Cultivate the attitude of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you and to give thanks continuously.Ralph Waldo Emerson
I was delighted recently when a friend gave me a quart of frozen huckleberries. This time of year of course most edible gifts are plates of sugar cookies or a tin of homemade fudge, but I could not possibly have been more pleased by this delectable treat. They will create the Christmas pie I bring to my family’s holiday celebration next weekend, and as we celebrate with a festive dinner, I will share stories of huckleberries and sweet treats stirred over the campfire. My family has heard these stories many times, but the pie must be heard. It tells of summer days.
Though my father planted a big garden every year, from which we harvested raspberries and strawberries as well as varying crops of vegetables, no fruit could compare with the fondness my family held for huckleberries, those big juicy blue/black berries that tasted of sunlight and mountain breezes.
Here I must clarify that I am not referring to blueberries, the lighter blue version of these berries that typically grows at lower elevations and are not as juicy nor as sweet. They are both in the same genus, Vacinnium. It is a large genus, a member of the heath family, all of them producing berries in various shades of blue and different degrees of flavor and sweetness. I do not know why some are called blueberries and others huckleberries, but my dictionary informs me that the word is derived from the old English, horte, meaning whortleberry.
As a child I did not care what they were called nor how the name was derived. I accompanied my family on the trips to the secret locations my parents had remembered from their own childhoods. My mother would pack a picnic lunch, and we would drive southeast towards the eastern slope of Mt. Rainier, then my dad would turn the old Chrysler onto a dirt road, and we would ascend until we found the most perfect berries, their green leathery leaves shining in the sunlight as we left the forest cover behind. There we would spend the rest of the day. My dad made buckets for us from coffee cans with ropes that hung suspended from out necks, leaving our hands free to pick as many berries as we could and as quickly as possible.
Here I must admit that I was not a big fan of picking berries all day, and my haul was usually smaller than anyone else’s. Most of the berries I picked went straight into my mouth. But the opportunity of being outside all day on a mountain slope made the tedium worthwhile, and I knew the berries would be turned into pies, cobblers, muffins, jam, even syrup poured over the golden surface of pancakes dotted with still more huckleberries.
My favorite berry picking experiences occurred on camping trips. At least once during the two weeks we spent at Spirit Lake every summer, we would leave camp for the day, return to the parking lot where the Chrysler was waiting for us, and drive the Timberline Road towards the high slopes of Mt. St. Helens. Abundant berry fields could be found on that mountain long before it erupted, and we helped ourselves to them.
Back in camp they would be dropped into pancake batter the next morning for breakfast, but my favorite huckleberry treat was stirred slowly over the campfire as a sweet compote, into which my mother would drop dumpling batter. The dumplings would slowly absorb the flavor of the berries and the warmth of a summer day. It was as if the subalpine slope of Mt. St. Helens had been turned into a sweet dessert that distilled the memories from the entire summer. If we had cream in the cooler, it would be whipped with an egg beater and sugar to top the dumplings with whipped cream. At home huckleberry dumplings were served with vanilla ice cream, which melted over the hot desert.
Mt. St. Helens of course erupted in 1980, covering the huckleberry meadows with the mud from melting glaciers. The abundant berry fields northeast of Mt. Rainier have been clear cut and burned. Though mountains may be a symbol of permanence, they change too.
I am left with memories, sweet berries simmering in a saucepan, a childhood long past but lingering with the fragrance of huckleberries. Not even a volcanic eruption can take that away.
I will be enjoying the holiday with my family so will not publish next week. May you all savor the sweetness.