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Friday, January 3, 2014

Blackberries


            My sister-in-law and her husband sent me a Trader Joe’s gift card for Christmas. I picked up a replenishment of spices emptied during the holiday food orgy, some veggies, and a quart box of super-ripe blackberries. Each berry was iridescent black and size of my thumb—well almost.
            “Wow those are black,” said the TJ clerk.
            “I was surprised to see them. Aren’t they supposed to be out of season?” I looked over the cover and saw the marking. “Oh, Mexico. That explains it,” speaking to myself more than the young man.
            The cashier scanned my items. I had winced a bit on the $3.99 price for the blackberries. I know I shouldn’t have. That’s a terrific in-store price.
My mind wandered instead to the American River. My brother, Steve—Gary he was called back then, and I picked sun-baked berries off the thorny vines that grew in huge mounds around the edges of the rocky beach.  We fished or threw rocks or dragged in crawdads that hung like grapes off a piece of bacon stolen from Mom’s kitchen. We drank the river water and munched on wild fruit—our fingers and nails stained purple. We forgot to fight like siblings and soaked up the summer.
            I eat blackberries year round. There are ones from Washington, Oregon, California and then Mexico. Soon we will see Chilean and Australian then where ever—Asia I guess. The availability is staggering.  One pint sells for $6.99 in the off season. The two-fer bargains happen when the Californian crop is bursting. Mexico, reliable Mexico, steps up in winter to offer my one quart for $3.99 or free if you have a TJ gift card from your in-laws. 
            It’s the flavor that I miss.  The intense sweetness could never be recaptured with an adult tongue—spoiled by drink, hot spices, and ludicrous mixtures of flavors at every meal. Yet, I remember the experience of finding a sweet blackberry after tasting a few sour not-quite-ripe ones.
            Twenty years ago, my dear friend Suzanne invited me to visit her at a cabin above Los Gatos. Her family had rented the location for a week. It was their good-bye to Suzanne who was moving with her husband to Carroll, Iowa. After spending a bit of time with her folks, she and I walked arm in arm along Saratoga Springs. The day seemed hot for the Bay Area. I sported a cowboy hat and sunglasses. I thought I looked cool in the ninety degree weather.  We crossed a bend in the creek. The bank was tangled with blackberry brambles.
            I started munching off the vines and then found myself explaining to a California native what I was eating. Suzanne, a decade my junior, had never picked blackberries. Sad but true. We gathered my hat full of berries. She wisely suggested that we wash the fruit before eating. I had to wait until we got back to the cabin and rinse the bounty before I could see her face light up when the hot syrupy goodness hit her taste buds. It was worth it. No one’s face can light up like Suzanne’s.
            I am eating my Trader Joe’s blackberry now. The taste will never be quite as good as the memories it evokes.
Thanks, Ann and Phil for the gift card.