the side of the road, just down from the driveway… there was lots of them there, but the best ones we picked in the back field where it was marshy… they were the big juicy berries. There was also lots of snakes back there too, so we had to take Frank or Brownie with us… they’d kill a snake in a minute. The dogs would first go in the bushes, then after coming out, we knew it was safe to go in… they were smart dogs. The bushes were back in the fields behind the barn… by that big rock I liked to sit on. There was another rock back there also that looked like a fireplace had been carved out on one side… it even looked like someone really used it. This area had once been Indian land, so it may have been used like that many years ago. Daddy often found arrowheads when he plowed the fields.. he’d empty out his pockets at night; at one time you had a box full of them.” (I think today I may only have one left)

Fancy, our dog when we lived in the log cabin, was also good at sniffing out snakes and killing them. She always came with us when we went blackberry picking around there. She’d go in first under the bushes and let us know if it was ok to pick. Snakes love blackberries! Funny though, she eventually died from a snake bite.”

Another night in telling mama I made blackberry cobbler…. “dam you, I wish I had a piece, but I want it like my mama made. I had a seedless blackberry bush in the backyard here for years, but it’s finally died out. My mother used to cook hers in the wood burning stove… the crust and the bottom would be so crispy when you stuck your fork in… all juicy with berries. I could never make one like she did… it’d come out all gooey, not crispy like my mama’s.”

“We had blackberries today at the senior center. I remember coming home from school and immediately going to pick mama a pail full… as I wanted a pie! On the backside of the farm, they would be as big as my thumb. It’d be nice if we could just pull back one of those days… and enjoy the blackberry bushes alongside the road again… they were so delicious!”

I found this blackberry cobbler recipe in Woman’s Day magazine… ripped it out… and it has been my go-to for cobbler making for many years.

BlackBerry Cobbler

  • 5 cups blackberries
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3 cups sugar – divided
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup butter – chipped up into pieces
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt – divided
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 cup hot water

Directions: Wash and pat-dry berries… sprinkle the berries with lemon juice and pour in a well-greased buttered 2 1/2 quart baking dish; my favorite dish size is 9 x 13.

In Bowl: Add flour, 1 1/2 cups of sugar, butter, baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and milk. Mix well with a fork or spoon… pour over the berries. In same bowl, mix the topping of 1 1/2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle over the batter.

Assembling: Pour hot water slowly over all. Bake 350 for about 60 minutes, or till topping is lightly brown and bubbly. You’ll be smelling it all over the house when it’s ready… but it’s not ready to spoon out just yet… have a little patience for it to cool slightly… letting all the juices soak in. My recipe can be halved or even adjusted to your amount of berries… it’s very forgiving.

I can’t wait for blackberry season… need to make another cobbler and have a slice for Mama! This is one of my favorite summer desserts to bake.


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