Have you ever seen that bumper sticker that reads, “Oh, No—Not Another Learning Experience”? I need that for my backside. Or perhaps my front. Or both.
A few close friends may recall me talking about the pruning and mulching of the blackberry patches here at my house not long ago. Let’s call it what it was. Let’s say that those friends I shared the news with are not so few in number, and that they may recall me gloating about the blackberry patch. (“Knowing and naming it,” said my sophomore year hall-mate Anu, who could say things like this with a straight face, “is the first step to recovery.”) I’d like to say the gloating ended there, with the gloaty texts I spread around the county and beyond, but in fact the pruning and mulching of the blackberries led to a veritable festival of gloating. On dark days when it seemed I could gain no footing, make not one inch of forward progress; on dark nights when the list of to-do, or more accurately of still-not-done, or the weight of any number of burdensome things began to press down on my chest in the way that things do in the dark of night, I would think of those blackberry bushes and say, maybe feebly, but still say it: “ha.” At least that is done. Or, more encouragingly (because I do throw myself a little bone from time to time, even in the dark of night) “well, now! You did that!”
I went down to the blackberry patch yesterday, because it seemed to me they ought to be ripe now, and in fact they were. But where just recently there had been orderly rows with handsomely mulched paths between them, there was now the Jungle of Nool. All the first-year canes I had whacked back so the bearing canes could flourish now towered 12 feet over my head, at least in the places where the bindweed and grapevine I had yanked out had not rebounded and bound up the new canes and the bearing canes together in an impenetrable tangle. Goutweed obscured any ground not occupied by the Gordian knot of vines and thorny brambles. The paths were obliterated. There was no way through.
Oh, right—MAINTENANCE. I remember now! This is just like the laundry and dinner and exercise: never checked off the list for more than today. I could count for you, and describe, each bead of sweat, each gash of thorn, each strain of lower back muscle that had been invested in the clean-up—and all for nothing! A waste! All that work! And all that gloating to rue, on top of it all! It was hard not to sink into a pit of the sort that one sinks into. Instead I began to whack away with the pruners. Ah, you may be thinking. Back to work! Good little ant! Never giving up! But the trajectory was not so neat.
Life is so goddamn PREACHY with the lessons, is the thing. No subtlety whatsoever.
First of all, laden with luscious berries though they may be, those bad boys are thorny. When they see you coming, pruners in hand, they do not say ‘Thank you, I accept that your pruning is for our common good, and I surrender to it.’ Instead they fall on your head, thorny side (the only side they have) first. Or on your lip. Or embed their thorns deep in your thumb, or your palm. You release them from the bondage of the choking vines that bind them and they snap back, aiming straight for your eyeball. They tangle in your hair and clothes. You lose sight of why you are engaged here. Escape is all you can think of.
Then you see some berries. Deep black and shiny, taut with the promise of sweet reward. Dang, they’re tasty. Onward! Drawn by your feeling of optimism, perhaps, the mosquitos descend by the jillion. You want this? You think you want this? How about NOW? Zeem zeem zeem in your ears, clouds of them, who haven’t had a bite in days and here you are, their own personal blackberry full of juice, immobilized by a team of thorn bushes and hands otherwise engaged. Now you understand the mosquito dreamscape. Now you also know why you should make sure to swat bugs with the hand NOT holding the pruning shears.
‘Stop pruning and pick!’ A voice emanates from somewhere–is it inside your head? It seems in fact to be coming from a shrouded figure, who may be your husband, though he is wearing your scarf, your son’s rain hat, and a jacket that might be his from high school so it is hard to say. OK, so working under dire physical conditions, and also under an emotional cloud of misery and regret, and also under a mantle of bloodthirsty vampirini, is not enough. Let us also introduce cross-purposes and doubt. Should you bother? Are you chasing the wrong rabbit? It turns out it is possible to disagree, and keep trundling onward, and he can pick and you can prune and you can both be right, and both be wrong, about the merits of your chosen activities. At the end of the day you’ll have berries and a semblance of a path through the bushes to pick more. And, if you are lucky, another day to try.
Early the next morning, before the naysayers can stop you, you can swoop back down to the theater of warfare and education, pruners in hand, tricked out in the claustrophobic mesh bug suit you had stashed in a drawer. Is there a material more irresistible to thorny bushes than human skin or human clothing? Why, yes there is. Fine mesh. You are wearing it to protect yourself. The barriers you have erected to protect yourself are compounding your woes. Not only has defending yourself on one front made you more thoroughly subject to an ancillary woe, but you can’t even get a berry in your mouth as an intermittent reward. When you succumb to temptation and slide open the zipper to eat one, several mosquitos seize the day and join you in the little screen house you have around your head. Mosquitos, a scientist has just explained to you, are attracted to carbon dioxide. The berry-insertion point and the CO2 exit vent on the human are one and the same, and by surrendering to the allure of sweetness, you’ve allowed the mosquitos to breach the barrier. None of these lessons are lost on you. None. You’ve learned them well today, and can cross them off the list.
I think the best thing to do with blackberries is eat them, and the second best thing is to make jam or syrup. If you need to do something fancier or more decadent, and I am sure you have your reasons as I have mine, then ignore everything I ever said about pie. Sometimes you have to try again.
blackberry pie with buttered breadcrumbs and brandy
- pie crust for a two-crust pie (I made mine with half white whole wheat flour, and half all purpose), divided in half
- a generous 5 c blackberries
- 1 c sugar
- 2T brandy (I had some fancy French raspberry brandy kicking around and it did nicely)
- a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice
- 1 3/4 c coarse breadcrumbs, from excellent bread
- 5T unsalted butter
- 1T heavy cream
- 2t sugar
Roll the pie crusts out. Fit one to the pie pan, and set the other aside, for the top crust. Chill them both.
Toss the berries with the brandy, lemon juice and sugar. Let them muddle together as you carry on.
Heat the oven to 375, with a rack in the center.
Melt the butter in a medium skillet, and let it foam, then watch like a hawk as it turns a very light brown (from this point forward, if anyone asks you if you have ever made a beurre noisette, you can say ‘why, as a matter of fact, I have.’) Do not pause to gloat! Remove immediately from the heat and stir in the bread crumbs, tossing to coat. Don’t fret if the distribution of butter isn’t entirely even.
Remove the crusts from the fridge.
Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment.
Toss the bread crumbs with the berry mixture, and pour into the crust. Moisten the edges of the bottom crust with a little water. Set the top crust on, and crimp the two together. Make some slits in the top crust, so the pie can vent (we all need to). Brush the cream over the top crust, and sprinkle the sugar over that.
Set the pie onto the baking sheet, and slide it into the oven. Bake about 50 minutes, rotating the sheet once, until golden brown all over. If things are browning rapidly at about the 35 minute mark, you may want to turn the oven down to 350 for the remaining baking time. Let the pie stand to gather itself together, and serve warm with ample vanilla ice cream.