The blackberries are ripe on the bush. Finally the late summer sun has fattened and sweetened them and the sun is glinting off their shiny purply backs beckoning me to find my basket and get on with it.. A quick walk around tells me that this is the perfect weekend for the big sugary cobbler. And if there are enough, maybe biscuits with a blackberry sauce for breakfast. It is a very different from the late August days of my childhood.
I grew up in a dirty little racist steel town. Maybe it has evolved in the years since I have been away, but for the first eighteen years of my life Granite City was widely known for its bar fights, wife beater shirts, dirty runny nosed children, zero African American population, and the steel mill. The mill offered guaranteed work for countless middle class families in the fifties and the sixties and filled our skies with dark sludge that coated nearby houses and neighborhoods for many blocks. There wasn’t much wildlife. We’d get a few cardinals and robins every spring and people filled their bird feeders with hope anew. But then the mosquitoes would come and they were the final pestilence that the folks of Granite would not accept.
They fought back every Thursday night. Just before dark at about 7:30 or 8 the bug sprayers would begin circling the neighborhoods. The DDT had a sweet smell and created a white misty fog that made our streets seem almost mysterious. It was not like the smoke from the mill. This was wispy and wet like fog. People were warned by the Granite City Press Record to put cars in their garages on Thursday evenings. The mist was apparently not good for the paint. But the kids were excepted from that same protection. We followed the bug sprayers and weaved in and out of the fog on our bikes inhaling the sweet wet stuff and pretending we lived in an enchanted forest. That we started finding dead robins and cardinals in our yards did not frighten our parents into keeping us inside on Thursdays. We were reminded to wipe off our bikes when we got home and we had to bathe before sitting on the good sofa, but the dead birds were never connected to our own health. After all we could wash the stuff off and the birds couldn’t.
Then one summer in the late sixties Dutch Elm Disease came to town. The tree trunks were all covered with worms, and the gracious Elm’s leaves were covered with fine little holes and dead spots. The town responded by increasing the sprayer to three days a week. We had to defeat this thing that was killing all our trees. People were proud of those trees. Wilson Park, where every family gathered for little league and soccer, where the town swimming pool was, and the rock garden where everyone without a church got married, was filled with the majestic old elms. It was sad to see them slowly dying with their trunks painted with ugly white swaths of some thick medicine that didn’t seem to be winning the war. Someone figured out that the DDT could cure the trees. Money was soon allocated and more bug sprayers were deployed. Of course it killed pretty much all the rest of the birds. The feeders stayed full and by August the spring birdsong was a memory. The street sweeper came in the mornings after the bug sprayer and got the little cardinals and robins out of our sight. The apple trees didn’t fare so well either in those years. The DDT wasn’t supposed to hurt plants, only bugs, but apples must have been excepted from that calculation. We wondered why our apples looked small and shriveled, but it was put off to not enough rain or maybe it had been too much. I had breast cancer when I was thirty one. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why.
Now I live in Vermont where the air is so clean I can see for miles. The birds here make the kind of raucous noise in the mornings that causes the dogs to bark. When I planted my raspberry bushes up here I remembered that my sister had planted raspberry bushes one year back in Granite. My mother warned about how hard they were to grow but she’d decided to try just the same. Mom’s prophesy turned out to be true. Most years tiny little golden fruits never grew much after they first appeared and went from yellow to black by August. Here the fruit got as big as nickels and are red and juicy by July. And these blackberries came all by themselves. The birds must have carried the seeds to our land from somewhere else. They were a gift our second year here. Eli found them by accident. He wondered if he could eat them. I was thrilled to find a few vines draped across our honeysuckle. Then the next year there were more and now the vines cover one whole end of a huge bush and have crept over to the edges of our woods besides. Here nature throws a party every day. The bats eat the mosquitoes and the people eat all that the land tosses up.
I might make a crostada instead of a cobbler. I have my Gram’s old recipe. She grew raspberries and blackberries and her roses were known for miles. By the modern sixties when mothers gave up nursing in favor of the new fangled formula, and the bug sprayers were brought in to improve everyone’s barbecue and eliminate the mosquitoes, by the time all that came around she had moved. She wanted to be further out of town. She said she needed a bigger garden in her old age and that the modern ways with the avocado counter tops and noodles from a box were not for her. Her windowsills were covered with jelly jars filled with flowers. She kept a teacup of roses by her bed. She taught me how to make my noodles from scratch, and she also said a little sugar never hurt anybody either. That crosada has a fair bit. It is a sweet dough dumped almost like dumplings in round white crystal dusted heaps all over the fresh fruit. It tastes like summer.
