(Note: A slightly different version of this column appeared here last summer. But It’s blueberry season again, and there are more of you reading this, so I thought it would be fun to run it again.)
Kate Flora: For my 55th birthday, my husband, who dislikes jewelry and ostentation, but believes in celebrating important occasions, bought me a blueberry field. The field is about 18 acres of berries on a lovely wide-open, elevated slope in Union, looking over Sennebec Pond and up the pond to Appleton Ridge. Should anyone happen to be picking berries that late in the day, it has sunset views over the hills that make up North Union.
My field is next door to the farm where I grew up, and our family land abuts it on two sides, so it has been on my personal landscape forever. When it wasn’t a blueberry year (wild Maine blueberries are an every other year crop), my brother and sister and I rambled through the field. My children and my nieces and nephew have gone running through that field on our post-Thanksgiving walks, once finding a burned change purse dropped by a blueberry raker. We’ve collected bird skeletons, shotgun shells, strange rocks, returnable bottles, and other treasures there. Buying it felt like bringing a piece of the farm back into the family. When the papers were signed and the field was really and truly mine, I took an ecstatic run through it, the crisp, fall-red bushes crunching underfoot, to celebrate my special gift.
I am very excited about being a blueberry grower whose land produces between 75,000 and 90,000
pounds of berries. Blueberries have been on my landscape forever. When I was born prematurely, a July baby instead of the September one my parents were expecting, the nurse who could cradle my entire small self in her hand called me “little blueberry eyes.” As kids, to make spending money, my sibs and I would pick quarts of blueberries and sell them on a little table at the edge of the driveway.
As soon as I was old enough, I got a job working on a raking crew–out at the crack of dawn every morning in late July and August, riding to the fields in the back of a pick-up truck, and spending the day working down my rows, lined out with white string, and lugging the heavy baskets of berries to the winnowing machine and getting a tick or a punch on my card. Those fields were fraught with danger. Sandra, Janet and I were shy, rural girls of twelve or thirteen. There were strangers on the crew, silent, foreign men who’d come over from Canada to work the crops. There were nests of wasps in the ground that would swarm up and surround you if you disturbed them. Huge colorful garden spiders and even bigger brown spiders waited to crawl up your arm or your leg. The sudden, sinuous departure of a startled snake could make your heart stop.
For a farmer’s daughter in a family without much spare cash, those ticks marking baskets filled translated into dollars that became new school clothes–a pair of golden brown corduroy pants, a matching striped sweater, a soft blue Garland skirt and sweater set from Isabel Abbott’s store on the Union Common. They became a small transistor radio in a brown leather case that got the best reception if I set it on one of the burners of the stove. Once, my absent-minded father turned on the burner under my radio. Ever after, my treasured radio had black scorch rings on the smart brown leather.
A few summers later, I left the fields for the processing plant, sitting on a stool along a long conveyor belt, a row of women on each side, feeling very young among the housewives looking to make some spare money–to augment the family budget, to buy school clothes for their children, to save for that new washer or freezer or downpayment on a second car. As the berries came in from the field, they would be poured onto the belt, and our job was to pick out all the stuff that winnowing (pouring the berries into a machine where a fan would blow out the leaves and sticks and tiny green berries) hadn’t caught. Along with the leaves and sticks and chunks of moss and dirt, there were spiders again. And bugs and bees. The occasional mouse. And some tough, fearless, sturdy women who weren’t afraid to pick anything off the belt. The berries rolled off at the end into flat, plastic-lined boxes and went away to be frozen. The day’s harvest had to be processed the same day they were picked, and if the crews had had an especially productive day, we worked as late into the night as necessary. In those days before cell phones, I would sometimes have to ask to use the office phone to cancel a date because I had to work. It was hard physical work, directly connected to the production of food. I felt very lucky to have the job and very grown-up.
While I was picking out the bugs and the dirt, my mother, the late country-living writer A. Carman Clark, was busy researching recipes for the brochure she was writing for the Maine Blueberry Festival, held yearly at the Union Fair. I would come home from staring at blueberries all day long to a line-up of blueberry desserts that needed to be tasted and evaluated.
Last week, at a panel in Ellsworth, Katherine Hall Page, whose character is a caterer, commented that one of the hardest parts of writing her books is creating the recipes, because of all the experimenting that goes into creating them. It reminded me of those Union Fair blueberry recipe days.
Here are some of those recipes, many of them old fashion Maine recipes, for you to try.
Union Fair Blueberry Recipes from the kitchen of A. Carman Clark:
2 c. flour , 1 t. baking powder, 1/2 t. baking soda, 1 1/2 c. blueberries, 1/3 c. brown sugar, 1/3 c. molasses, 1/3 c. butter, 1/3 c. milk
Blend sugar, molasses and butter. Mix in all ingredients except blueberries. Butter a mold (or 2 lb. metal coffee can) and layer batter and berries until 2/3 full. Cover and steam in a kettle of boiling water for 1 1/2 hours. Serve hot with foamy sauce, hard sauce or ice cream.
Blueberry Slump (or Grunt)
1 1/2 c. flour, 2 t. baking powder, 1/2 t. salt, 1/4 c. sugar , 1/2 c. milk, 1/2 c. water, 1 quart blueberries, 2/3 c. sugar, 2 T. butter
SLUMP: In a deep skillet or wide-bottom kettle put water ,butter, 2/3 c. sugar and berries. Bring to a boil. Mix remaining ingredients to a stiff batter. Spoon over berries as dumplings. Cover tightly and simmer for 12 minutes. Do not remove cover during this time.
GRUNT: Preheat oven to 400. Grease a deep baking dish or casserole and into this put berries, sugar and water. Place in oven while mixing dough. Blend butter into flour. Add other ingredients. Spoon over hot berries. Bake for 20 minutes.
1/2 c. oatmeal, 1/2 c. wheatgerm, 1/2 c. flour (white or whole wheat), 2/3 c. sugar, 1/2 c. dry powered milk, 1/2 t. salt, 1/2 t. cinnamon, 1/2 c. butter, 2 c. blueberries
Mix dry ingredients. Blend in butter with pastry blender. Spread 1/2 mixture in a buttered baking dish. Spread blueberries over this and top with remaining crunch mixture. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold.
Blueberry Dessert Squares
15 Graham crackers, rolled fine, 1/3 c. sugar, 1/2 c. melted butter. Blend and pat into 9″ square pan Blend & Spread over crumb mix: 1 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese ,1/3 c. sugar, 2 eggs, 1/2 t. vanilla
Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Cool and refrigerate over night. Spoon 1 can blueberry pie filling over top. Chill. Cut into squares and serve.
4 c. blueberries, 3/4 c. sugar, 8 slices buttered bread, crusts trimmed Simmer washed berries and sugar about 8 minutes. Layer generously buttered bread and hot berries in deep baking dish or bread pan. Chill overnight. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.