Or anyway it tastes like summer in Vermont…
For the pastry (makes enough for 2)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated or superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) ice water
For the filling (makes 1 crostata):
2 pounds of fruit…strawberries and blackberries are good together. peaches are good by themselves or with blueberries.
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, divided
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced
For the pastry:
Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the mixing bowl…(these days you can use a food processor fitted with a steel blade) Mix a few times to combine. Add the butter and toss quickly (and carefully!) with your fingers to coat each cube of butter with the flour. Mix or pulse 12 to 15 times, or until the butter is the size of peas. With the mixer running, add the ice water all at once through the feed tube. Keep hitting the pulse button to combine, but stop just before the dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board, roll it into a ball, cut in half, and form into 2 flat disks. Wrap the disks in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. If you only need 1 disk of dough The other disk of dough can be frozen.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Now you can either toll the pastry into an 11-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Transfer it to the baking sheet and/or
Dump in flattened balls around the bottom and the top of the fruit. Rustic is good here. You just want a little bit of dough in every bite. Lots of times I make stretchy little flat ovals and scatter than around the bottom, and the top.
For the filling:
Cut the fruit into biggish bites and place in a bowl with the smaller fruit like the blueberries. Toss them with 1 tablespoon of the flour, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the orange zest, and the orange juice. Place the mixed fruit on the dough circle, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border.
Combine the 1/4 cup flour, the 1/4 cup sugar, and the salt in the mixer or the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Pour into a bowl and rub it with your fingers until it starts to hold together. Drop in round sprinkles over the fruit.
Bake the crostata for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden and the fruit is tender. Let the crostata cool for 5 minutes, then use 2 large spatulas to transfer it to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Whipped cream on top will make you have happy dreams…
Looks yummy! I may have to make that soon myself… Perfect summer dessert!
Can I have some?? 🙂
Mmm…makes me hungry!
The thought of kids playing in DDT…it makes me dizzy…
We had bug sprayers too. We also had little planes that flew over and sprayed the parks and fields. No wonder we hear so much about breast cancer now and didn’t years ago. Now wonder
As much as I don’t like raspberries, I do like blackberries and you’ve made me hungry! We too had wild blackberries growing on the back fence when we moved out West years ago. I don’t really know what happened to them, unless they fell prey to my father’s war against the honeysuckle vines that were taking over the whole yard and most of the universe.
Oh, the birds. Oh, the unforeseen consequences of our actions. The things we humans do, as we’re attempting to do something else. It would be comical, really, if it weren’t so sad.
You paint such a morbid picture of your childhood town. No wonder you’re so fantastically happy with all that the land has to offer.
And maybe I’m a little slow, but I don’t understand how you put the crostada together?
What a story. I know I’ve said it before but I love your writing. I have never heard of the bug sprayers. Maybe because I was born in the 70’s? I can’t believe ya’ll would play out in the bug spray. Wow! I guess back then we just didn’t know any better.
I love the contrasting between the steel mill town and where you now live.
Thanks for sharing the recipe…it makes my mouth water.
I just love wild blackberries! Gotta try that recipe! My fav time of year is almost here!
I’ve never commented twice, but this time I have to. I had the night off last night and went shopping. When I came home at about 8:00, I was met by a city truck coming up the street–spraying for mosquitoes! I could barely pull in the driveway for laughing and because I was engulfed in a white fog. I hope that the city hasn’t tapped into a clandestine DDT stash!
Mighty Morphin' Mama
Wow, I am still reeling from your DDT story. Yikes! but the dessert sounds so yummy, I am running to the farmer’s market for fruit I think. mmm.
Oh, it’s lunchtime! I must go eat…NOW! This entry truly made my mouth water. (Well, just the end…not the beginning!)
Sounds delicious!!! Uhhhh… the blackberries… not the DDT…
Although I remember “chasing the spray truck” down the street too. UGH!